From critically acclaimed, award-winning author Michelle Huneven, a sharp and funny novel of a congregational search committee, told as a memoir with recipes
Dana Potowski is a restaurant critic and food writer and a longtime member of a progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation in Southern California. Just as she’s finishing the book tour for her latest bestseller, Dana is asked to join the church search committee for a new minister. Under pressure to find her next book idea, she agrees, and resolves to secretly pen a memoir, with recipes, about the experience. That memoir, Search, follows the travails of the committee and their candidates—and becomes its own media sensation.
Dana had good material to work with: the committee is a wide-ranging mix of Unitarian Universalist congregants, and their candidates range from a baker and microbrew master/pastor to a reverend who identifies as both a witch and an environmental warrior. Ultimately, the committee faces a stark choice between two very different paths forward for the congregation. Although she may have been ambivalent about joining the committee, Dana finds that she cares deeply about the fate of this institution and she will fight the entire committee, if necessary, to win the day for her side.
This wry and wise tale will speak to anyone who has ever gone searching, and James Beard Award–winning author Michelle Huneven’s food writing and recipes add flavor to the delightful journey.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I hadn't been to church for close to three months when Charlotte Beck called at eight o'clock on a Monday night and asked if she and Belinda Bauer could stop by.
"Of course," I said cautiously. These were two of the most prominent members of the congregation. "What's up?"
"There's something we want to ask you," Charlotte said. "Something we'd like you to do. We'll be there in a few."
Charlotte had just been the church president and was now the ex officio; and Belinda, at eighty-three, was a former president and a member for more than fifty years.
What could such a delegation want with me? Except to drag me back to the pews. Not that we had pews. We had comfortable upholstered teak chairs.
I thumped the pillows on the kitchen sofa and put the kettle on for tea. The pledge dinner, which kicked off the annual fundraising drive, had come and gone, so they wouldn't want me to organize that. The Cooking for Cash dinners-where people paid to eat at one another's homes, all proceeds to the church-were over. Might this be about the Juneteenth barbecue? Really, I had no idea.
My husband, Jack, was reading lawyerly documents on his desktop computer while a rock video played on his laptop. "Two big-deal women from church are stopping by," I said. "Like, half the executive committee."
"At this hour? What do they want?"
"Maybe to scold me for missing so much church?"
"More likely to recruit you," he said. "For the board. Or church president, I bet."
"I doubt that's it," I said. Our presidents tended to be administrative types like Belinda, a long-retired high school principal, or corporate types like Charlotte, a recently retired contracts lawyer. I'd been on the church board twice, but I wasn't presidential material. Twenty-two years ago, thinking I might be a minister, I had attended two years of seminary, but my church activities since then were always more metaphysical-and culinary-than managerial. While Charlotte led pledge drives and capital campaigns, I'd taught Writing as a Spiritual Activity and holiday cooking classes and led some of the small monthly discussion groups we call Soul Circles.
I didn't want to be church president or serve another term on the board-I wasn't sure I still wanted to go to church. Almost everything in the Sunday worship had begun to annoy me. Announcements. The drippy stories read to the kids. Responsive readings. Most hymns. I'd come to hate both the handbell choir and this thing the minister did after the benediction, when he had us turn to each other and repeat a phrase from his sermon, like Open wide your big Universalist heart or We shall overcome or (this on Easter) Happity hoppity Easter.
My church was the Arroyo Unitarian Universalist Community Church, which everyone called "the AUUCC" (pronounced awk). I'd been a member for twenty-four years.
Once you skip a couple of Sundays, I'd found, it's easy to keep skipping.
I stuck the cozy on the teapot and Bunchie, our terrier, started leaping and barking. I led Charlotte and Belinda into our newly built kitchen.
"Look at your beautiful high ceiling," said Charlotte. "Those beams!"
"Good counter," said Belinda, touching the dark, white-veined soapstone.
I poured out cups of ginger tea. We settled in at the kitchen table.
"Thanks for letting us barge in on you," said Charlotte. Even retired, in her pale pink twinset and preternaturally smooth pageboy, she was the brisk, capable attorney.
"It's so good to see you two," I said. Seeing them did stir a deep current: Charlotte and I had been in the same new-member orientation class twenty-four years ago, and we often sat together at church, as her wife, Sheila, attended rarely, and my Jewish husband never. I'd come to know Belinda through my cooking classes.
"We miss seeing you at church," said Belinda.
