People ask me sometimes what it was like growing up the daughter (and granddaughter, and niece) of Episcopal priests and I always say I don’t know. I never grew up in any other family. I have no other life to compare it to. There is a familiarity to the world of the church, to its language and its rituals, which I take for granted because of its steady, sustaining, and unquestioned — whether sometimes neglected or sometimes more active — presence in my life.
But I know talk of church and God and religion can put people off. These words mean so many powerful – negative and positive – things to people and this is not really the context to engage in a long conversation about that. So at the risk of fundamentally misrepresenting Leslie Leyland Fields’ rich and wonderful new anthology, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, I am going to focus here on its relevance to this blog about family food.
I’ve already written about Nancy J. Nordenson’s amazing piece, “Things that Fall and Things that Stand” which really speaks to me about the fears (irrational and not) that parents feel for their children. All of the essays come with recipes, and hers offers one for Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, a simple, comforting meal. The essay gets to the heart of why Lisa and I feel so strongly about gathering our families around the table so often, even though sometimes it may not get off to a good start. An evening can turn around sometime between gathering the food and gathering the people, and the act of assembling the family is a good way to regroup after a long week or a way to connect spontaneously with friends.
We always hope it will offer us what Nordenson calls the “wholeness of this moment, dense and round as a concrete piling driven deep into bedrock, [which] anchors our paths.”
Brian Volck gets to this point, too, with his meditative essay, “Late October Tomatoes.” He grows the fruit and harvests them, pondering the best use of them and describing in rich detail the steps he takes to chop an onion, gather some herbs, sauté the vegetables for a soup. Lest it all begin to sound too peaceful and unreal, he makes it to familiar to every parent: “While I’m measuring and stirring these in, my son, Peter, enters the kitchen. He’s taking another break from homework.
“What’s for dinner?” he asks.
“Spicy tomato soup.”
Peter grimaces and mutters something under his breath.
“There’ll be grilled cheese sandwiches to go with it,” I say.
He smiles. “That’s better then.”
He won’t be swayed, and insists on cooking real food thoughtfully for his family: “When I take the time to cook attentively, observing the rituals my mother taught me, there’s a way in which my parents and benefactors, living and dead, are present. The meals we share as a family are different – more peopled, perhaps – than the sandwich and coffee I grab for lunch at work. At work, I can still mentally thank the worker who spread the tuna on my bread, the campesino who picked the coffee beans, but at home, the links are tighter, the connections more visible. At table, my family is reconstituted.”
Stephen and Karen Baldwin describe making fresh pasta, a sauce, bread and salad for and with their teenage children, and realize they take their everyday dinner ritual for granted: “From the reactions of Rachel and David’s friends, you would have thought we were performing magic.” And so they teach these children — and anyone else who comes to their home and shares a meal — how to set the table and how to create at that table “a tone that says, ‘This is a place to linger.'” They remind us it doesn’t have to be fancy food: “Start simply If the weather is cold, make a simple soup. Add a grilled cheese sandwich or put together two or three cheeses on a cutting board with crackers or sliced baguette… Clear the clutter from the table and set it with the necessary cutlery and napkins.” Even families with young children, as Lisa and I can attest, find that if you create a regular time and space for a family meal, your children will learn (eventually) how to sit and eat and share some conversation about the day. And then perhaps they’ll become like the college-age daughter of Jacqueline Rhodes, who insists on “my own dinner with all my favorites – I really need a good soul food dinner before I go back to school” – and works with her mom to learn how to make it all, carrying on the family legacy many of us share, of passing recipes from parent to child.
Not everyone here is always at peace or content with food. Gina Ochsner starts her essay with a conversation with her kids about super powers and realizes she still, after a harrowing period of binging and purging, battling her body, her hunger, and her food, wants to be invisible. It’s a struggle she continues, though she has at last “forged a truce with food,” and offers a recipe for piragi (Latvian ham rolls) that makes eighty servings.
Suzanne Wolfe’s gorgeous essay describes how, after her father abandoned her family, her grandfather, a typesetter by day and an evening and weekend gardener, became her central parent: “Food was the outward and visible sign of my grandfather’s love and I received it as matter-of-factly as a lifelong communicant receives the host. The high priest of my childhood, his robes smelled of earth and cigarettes, the tweed of his jackets scratchy against my cheek… at meals I sat at his right hand and ate blithely, without conscious gratitude but with careless and innocent joy.” When he is debilitated by a stroke, she begins to eat things not food: the leather strap of a purse, tissues, pencil stubs, and then, after his death, to fast. “I was a suicide posting as a hunger striker.” It is only years later, after her marriage and when she is pregnant, that she begins to recover, begins to view food differently as her children are growing in her: “The imperative to eat became an imperative of love, each pound gained no longer a millstone but a sign of my baby’s development.” In her grandfather’s honor, she offers a recipe for Irish soda bread.
