Read an Excerpt
Food & Faith
justice, joy and daily bread
By Michael Schut, Victoria Hummel
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2009 Earth Ministry
All rights reserved.
A Celebration of Food
Given honest flour, pure water, and a good fire, there is really only one more thing needed to make the best bread in the world, fit for the greatest gourmet ever born: and that is honest love. —M.F.K. Fisher
Oh taste and see that the Lord is good. —Psalm 34:8
Long before institutionalized religions came along—and temples, and churches—there was an unquestioned recognition that what goes on in the kitchen is holy ... Do we not hallow places by our very commitment to them? When we turn our home into a place that nourishes and heals and contents, we are meeting directly all the hungers that a consumer society exacerbates but never satisfies.
"I am thinking now of some of the best meals of my life," begins M.F.K. Fisher's story "Poor Food." In "A Thing Shared" Fisher has the same theme, reliving the first meal she and her sister shared with their father, away from mother's watchful eyes. In these two stories, as well as the subsequent essays by Ackerman and Nabhan, the goodness of food is intimately intertwined with the goodness of the relationships represented around the table. Nabhan's meal with his Lebanese cousins celebrates not only his relationships with his family, but also the relationships between his family, their food, and the Earth. Nabhan's piece foreshadows Wendell Berry's point (see "The Pleasures of Eating," p. 142) that the fullest possible celebration of food comes through knowing the sources (both human and non-human) from which one's food comes. A book bearing the title Food and Faith would be incomplete without stories celebrating the place of food within the fullness of life. Enjoy and recall some of your best meals!
A Thing Shared
by M. F. K. Fisher
For over sixty years, M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food, cooking and eating as human and cultural metaphors. She published fifteen books and many essays which first appeared in the New Yorker magazine.
One of our most widely read gourmet food writers, she recalls here an early childhood experience: a dinner shared with her father and younger sister which, 25 years later, is still fresh in each of their memories as one of their favorite meals. "Poor Food" describes the best sauce, the best stew, and the best bread she ever ate. Both articles remember meals made rich, wholesome, even holy, through the love with which they were prepared and made celebratory through the people with whom they were shared. Savor them.
* * *
Now you can drive from Los Angeles to my Great-Aunt Maggie's ranch on the other side of the mountains in a couple of hours or so, but the first time I went there it took most of a day.
Now the roads are worthy of even the All-Year-Round Club's boasts, but twenty- five years ago, in the September before people thought peace had come again, you could hardly call them roads at all. Down near the city they were oiled, all right, but as you went farther into the hills toward the wild desert around Palmdale, they turned into rough dirt. Finally they were two wheelmarks skittering every which way through the Joshua trees.
It was very exciting: the first time my little round brown sister Anne and I had ever been away from home. Father drove us up from home with Mother in the Ford, so that she could help some cousins can fruit.
We carried beer for the parents (it exploded in the heat), and water for the car and Anne and me. We had four blowouts, but that was lucky, Father said as he patched the tires philosophically in the hot sun; he'd expected twice as many on such a long, hard trip.
The ranch was wonderful, with wartime crews of old men and loud-voiced boys picking the peaches and early pears all day, and singing and rowing at night in the bunkhouses. We couldn't go near them or near the pen in the middle of a green alfalfa field where a new prize bull, black as thunder, pawed at the pale sand.
We spent most of our time in a stream under the cottonwoods, or with Old Mary the cook, watching her make butter in a great churn between her mountainous knees. She slapped it into pats, and put them down in the stream where it ran hurriedly through the darkness of the butter-house.
She put stone jars of cream there, too, and wire baskets of eggs and lettuces, and when she drew them up, like netted fish, she would shake the cold water onto us and laugh almost as much as we did.
Then Father had to go back to work. It was decided that Mother would stay at the ranch and help put up more fruit, and Anne and I would go home with him. That was as exciting as leaving it had been, to be alone with Father for the first time.
He says now that he was scared daft at the thought of it, even though our grandmother was at home as always to watch over us. He says he actually shook as he drove away from the ranch, with us like two suddenly strange small monsters on the hot seat beside him.
Probably he made small talk. I don't remember. And he didn't drink any beer, sensing that it would be improper before two unchaperoned young ladies.
We were out of the desert and into deep winding canyons before the sun went down. The road was a little smoother, following streambeds under the live-oaks that grow in all the gentle creases of the dry tawny hills of that part of California. We came to a shack where there was water for sale, and a table under the dark, wide trees.
Father told me to take Anne down the dry streambed a little way. That made me feel delightfully grown-up. When we came back we held our hands under the water faucet and dried them on our panties, which Mother would never have let us do.
Then we sat on a rough bench at the table, the three of us in the deep green twilight, and had one of the nicest suppers I have ever eaten.