When I first came to the AUUCC, Belinda had already retired and was filling in as the church secretary, a supposedly temporary arrangement that ended up lasting twelve years. She was small, five foot one, and had enormous eyes. An old-timer told me that she'd once been the most beautiful woman at the church, but in the AUUCC's office she'd been brusque and impatient, and treated us all like wayward tenth graders. You had to go through her for the key to the copying machine or an appointment with the minister; she was the dragon guarding the pearl and she terrified me until we found common ground at the stove. She was a serious, adventurous cook.
"I figured you must be on a book tour," Charlotte said.
My most recent memoir, Yard to Table: A Suburban Farmer Cooks, had just come out, and on one of the Sundays I'd missed, I was up north promoting it.
"This one's my new favorite," said Charlotte.
"I still like your second book best, maybe because I knew your mom," said Belinda. That book, Our Best Year, was about my senior year in high school when I took over cooking dinner from my working mother, thus inadvertently and radically improving our relationship, if only for a year. "But I'm only halfway through the new one," she added. "I do enjoy how you write about gardening."
One great thing about church friends: they buy and read your books.
"Thanks, you guys," I said. "It means a lot that you're such loyal readers."
"Our pleasure," said Charlotte. "And now, Dana, we could really use your help. It concerns Tom."
"Tom? Tom Fox?" The senior minister. "What about him?"
"The executive committee thinks his heart's not in it anymore," Charlotte said.
"He's tired," said Belinda.
Tom Fox was sixty-four. When he came to the AUUCC eight years ago, everyone knew he wouldn't stay that long, certainly not as long as his predecessor, the Reverend Dr. Sparlo Plessant, who served for twenty-eight years.
Charlotte had never liked Tom Fox's sermons. I knew this because she and I avidly took them apart every Sunday after worship. She still missed Sparlo Plessant's intellectually rigorous, witty sermons, which were undeniably spellbinding. Having tackled sermon writing in seminary, I thought Tom Fox's efforts excellent in their own way: they were deceptively relaxed and in fact were quite a nimble blend of ideas, anecdotes, and poetry. Charlotte didn't appreciate how skillfully he made complex ideas so accessible. "You've never liked Tom's preaching, Charlotte," I said.
"And it's gone from bad to worse," she said.
Tom duly emailed me his sermons every time I ditched church. Just that morning I'd received his most recent offering, along with a message that said Missed you today. Lunch this week? I hadn't answered yet because, if I went to lunch, I was afraid he'd ask about my ongoing truancy and I didn't know what to say.
"I like Tom's sermons a lot more than you do," I said. "What I can't stand is that thing he does at the end, where we have to say those dumb things to each other."
"I don't mind that," said Charlotte. "In fact, I like it. But Sheila hates it so much, she won't come to church anymore. I told Tom he was alienating people, but he insists that repeating silly things sets a warmer, friendlier tone."
"Not for introverts like me," I said.
"More worrisome," said Belinda, "is what I'm hearing from the staff. Tom's not getting the order of service in on time, he's missed appointments, and he's only ever in the office on Wednesdays for staff meetings." She set down her teacup. "We need to find out if and when he plans to retire."
"Why not ask him?" I said. "Though I suppose it's a delicate question."
"It is delicate." Belinda turned her enormous brown eyes to me. "Which is why we thought you should ask him."
"Me?" I said. "Why me?"
"Because you're good friends with him," said Charlotte.
"I suppose," I said.
"Don't you two go out to lunch all the time?"
Was once a month all the time? And I thought of our lunches in more practical terms: I was a restaurant critic and Tom Fox was game to go with me on review meals-and it's not so easy to find people free midday in the middle of the workweek to drive to Venice or Covina for lunch. That's not to say I didn't enjoy Tom's company and conversation. I did, often enough, and eight years of monthly lunches had made us close. "I'll probably have lunch with him this week," I said.
"Perfect," said Charlotte. "So you'll ask?"
"If I can. But what good will it do to know if he is retiring?"
"It's information," said Belinda. "If he's planning on five more years-"
"God help us," said Charlotte.
"-then he needs a fire lit under him. If he's leaving soon, well, then we have to start planning for an interim and budgeting for a search."
"Something has to change," said Charlotte. "There's been a real drop in attendance. You yourself have been pretty scarce . . ."
Here I thought I was having a midlife spiritual drift; come to find out, I was part of a general trend. "Worship has seemed tedious. I thought it was just me."
"It's not just you," said Belinda.
I saw them out. "And I thought you were going to ask me to be church president."
"You'd be president?" Charlotte turned to Belinda with a bright look. "Perfect! We'll put you in the chute! Oh, Dana! You've just solved our other conundrum!"