Caroline Langston writes about a life of spiritual fasting (and the meals with which she breaks her fasts), a journey she begins when she is twenty-five and takes her from a plate of plain beans and rice in Bangalore to an orthodox Christian church in Wichita, Kansas. Of course her thinking about food and fasting has changed now that she is a mother, commenting in a wry voice to which many of us could relate: “I am forty years old and pregnant, and I will not be fasting this year. Running after my preschooler and nurturing the life within are a fast unto themselves.” Her recipe for lemony Greek chickpeas with spinach is the kind of dish I rely upon for lunch.
But much as I admire the writing (not to mention the spiritual strength) demonstrated in the fasting essays, it is the feasting essays to which I keep returning. Luci Shaw, writing about a different kind of soul food than Jacqueline Rhodes, shares how she had to struggle out from under her mother’s strict kitchen rules and tasks, and is grateful now that her grown kids call her easily, happily for cooking advice: “When my son John was in England…he sometimes made transatlantic phone calls to me with questions about the recipes he cooked in his tiny third-floor flat. He had to run down two flights of narrow stairs to his house phone to ask me how long to bake the Yorkshire pudding in the drippings from the roast of beef. Or he’d wonder, ‘Mom, I’m doing crème brulee for friends, but I don’t have a torch for caramelizing. Any ideas?'” He might be asking for advice with complicated recipes, but it’s her mother’s recipe for hot milk sponge cake that she shares in the book.
There’s Patty Kirk’s lovely, quiet musing on picking berries and making jam, an essay so peaceful it is almost like a retreat simply to read it, and her recipe for jam makes me think this might be the year I finally make a batch. There’s Jeremy Clive Huggins’ smart, slightly cranky essay, “The Church Potluck, Seriously,” which opens with a question, naturally, about green bean casserole (and offers, naturally, a recipe for something else to offer at your next potluck). There’s a meditative excerpt from Robert Farror Capon’s classic, The Supper of the Lamb (to which two other essays in this anthology refer), in which he slices an onion. He offers recipes for vegetable stocks and soups. Fields includes the strong, ringing voice of Wendell Berry, who insists “we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else.” He offers a very do-able list of ways to eat responsibly and resist corporate agriculture, and an easy bean recipe. Ann Voskamp, the daughter and wife of farmers, offers a perspective from the fields; her detailed and frank essay asks, “Do our children want to live, as we have lived, at the whim of markets and middle men?”
And then I come back to one of my favorite essays, Vinita Hampton Wright’s lovely, funny tribute to her family’s maternal legacy. In “Grandma Virgi’s Feast,” Wright is really just trying to keep up with all the food, “coming as [she does] from a string of women in several generations of kitchens in which butter fat meant luxury; sugar cubes spoke civility; second and third helpings were the least of courtesy; and bubbling, meaty gravy was a downright necessity.” “Once seated,” she writes, “there is no way out but to tunnel with spoon, fork, and knife, through three kinds of meat, vegetable variations (vegetables are made edible by cream soups, cheeses, and sauces, the way fruits are presented only in the context of pastry or Jell-O), potatoes, homemade noodles, relishes, rolls, dressing and – never the least –gravy. [Grandma] watches us like a foreman overseeing construction of the Hoover Dam…” Wright’s essay leads, perhaps inevitably, to a recipe for pecan pie, but one with a surprise ingredient.
The collection ends with Fields’ own essay, “Making the Perfect Loaf of Bread,” about trying out the Sullivan Street bakery bread recipe. Like me, she resisted the recipe a long time; “An essay is due in six days, as many days as I have been carrying the recipe in my back pocket. I’ve known about this bread for months.” Like me, she is uncertain about giving up kneading, skeptical about a bread recipe that uses so few ingredients, and only makes one loaf. Like me, she grew up with homemade bread — but very unlike me, baked twenty-one loaves of dark, leaden bread each week, using leftover seven-grain cereal as starter, to help feed her five siblings. “We didn’t want it,” she writes of this bread, “It was all we had.”
Fields makes that Sullivan St. bread and it is good; just as good, in its own way, as breads she has made in the past (though so much better than the heavy loaves of her childhood). Her family loves it, which makes her feel ambivalent at first; “so little of this is the doing of my hands. I was told what to use. I followed someone else’s formula. I didn’t lean my own body into it. I didn’t press and shape it into life.” But then she looks around her table at the family gathered there (all happily devouring the bread) and realizes, “how little of this is mine: the fruit from a can, the noodles from a bag, the plates from a cannery across the bay, the deer from the hillside. . . even these children, not mine. I bore them and fed them but I did not make them: all borrowed, all given, not the work of my hands. Suddenly I know it is the perfect loaf of bread. Perfect, I remember, means finished, complete.”
It is the perfect note with which to end her book, which is more than just complete but thoughtful and sustaining, too; a diverse portrait of the ways we nourish our families and ourselves.