“It was very pleasant to savor its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present. -Tita, Like Water for Chocolate
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” – J.R.R Tolkien
I learned to make pancakes as a Girl Scout and remember the smell of liver and onions simmering in my mothers kitchen. It’s still a favorite, the scent of food prepared with love, a deep childhood memory. That my mother found time to prepare meals every day amazes me now. We never ate out and rarely had company. No take out Chinese or save the day pizza. My mother cooked every day. Only as an adult can I understand a little about how hard her life alone with four children must have been. How hard it must have been to make it happen in the kitchen… every day.
So what’s with this passion for food and fellowship. I’m still not quite sure but I guess it was her…in spite of the circumstances she prepared every meal with love. I’m sure I felt that. It was one of the many ways she showed love.
But I didn’t learn to cook at home. I’m a recipe girl through and through. I tweak to make things mine but I know how to follow a recipe. A clear recipe offers a guideline and serves as a foundation for safe exploration. My first cookbook was B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends, purchased in Costco for $15. This book was my food bible. Her recipes, scriptural revelation for the meals I’d prepare for my new husband. In the tiny kitchen of our first apartment I’d cook gourmet soul food by candlelight – thoroughly reading each instruction….chapter and verse. Listening to Sade and Nina Simone I’d lean into the poetry of a perfect dish.
I learned to cook many such meals for my husband, but it was important for me to invite friends and family into our little love bubble. I worked hard to mix traditional soul/comfort food with my interest in international flavors and wanted to share my smothered chicken, savory pumpkin and black bean soup…my basmati pilaf with vegetables. I didn’t have a reference point for entertaining and I certainly had no budget. I’d work it out in prayer…trusting God to figure out the details.
Holidays seemed the perfect time to experiment. I chose Thanksgiving. If the food wasn’t a hit, perhaps my guests would find a few more reasons to reflect on being grateful that year. That was the plan anyway. So I downloaded a recipe for roasting my first turkey and went to work ironing out the details my first gig as hostess with the mostest. Thanksgiving 1997 found us with 28 guests in our tiny 2 bedroom apartment. Whether on the floor or perched in fold up chairs against a wall, we made it through our first holiday dinner. Food and family in tact.
Later that year a personal health emergency made me consider nutrition in a new way. So now, not only did I want to serve interesting, diverse foods, I wanted the food to be of the highest quality and nutritionally sound. I began to think about food and family and how it connected to my dreams for raising children one day.
A large part of that vision involved feeding my family right. What better way to say I love you than through the intimacy of food. They say when you know better, you do better. I’d grown up eating over cooked canned vegetables and I still felt the love. So I know it’s not just the food but the spirit in which it’s served. But I’d learned so much about the benefits of a whole food diet. I wanted to take it up a notch.
The kitchen was my laboratory and God met me there. Measuring ingredients, sifting flour, chopping vegetables – all taught patience and helped me learn to pay attention. I hoped my “one day” children would glimpse his glory through an ongoing course in home economics – starting with the deeply meditative and spiritual work done in a kitchen.
I took the responsibility of nourishing my family seriously. I wanted to open the world of good food and fellowship by teaching my children about hospitality. I wanted to establish rituals around the kitchen table and introduce them to a way of communing with God as they cared for their temples.
My first was a boy and like most children, naturally inquisitive. I thought I’d hook my little professor with the science of cooking. We made playdoh and ooblek and talked about elements on the periodic table. A hands-on approach in the culinary arts would teach him to love and respect the kitchen. So we read books and made bread and apple pie. He stood on a chair next to the mixer and learned to count to twenty waiting for flour and butter to come together. The grainy pebble texture only lasts for a few seconds before it’s over done.
The secret ingredient in every meal is love. Age old wisdom from the ancestors I’m sure – because no one ever said it to me but it’s a life motto for sure. The movie Like Water For Chocolate does a great job of expressing this. The main character, Tita, cries in the kitchen, stirring tears and mixing her emotions with everything she prepares. Pouring this kind of truth into my son at an early age let him know how important and powerful the connection between food and feelings. “Get your heart right before going in the kitchen”, I’d say.
LiChai counted chips and sliced apples. He’s melted butter. He bakes. A teenager, he’s in the kitchen alone now and makes dinner for the family once a week. I saw each layer of responsibility as a step stool he could use to grow more confident. He knows the satisfaction of preparing a meal for people he loves. And probably more than he’d like to hear, I tell him how much his wife will love him. Especially if food is one of her love languages.
Every few years or so God has seen fit to add another child to our family. They each join him on or around the chair, peering over my trusty KitchenAid mixer (man that was the best $300 I ever spent). And every time I say, “Hands back, watch the dough with your eyes, let’s count to twenty.”
Time in the kitchen with my family is a gift. Sharing and praying over food with friends is an open door for deeper conversations and an intimate knowing of the people God’s given me to do life with. Meal times are made for love.