Of Milk and Blackberries and Reasons to Feast

My brother is visiting, and he has me thinking about food.

Yesterday, as we stood in the kitchen talking of the next day’s plans and of breakfast, which was to be maple-pecan blueberry crisp with plain whole Greek yogurt, he raised his eyebrows in deep appreciation and said, “You eat like you’re out of a storybook.”

bread

I laughed as we put away the leftovers of summer-sweet peaches and whipped cream and honey. I knew what he meant. Good eating was never a requirement in my search of books growing up, but now looking over the long collection of favorites through the years, so many of them seem to have enjoyable repasts.

Peter Rabbit’s milk and bread and blackberries, Heidi’s goat cheese toasted over the fire, and even the simple pleasure of butter to go with brown bread in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew are among the inspirations that come instantly to mind. I’ve been known to have to put a book down or pause a TV show to properly sympathize, you know, with a character who is eating.

“What are you reading?”

“Pickwick.”

“That’s a book that always makes me hungry,” said Phil. “There’s so much good eating in it. The characters seem always to be reveling on ham and eggs and milk punch. I generally go on a cupboard rummage after reading Pickwick.”

Anne of the Island, Ch. 20

Inspired by stories or not, we usually come to our table with glad anticipation. At various seasons and for different members, our health issues have sparked a search for new flavors and appealing dishes. I’ve been glad to have reliably delicious recipes to soften restrictions and to make our meals more of a pleasure and less of a chore, both in the cooking and the eating.

And yet… stumbling through the door with arms full of groceries, I’ve sometimes wondered what “beyond-earthly” good, if any, this daily ritual of preparing and eating meals might have. On grayer days, with news headlines that pull like sinkholes on our minds, it does seem as if “[y]our worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots” (Hamlet, IV.iii.20-22, and please excuse the gruesome imagery). Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether we prepare roast chickens with root vegetables for dinner or we mindlessly subsist on microwave mac and cheese — as a college girl who shall not be named did in her freshman year — if we are all eventually headed for the grave? All our feasting: only a temporary table spread over broken things, laid out in the rapidly lengthening shadow of time.

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A few days before we moved into this house, and before the old carpet belonging to the previous owners’ troop of pets was replaced, we invited some friends over for a simple birthday dinner for Y: spaghetti with meatballs, and a green salad with mandarin oranges, sunflower seeds and dried fruit. We set up our low Korean tables in the living room, gave the children their paper plates, and told their parents not to worry about the sauce.

The toddlers ate and roamed while the adults leaned back on their elbows and drew in a breath of peace in an ordinary week. “This is great,” one of our friends said, and by “this” we knew he meant not only the pasta and the freedom afforded by old carpet, but the gathering and the conversation — this literal breaking of bread together (homemade, brought by one of the families) over life. Life shared in fellowship.

An hour earlier, in my hurry to arrive early and start the spaghetti, I had forgotten the salt container. One of our party found two small salt packets in a disposable silverware packet in her car, and, laughing, we seasoned the sauce with this little offering before the main meal was served. That night, imperfection and informality were the theme of our gathering, and we couldn’t have asked for a more sumptuous fête of friendship.

We ate a homemade birthday cake topped with sweet whipped cream and fresh berries to celebrate Y, the same cake I have made now for years by his request. There were leftovers to sneak by the forkful out of the fridge in the following week, for — astonishingly — we still needed food the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. We are dependent creatures, continually in need of bite and sup and sleep, and without these things I am sure I would not understand how often a soul needs to partake of the Word of God.

So we need basic and regular sustenance, and we rejoice heartily when the taking of food brings refreshment for our souls too. Two good reasons that will stand on their own.

But as for the actual enjoyment of food, and why we might choose round butter crackers over plain saltines, or why sometimes I slip a slice of butter and a spoonful of brown sugar in with the cooking carrots:

What Lewis wants to say is that to enjoy the juiciness of a peach and to enjoy the sweetness of honey is to enjoy God, not because the peach is God, or the honey is God, but because that kind of sweetness and pleasantness is indeed in God and from God, and this is the best way God can communicate his sweetness to us. . .

[T]he word of God teaches us to taste food as a communication of his diverse goodness and his supreme worth. And when we taste food as a communication of God’s goodness and worth in the eating of this food, we offer up our prayers of thanks, and ask him to give us the fullest possible feast of his supreme worth. And we pray this in Jesus’s name, knowing that every lasting blessing was bought by his blood.

John Piper

As the aroma of the prepared meal wafts up to our bowed heads, we give thanks for the ability to taste and see it, and for this provision for our frailty. We enjoy the goodness of the Creator in the created, and experience the curious wonder of seeing how “the Word of God and prayer make food holy, and make eating worship.”

And there’s one last distinction to be made here, one which I’ve begun to notice in recent years: it’s only when we know the taste of the goodness of God ourselves, acknowledging and receiving it, that we gladly pass it to others. It is possible to sit down to meal plagued by thoughts about others more in need (Why me and not them? Why all this waste for so few?) that it leaves everything tasting like sawdust and the partaker resenting his Host. I think it is possible to “give” to others out of this state of mind, but the offering often comes out of egalitarian obligation, and not out of love and a joyful sharing. Whether we feast or fast, may we do so with glad acknowledgement of Christ at the Head. A table laid by Guilt poisons each bite and leaves all its guests paralyzed, but it’s when we receive gratefully that we pass the plate with eyes bright: “Taste this!” Taste and see that God is good.

In food itself, then, and the faces that gather around it, and the flavors we savor in it, we are finding an appetite for the greater feast to come. Certainly we eat and drink and share stories as life flies and plods on, and every evidence of rot and mold points to our own mortality. But in our meals, set apart in thankfulness by things eternal, are invitations to a marriage supper that will last.

In our bread, the glad remembrance of the Bread of Life; in our eating… His glory.

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