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Thursday
Jul022015

Keeping the Feast

It is Easter Sunday. Our twelve-foot rectangular walnut table is loaded with food, wine, vases of fuchsia-pink azaleas. We have a lot to celebrate in addition to the Resurrection: there's the end of a long Lent (full of house and car repairs and health problems), an adult baptism in our family, a pair of birthdays. Gathered at the Easter feast are my husband, children, children-in-law, and our grandsons.

And my former spouse and his wife. Please pass the butter,she says kindly. Naturally.

How did this happen? 

We are all remarkably at ease in conversation. A palpable spirit hovers and lingerslike incense. The liturgy reminds us to make room for forgiveness. The presence of this Spirit and the food-glories of baked ham and hot rolls, spring salads and strawberries on pound cake, bless us in ways more than the sum of their parts.

The Lord be with You

The words spirit and food bring to my mind many associations: spirit indicates the life and breath of something. For Christians, the Holy Spirit is the giver of life in Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being, an elemental force invisible per se apart from its outward and visible signs. Food conjures up basic associations such as survival, fuel, sustenance, culture, ritual, hospitality, hunger, and satiety. Looking at food through the lens of the spirit teaches me that most nourishment is spiritual food and much "real food, as we say these days, has spiritually responsible origins. My experience of food has run parallel for many years with an ongoing conversion of spirit centered on the Eucharist.

As a teenager I first got to thinking about food as ingredients when I was sent to fetch from the neighborhood marché. My family moved from suburban Virginia to France where, stationed at the embassy in Paris, my father served as a U.S. Secret Service Special Agent. This happened when I was thirteen, and with the move we went from typically American, mostly pre-prepared foods such as Shake 'n Bake and Hamburger Helper, to something like seasonal eating: strawberries in May, zucchini and tomatoes all summer, leeks and potatoes over the winter. In the late 1970s in France this was normal; to transplanted Americans it was exotic, richly strangeand in need of translation to my mother who did not speak French. During those high school years and my first year of college, I was usually the daughter sent twice weekly to the marché and on daily treks to the boulangerie for baguettesmainly because I was willing, wanted the walk, and spoke the most French among my siblings. What was not to like? The markets and shops were so alluring: colorful and fragrant and mesmerizing. The physicality of those places lifted me out of my narrow suburban mindset, which distrusted sensuality of any kind, and into a larger world of sense and sight and sound.

And a funny thing happened on the way to the markets and bakery: I walked past our neighborhood's parish churches, and a large quasi-cathedral which was the seat of a minor bishop (I learned later), and pretty soon I started stopping to sit in the empty nave, sometimes catching the end of Mass, sometimes getting pinched by old ladies disapproving of my bare arms in summer blouses. It was many years before I realized that French church buildings are designed for the hospitality of feeding the faithful the Eucharist feast. Still, I felt a concrete welcome, though I had no idea what was going on in front at the altar as I stared at the back of the celebrant.

One thing led to another, and this interest and basic knowledge of French language and food led to landing, through the embassy, small catering jobs along with babysitting and au pair work. So there I was — at fifteen, dreamy, impressionable, and moody like any teenager — a novice food-culture worker who was also seeking to fill some lack of spirit in her un-churched life. As I ducked into corner chapels and tiny kitchen equipment-hardware stores on my way to fill a string bag with such poetic items as moss-green courgettes, deep purple aubergines, faun-brown champignons, I was building (though I did not know it then) a lifelong association between the life of the spirit and the food of life. 

Lift up Your Hearts

After a few years and a corner-rounding in what has been an ongoing religious conversion, I got re-baptized (now there's a haunting parent-child exchange, and an omen of therapy to come: I never knew I had been baptized until I was catching the metro to do so as an adult, when my mother told me I'd been sprinkled as a preschooler). In joining St. Michael's Anglican Church with its French, English, and Tamil prayer books and worship services, Paris became my spiritual home-placethe city as an alma mater. I also began to cook for fellow students such things as the not-savvy combo of Normandy-Style Veal Scallops followed by Baked Alaska, and I began to learn about simple pairings of food and table wines.  

Some connection to food was everywhere. Small shops for every culinary category overflowed the neighborhood. Numerous boulangeries and patisseries wafted out their warm yeast and sweet custard smells into raw, wet, winter days as I walked to and from school. This tantalizing of taste buds and deep cravings was especially temptingsometimes tortuousfor me and my girlfriends when we went through our thin at all costs stage of high school, addicted to crash diets. 