The strange thing about it is that all three of us have told other people that same thing, without ever talking of it among ourselves until lately. Father says that all his nervousness went away, and he saw us for the first time as two little brown humans who were fun. Anne and I both felt a subtle excitement at being alone for the first time with the only man in the world we loved.
(We loved Mother too, completely, but we were finding out, as Father was too, that it is good for parents and for children to be alone now and then with one another ... the man alone or the woman, to sound new notes in the mysterious music of parenthood and childhood.)
That night I not only saw my Father for the first time as a person. I saw the golden hills and the live-oaks as clearly as I have ever seen them since; and I saw the dimples in my little sister's fat hands in a way that still moves me because of that first time; and I saw food as something beautiful to be shared with people instead of as a thrice-daily necessity.
I forget what we ate, except for the end of the meal. It was a big round peach pie, still warm from Old Mary's oven and the ride over the desert. It was deep, with lots of juice, and bursting with ripe peaches picked that noon. Royal Albertas, Father said they were. The crust was the most perfect I have ever tasted, except perhaps once upstairs at Simpson's in London, on a hot plum tart.
And there was a quart Mason jar, the old-fashioned bluish kind like Mexican glass, full of cream. It was still cold, probably because we all knew the stream it had lain in, Old Mary's stream.
Father cut the pie in three pieces and put them on white soup plates in front of us, and then spooned out the thick cream. We ate with spoons too, blissful after the forks we were learning to use with Mother.
And we ate the whole pie, and all the cream ... we can't remember if we gave any to the shadowy old man who sold water ... and then drove on sleepily toward Los Angeles, and none of us said anything about it for many years, but it was one of the best meals we ever ate.
Perhaps that is because it was the first conscious one, for me at least; but the fact that we remember it with such queer clarity must mean that it had other reasons for being important. I suppose that happens at least once to every human. I hope so.
Now the hills are cut through with super-highways, and I can't say whether we sat that night in Mint Canyon or Bouquet, and the three of us are in some ways even more than twenty-five years older than we were then. And still the warm round peach pie and the cool yellow cream we ate together that August night live in our hearts' palates, succulent, secret, delicious.
From The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher. © 1990 M.F.K. Fisher. All rights reserved. Reproduced here by permission of Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Poor Food by M.F.K. Fisher
I am thinking now of some of the best meals in my life, and almost without exception they have been so because of the superlative honesty of "poor food," rather than sophistication. I admire and often even like what is now called the classical cuisine—the intricate sauces of great chefs, and the complexities of their entremets and their pastries. But for strength, both of the body and of the spirit, I turn without hesitation to the simplest cooks.
I remember the best sauce I ever ate.
It was not at Foyot's, in the old days in Paris. It was in a cabin with tar-paper walls on a rain-swept hillside in southern California. The air was heavy with the scent of wet sage from outside and the fumes of a cheap kerosene stove within. Three or four children piped for more, more, from the big bowl of steaming gravy in the center of the heavy old round table crowded between the family's cots. We ate it from soup plates, the kind you used to get free with labels from cereal packages. It was made from a couple of young cottontails, and a few pulls of fresh herbs from the underbrush, and springwater and some Red Ink from the bottom of Uncle Johnnie's birthday jug—and a great deal of love. It was all we had, with cold flapjacks left from breakfast to scoop it up. It was good, and I knew that I was indeed fortunate, to have driven up the hill that night in the rain and to have friends who would share with me.
I remember the best stew I ever ate, too.
It was not a bouillabaisse at Isnard's in Marseille. It was made, further east on the Mediterranean at Cassis, by a very old small woman for a great lusty batch of relatives and other people she loved. Little grandnephews dove for equally young octopuses and delicate sea eggs, and older sons sent their rowboats silently up the dark calanques for rockfish lurking among the sunken German U-boats from the First War, and grizzling cousins brought in from the deep sea a fine catch of rays and other curious scaly monsters. Little girls and their mothers and great-aunts went up into the bone-dry hills for aromatic leaves and blossoms, and on the way home picked up a few bottles of herby wine from the tiny vineyards where they worked in the right seasons.
The very old small woman cooked and pounded and skinned and ruminated, and about noon, two days later, we met in her one-room house and spent some twenty more hours, as I remember, eating and eating ... and talking and singing and then eating again, from seemingly bottomless pots of the most delicious stew in my whole life. It, again, had been made with love ...
And out of a beautiful odorous collection of good breads in my life I still taste, in my memory, the best.
There have been others that smelled better, or looked better, or cut better, but this one, made by a desolately lonesome Spanish-Greek Jewess for me when I was about five, was the best. Perhaps it was the shape. It was baked in pans just like the big ones we used every Saturday, but tiny, perhaps one by three inches. And it rose just the way ours did, but tinily. (Many years later, when I read Memoirs of a Midget and suffered for the difficulties of such a small person's meals, I wished I could have taken to her, from time to time and wrapped in a doll's linen napkin, a fresh loaf from my friend's oven.)