"No, no," I said. "I was joking. Please! Don't put me in the chute!"
The church presidency was a six-year commitment: you spent two years as vice president, two years as president, and two years as president ex officio.
As they trundled down the porch steps, I called after them, "Seriously, don't put me in the chute!"
But I was thrilled to be asked.
The AUUCC's 290-plus members are a raffish mix of the highly educated left: Caltech and NASA scientists, schoolteachers, entertainment types and hospital workers, college professors, political activists, artists, and local soreheads. We're not as integrated as we'd like to be-especially considering that our west Altadena neighborhood is about forty percent nonwhite-but we're working on it. The church is famous for its preaching, its social activism, and its enchanting if derelict three-acre gardens.
Tom Fox was the AUUCC's fifth minister and the first not to hail from New England. A lean, broad-shouldered Texan, he stood six foot four, with pelt-like white curls. The two of us had been going out to lunch since he first came to the AUUCC. Sparlo Plessant, his predecessor, had told him that I was a restaurant critic and knew all the good places to eat; also that I'd been to seminary. So a month into his first year, Tom invited me to lunch and, over Shanghai-style hand-torn noodles in San Gabriel, he asked me to be on his ministerial relations committee.
But before I decided, he said, I should know that he didn't believe in ministerial relations committees: they encouraged malcontents to bellyache to committee members rather than approach the minister directly. But since the AUUCC's bylaws mandated that he should have such a committee, his would meet for a friendly lunch. My joining would be a favor to him, he said, and a way for us to get to know each other.
Flattered that the new minister wanted to get to know me, I perhaps didn't quite absorb the distinction between friendly lunch and functioning committee.
The committee consisted of me, Norma Fernandes, a quiet hospital administrator who kept our lunches to a strict one hour (thank god!), and Sam Rourke-Jolley, a retired finance guy who played golf with Tom. At our inaugural meeting, Tom reiterated that he would not countenance any complaints relayed from the congregation.
Sam Rourke-Jolley either ignored or forgot Tom's edict because every month he reported a complaint: some people didn't like it that Tom didn't wear a robe; that the choir, too, was now robeless; and worse, that clapping went unchecked during worship.
"Those aren't real issues," Tom said, "but attempts to split the congregation. And I will not respond to any grumblers too cowardly to face me."
I once asked Tom why he'd put Sam on the committee.
"We have a good time on the golf course," he said. "And I needed a Rourke."
The Rourkes were founding members of the AUUCC and, three generations on, still our greatest benefactors. Sam had married into the clan; his mother-in-law, the ancient Faithalma Rourke, was known to make the largest pledge every year-by a lot-and Sam's wife, Emma Rourke-Jolley, twenty years his junior and head of an HMO, was the only person ever to serve two terms as the AUUCC's president. "Emma," Tom added, "is too much of a powerhouse for such a low-impact committee."
I-so not a powerhouse-spent two years on that do-nothing committee. We met at a ladies' lunch spot in Pasadena where Tom Fox, in his lovely Texas accent, described movies he'd seen and articles he'd read; he told stories we'd heard in sermons or would hear shortly. I like to think we helped perfect his delivery. We paid for our own lunches, too, a cost I deducted from my taxes.
Shortly after I rotated off the ministerial relations committee, Tom Fox convinced the board to amend the bylaws and eliminate it. He and I kept going to lunch, though, which, as I've said, was useful to me. One-on-one Tom could be an excellent conversationalist; he was well read, thoughtful, and capable of the depth I usually reached with close female friends. I was hungry, too, for the conversation I'd loved in seminary, intense discussions of spiritual issues, theological trends, and ministry itself; subjects that my husband and my a-religious friends were not inclined to explore: faith, surrender, Baptist polity, the flames all mystics see-that sort of thing. Some days, though, I couldn't get a word in edgewise with Tom. The man could talk.
I was still hesitant to go to lunch with Tom because I knew he'd ask why I'd been ditching church. And what would I say? That his liturgy annoyed me?
Somehow, having a mission-to find out if and when he planned to retire-emboldened me. Plus, a favorite Vietnamese place had opened a second location that I needed to review. Yes to lunch, I wrote to Tom. Thursday?
At the new Golden Deli 2, we scored a booth-yes!-and ordered bun and the house specialty, cha gio, fried eggrolls.
The bright new storefront restaurant had the same menu as the original, but not the scuffed, broken-in charm or-thankfully-the knot of people waiting to get in.