The marchés themselves were riots of heart-stopping colors and smellssomehow emitting to my senses a kind of nurturing love. I remember one May tableau of cobalt blue irises standing tall in water pails near a griddle-cart sizzling garlicky sausages, both adjacent to a stall with bins and crocks full of figs, dates, nuts, olives. The fascination with the spirit of the marché led to exploring the market gardens around Paris that caught my eye, as did the homely pots of herbs and flowers on even the most high-rent wrought iron balconies. I saw these as impressionistic pictures through rain-blurred train windows whenever I rode, not far outside the city-center, to St. Cloud or St. Germaine-en-Laye to hang out with friends.

The Gifts of God for the People of God

Paris: new world-in-a-word to this girl from Virginia the place where I met at sixteen the man I would marry at eighteen. All of it tangled up in markets and cooking and St. Michaels. 

I learned the hard way through flopped recipes and a failed marriage that the spirit of food and the food of the spirit can be about many things, but neither is about perfection: not perfect ingredients, nor perfect process and knowledge. Certainly it's not about a Julia Child batterie de cuisine (confession: I would love to have one), though the tools and teachings of other cooks or their books help, no doubt about it. I'll say it again, as it dawned on my teenaged soul — the spirit of food seemed to be about love and it was at that time I first learned, through joining the church, about spirit-filled food and sustenance in both fellowship of the table and the actual baking and breaking of bread. Love that is hopefully not a self-serving end, but that, as one rite for Holy Eucharist has it, the foundation of "going forth into the world" to do the work God has given us to do, and of doing so with strength and courage . . . gladness and singleness of heart" no matter what our many day jobs and distractions might be.

Those last quoted lines about strength and courage, loving and serving, gladness and singleness of heart come from the 1789 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer's order for Eucharistic Celebration (365). The phrase is one of the possible benedictions after the congregation has partaken of the meal of grace and forgiveness at the Communion table.   Eucharistic images, symbols, and theology confer a wealth of spirit-into-food for the soul, as the invisible is made visible. Im reminded at Mass that holy spirits and human food have been entwined since Jesus' own words: eat, drink, do this in remembrance of mefeast words echoed throughout the New Testament and summed up in the prayer that we shall know Him intimately, bodily, as He is revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread (BCP 139, 372). That fleeting moment: breaking bread, sharing it, knowing bone-deep God's here-and-now grace. Isnt it in "sending forth" from the Lord's table to our own dinner tables that we see the Spirit as fuel and sustenance and not just a God-connection for our own pleasure? For me, this fuel bridges an encounter with God at the communion rail to the roll-up-your-sleeves day-to-day world in which we also live, move, and have our being. 

* * *

Bonne Mama,eight year-old Christopher says to me. Can you please send the hot rolls down the table to Grammy K?

The Bread of Heaven

As it turned out, Paris launched my Anglo-Catholic journey centered on spirit and food via the Mass and in growing, cooking, and serving food. I first recognized this centrality far away from Paris when I became a mother. As the season of nurturing little people evolved, so did a more involved parish participation and both required food-based hospitality. The need for a kitchen garden grew evident. I was feeding a family of four — soon enough, a family of of six — and lots of guests on a tightrope budget, just as many households do who, for a season, sacrifice dual incomes to care for young children and to serve the spiritual community of friends far and near.

It worked, too, that first of many gardens: beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, snow peas, sautéing greens, and my prized French varieties of lettuce and leeks. Sometimes the abundant backyard harvest became the entire meal, especially in summer. Other times, it rounded out whatever else needed to be stretched. In downtown Chapel Hill, where this first garden grew (a block from the nation's oldest state university), I often had student and professor pedestrians (who could see the leafy backyard plants from the sidewalk) come around back to see what on earth all the green was about.  

Astonished at the sight of a forest of three dozen tomato plants right downtown, one eminent art historian said: "My God. You've got a plantation back here."

This was long before the community- and urban-garden movement, so it was something of a neighborhood novelty. And I was there, alongside my toddlers in the sandbox or picking lemon yellow marigolds, praying my prayers, thinking my thoughts, staking Roma tomatoes or harvesting beans. Blessedly participating in creation, I buried tiny pin-sized lettuce seeds and watched them disappear into chocolate cake-like furrows of soil. In the perennial miracle, they rose up as green shoots and blades: an outward and visible prophecy of the large, leafy tangle to come. It was a heartbreaking day when that garden was paved over to make a parking lot.

