Some of my favorite memories of life around the table involve foods I’ve never eaten and gatherings I’ve never attended. Only murmur the words sardines on toast, and I will sigh with pleasure. I have never tasted that precise combination, but many times I have sat by the fire with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, warming my hands with a teacup and listening to the sleepy singing of his flute.
I have never made maple syrup candy, though once, in a gift shop in Vermont, I purchased a bit of crumbly sugar pressed into the form of a maple leaf. I have read Little House in the Big Woods so many times that I am almost convinced I have stood with Laura holding out a plate piled with fresh snow. Were you also there near the big wood-burning stove when Grandma drizzled our snow with hot maple syrup?
The gift of good food shared in community is such a powerful experience that we not only live it, around the Communion table with our church or the Thanksgiving table with our family, but we also read about it. I drink deep bowls of café au lait with Inspector Gamache in the series by Louise Penny. I eat not one but three pieces of pie with Almanzo Wilder in Farmer Boy. And I discover the charms of even a slightly dried-out kedgeree in Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice.
Bookish feasts are almost as tasty as the real thing. Occasionally, they are more so, reminding us as we read of the significance of foods to which we give little thought when we eat them. This morning I ate buttered toast with my scrambled eggs, but it is only when Mr. Tumnus serves toast three ways (toast with sardines, buttered toast, toast with honey) that I consider what a pleasure this humble, daily food can be.
My own book will arrive in bookstores in just a few days. It is called Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, and it is the story of our first twelve months in an old farmhouse called Maplehurst. In it I ask just how much heaven we get to experience here on earth, and the answer, it turns out, has a great deal to do with food.
Food is a gift from the king of heaven made available to us on earth. We receive that gift in God’s name, we cultivate it for his glory, and we share it with our neighbors. It is all as ordinary as toast. It is all as magical as Narnia. It is one answer to the oldest Christian prayer: thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.
As I wrote Roots and Sky, I tasted again October’s apple butter and December’s chai tea. Through memory and language, I recalled the flavors of June strawberries from the Amish farmstand down the road and the sugar snap peas from our first garden.
I realized that the hospitality we had envisioned when we first arrived at Maplehurst could be so much larger than the crowd we hosted at Thanksgiving for a local Lancaster County turkey or even the hundred-odd neighbors who joined us that first spring to hunt for candy-filled eggs. When we write and read and share stories of food and hospitality, as we do in good books and here at Grace Table, we set a table so large no farmhouse could ever hold it, no matter how spacious.
If some stories make us hungry, it is good to remember that they also feed us. Most importantly, they remind us that every loaf of bread is a message and a miracle, and even buttered toast can be an invitation to receive life, and to receive it to the full.
In the “Winter” section of Roots and Sky, I describe my love for homemade chai tea. It is the drink I am most glad to have in my teacup while I read. My version is based on this recipe from Simply Recipes.
- 1/2 of a star anise star
- 10 whole cloves
- 6 whole allspice
- 2 short cinnamon sticks
- 6 whole, white peppercorns
- 1/8 tsp ground cardamom (use a whole pod, cracked open, if you can find them)
- 1 cup water
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 generous tablespoons loose-leaf Ceylon tea (English Breakfast makes a good substitute)
- In a medium saucepan, add spices to 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and let steep for about 15 minutes.
- Add milk to the spice mixture and return just to a boil before removing from heat.
- Add tea to the milk and let steep for about 10 minutes. Strain into a teapot and add honey to taste.
Photos used with permission: Kelli Campbell