Yes, that was and still is the best bread. It came from the kitchen of a very simple woman, who knew instinctively that she could solace her loneliness through the ritual of honest cooking. It taught me, although I did not understand it then, a prime lesson in survival. I must eat well. And in these days of spurious and distorted values, the best way to eat is simply, without affectation or adulteration. Given honest flour, pure water, and a good fire, there is really only one more thing needed to make the best bread in the world, fit for the greatest gourmet ever born: and that is honest love.
From Last House: Reflections, Dreams and Observations, 1943-199J by M.F.K. Fisher, © 1995 by Robert Lescher, as trustee of the literary trust u/w/o M.F.K. Fisher. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
The Social Sense
by Diane Ackerman
Diane Ackerman is a poet and author whose works include On Extended Wings and A Natural History of the Senses. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, she received an M.A., M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University. She has taught at several universities and writes for the New Yorker.
Her essay evokes a great diversity of familiar images associated with the gift of food, mediated through taste, which she calls the "intimate sense." No matter the context—from power lunches to wedding feasts, from the sacrament of communion to birthday cake—food is "close at hand to sanctify and bind it." Enjoy the memories she conjures and the reminders of how central food is to hospitality, religion and pleasure.
The other senses may be enjoyed in all their beauty when one is alone, but taste is largely social. Humans rarely choose to dine in solitude, and food has a powerful social component. The Bantu feel that exchanging food makes a contract between two people who then have a "clanship of porridge." We usually eat with our families, so it's easy to see how "breaking bread" together would symbolically link an outsider to a family group. Throughout the world, the stratagems of business take place over meals; weddings end with a feast; friends reunite at celebratory dinners; children herald their birthdays with ice cream and cake; religious ceremonies offer food in fear, homage, and sacrifice; wayfarers are welcomed with a meal. As Brillat-Savarin says, "every ... sociability ... can be found assembled around the same table: love, friendship, business, speculation, power, importunity, patronage, ambition, intrigue." If an event is meant to matter emotionally, symbolically, or mystically, food will be close at hand to sanctify and bind it. Every culture uses food as a sign of approval or commemoration, and some foods are even credited with supernatural powers, others eaten symbolically, still others eaten ritualistically, with ill fortune befalling dullards or skeptics who forget the recipe or get the order of events wrong. Jews attending a Seder eat a horseradish dish to symbolize the tears shed by their ancestors when they were slaves in Egypt. Malays celebrate important events with rice, the inspirational center of their lives. Catholics and Anglicans take a communion of wine and wafer. The ancient Egyptians thought onions symbolized the many-layered universe, and swore oaths on an onion as we might on a Bible. Most cultures embellish eating with fancy plates and glasses, accompany it with parties, music, dinner theater, open-air barbecues, or other forms of revelry. Taste is an intimate sense. We can't taste things at a distance. And how we taste things, as well as the exact makeup of our saliva, may be as individual as our fingerprints.
Food gods have ruled the hearts and lives of many peoples. Hopi Indians, who revere corn, eat blue corn for strength, but all Americans might be worshiping corn if they knew how much of their daily lives depended on it. Margaret Visser, in Much Depends on Dinner, gives us a fine history of corn and its uses: livestock and poultry eat corn; the liquid in canned foods contains corn; corn is used in most paper products, plastics, and adhesives; candy, ice cream, and other goodies contain corn syrup; dehydrated and instant foods contain cornstarch; many familiar objects are made from corn products, brooms and corncob pipes to name only two. For the Hopis, eating corn is itself a form of reverence. I'm holding in my hand a beautifully carved Hopi corn kachina doll made from cottonwood; it represents one of the many spiritual essences of their world. Its cob-shaped body is painted ocher, yellow, black, and white, with dozens of squares drawn in a cross-section-of-a-kernel design, and abstract green leaves spearing up from below. The face has a long, black, rootlike nose, rectangular black eyes, a black ruff made of rabbit fur, white string corn-silk-like ears, brown bird-feather bangs, and two green, yellow, and ocher striped horns topped by rawhide tassels. A fine, soulful kachina, the ancient god Maïs stares back at me, tastefully imagined.
Throughout history, and in many cultures, taste has always had a double meaning. The word comes from the Middle English tasten, to examine by touch, test, or sample, and continues back to the Latin taxare, to touch sharply. So a taste was always a trial or test. People who have taste are those who have appraised life in an intensely personal way and found some of it sublime, the rest of it lacking. Something in bad taste tends to be obscene or vulgar. And we defer to professional critics of wine, food, art, and so forth, whom we trust to taste things for us because we think their taste more refined or educated than ours. A companion is "one who eats bread with another," and people sharing food as a gesture of peace or hospitality like to sit around and chew the fat.
Excerpted from Food & Faith by Michael Schut. Copyright © 2009 by Earth Ministry. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.