I should've seen it coming.

The world my then-husband and I had made in that garden turned out not to be a til death do us part world after all.  

It was a world a life that disappeared with divorce and vows gone wrong, as the garden did under the parking lot. With it went the abundant veggies and flowers, the girlfriends' nights of canning and freezing the harvest, a certain style of gathering friends and family around the walnut table.

 All the more richly strange that anyone should gather in both the old way and the new at the walnut table nicked now with thirty years of feasting which, though it has changed styles, continues. A table hosting faith and doubt, pain and joy, betrayal and commitment. 

People are busy, so more often than not when there is a get-together, wemy new partner, my grown children and children-in-law, old and new friends and co-workers and, now, my son's three sonspot luck, or rather plan luck so that we have a balance of dishes. To make sure we have at least one time around the table a month, my husband and I try to host a simple after-church brunch that we cook entirely, because we go to an evening Mass and have Sunday mornings to prepare.

After the large gardens went, my oldest son tilled and fenced for me a potager which is a much smaller endeavor of intensively rich soil, raised beds that proffer mostly pink flowers (zinnias, cosmos, cleome) and herbs (oregano, chives, and enough basil to keep us in pesto all summer). 

But before the potager, a close friend and I once planted fifty-five tomato seedlings, and what seemed like as many cucumbers and peppers. We canned, pickled, froze, and gave away the abundance. Most memorably we cookedsteamed, sauced, sautéed, servedand shared the produce with all kinds of people (sometimes anyone we could pawn it off on), in our two very different church communities and, of course, three times a day and then some to our households. Nowadays, you can also give it to food banks and soup kitchens.

Ive heard it said that the practice of hospitality begins at home. If, as one preacher I know has it, we are not partaking of the food of love in our most intimate relationships, we're not likely to be doing so with guests and the world at large. I believe that if the spirit of food is Eucharistic, then it is also about our communion with each other, spiritually and literally, about fuel and faith in the sacrament of Jesus' body and bloodand the fellowship around the table (BCP, 366).

Feed on Him in Our Hearts

When I started this essay, its deadline and another's was upon me. And it was lunchtime on Maundy Thursday. I ate a saladalas, not one I grewstanding up and in a hurry, breaking all the rules so that I might make it to a noon Eucharist while also starting dinner. It was a typical Thursdayexcept for being Holy Week. So I would teach my afternoon classes and arrive home at the frenzied hour. So would everybody else in my household: my high school son from baseball practice and my daughter home from college for her weekly laundry and dinner date with us. My husband would come back from a late weekly meeting. We would all be starving and world-weary, and eating out is not a budgetary option. 

So as I scarfed down my salad, I put into the Crock-Pot meatballs (made from a friend's cows) browned along with barbeque sauce adapted from American Farmhouse Cookbook. The last of a bushel box of sweet potatoes we bought from a local farmer in October sat scrubbed and waiting to be baked by whoever gets here first. During the few minutes it takes for the kids to set the table, I would sauté a batch of fresh kale in garlic (both from the potager) and fruity olive oil. Then we would sit down to solace and strength, pardon and renewal (BCP, 372) before the mandate liturgy. 

If we are a family broken by divorce, then we're one on the mend, feeding on courage, gladness, and singleness of heart — on life lived around the table.

Therefore Let Us Keep the Feast

The walnut table speaks groans and creaks loudly as the messy, un-choreographed dance of dishes and leftovers are cleared. Two tall pound cakes one Duke (chocolate) the other Carolina (vanilla) arrive on pedestal plates bearing enough candles to burn down the house. More of that friendly, effervescent white wine is poured while my daughters hide jumbo multi-colored Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies in our side yard for the grandsons to hunt after dessert. The newly baptized son-in-law turns thirty today and shares a birthday (but not the cake!) with my oldest grandson. They do share a rowdy exuberant family singing the birthday song addressed to them both. A sweet off-key finish to the unexpected grace notes of Easters Feast.

Duke and Carolina are sliced and plated, strawberries and whipped cream piled high.

Can I get anybody anything else?Someone says to the crowd at large.

Alleluia indeed.

Photograph by Sheryl Cornett

Sheryl Cornett teaches writing and literature at North Carolina State University. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in North Carolina Literary ReviewSouthern Women's Review, and Image, among other journals and magazines. She lives in Chapel Hill with her family.

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