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On Food and Sacrament and Making Memories

We had one of those quintessentially North Carolinian evenings today, the kind where the air hangs low between the oaks and the magnolias, warm enough to be felt but cool enough to be pleasant. The sky was as blue and clear as any Carolina blue could be and the recent rain we’ve had has led to some very happy plants. Our humble yard was a tapestry of vibrant color and a symphony of summer sounds (the cicadas were out tonight in full force, singing with the crickets, some age old Southern gothic, I’m sure).

So when I got home from the office I piled a pyramid of coals on the grill, Coulter at my side and ready to push the bottom of the bag as necessary; nabbed a fresh tomato from the garden we share with our neighbors; and cooked burgers on the grill. We had delicious grass fed beef and sweet potato fries and kale and corn from the farmer’s market and then we topped it off with a homemade raspberry pie that I made the other night, a first and fun attempt.

It was delightful.

We’ve discovered that Coulter’s favorite foods seem to be corn and kale, which we usually bake topped with olive oil and sea salt. He scarfs it down like it’s candy.

He loves it so much that when I arrived home he ran to me and gave me a hug, yelling “kale! kale! kale!” and pulled me into the kitchen to show me that his mama was getting it ready. It’s such a joy watching him take pleasure in things as he experiences new sensations and acquires new knowledge. Yesterday he discovered a deep (and likely abiding) love for his Mimi’s lemon pie. And he has taken a hankering for watermelon in a new and emphatic way. Poor kid’s belly looked like it had grown two sizes after he discovered how much he liked it.

I think there’s something to be said for this kind of appreciation of small things, especially when it comes to food.

In his (very good) forthcoming book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty, culture critic Brett McCracken eloquently notes that “food is more than [sustenance]. It’s tasty and transcendant when it doesn’t need to be. It’s a foretaste of God’s coming world–something we can delight in, something through which we can taste the goodness of God.”

And later:

“We must never forget that food is a sacred gift, an invitation to joy and grace. It may be easy to take food for granted, to cheapen it or to scarf it down because we need to fill our stomachs, but . . . to eat food is to partake in something significant. How we eat, what we eat, why it matters–these questions should inform our culinary haabits as, with every bite, we seek to honor God.”

Several years back I went to Peru and I was struck by how slowly they eat, how much pride they take in preparing their food no matter how meager the supply, and how much they talk during meals. They didn’t care what else was going on–at all. They had no interest in doing anything but enjoying the meal–and the company–set before them.

This runs so contrary to what our culture offers today. That’s not to say that we modern Americans don’t also care about good meals or friendly conversation. As individuals many of us do. But, as our cultural obsession with fast food and eating out suggests, we are a society concerned with speed and pace and getting things done (including our meals). Such values are not condusive to truly enjoying food (or anything else, come to think of it).

This is too bad because, as McCracken points out, food is tied in a unique and deeply felt way to memory. He writes:

“Some say taste and smell are the senses most tied to memory, and I believe it. There is something sacred about my memories of former feasts . . . we remember eating, and in eating, we remember. Perhaps God made smell and taste so saturated with memory because he wanted us to always be remembering and reflecting upon the gift that is food. In the moment I taste a spoonful of flourless chocolcate cake with hazelnuts and sea salt caramel, I worship God for his goodness. Years later I can still remember that taste, and I thank God again. Memory plays a big role in our enjoyment of eating, and it’s one of the reasons why a meal–the Lord’s Supper–is one of our most important rituals of reflection and thanksgiving.”

I have always been fascinated by the Southern obsession with food and I am convinced that this obsession is born out of an obsession with history, with stories and memories. The two most important rooms in many southern houses are (still) the kitchen and the porch, and that’s meaningful in a profound way, I think. Unless we take the time to eat slowly and with purpose, to converse around food, we risk losing our collective consciousness, our sense of place, and our ability to commune.

There’s something sacramental about good food shared in good company.

I’ll aways remember eating frozen custard cones with my grandfather and my grandmother’s flank steak recipe and the last meal we all shared at the now sold family homestead. I’ll always remember the Easter dinner I shared with friends when we were all away from home (we had turkey) and the dinner at which I met Wendell Berry. I’ll always remember the lunch where I met my wife and the morning we hungrily scarfed down leftovers from our wedding reception. I’ll always remember the family dinners we had growing up and eating mom’s spaghetti after football practice. I’ll always remember watching Coulter enjoy kale so much he laughed.

And I pledge to appreciate these meals going forward. I pledge to care about what I eat and to be grateful for it. I pledge to teach my kids to be grateful and I pledge to teach them to eat slowly (even when all I want is for them to be in bed).

Food is too important, too good a thing to be rushed. It is, literally and in several ways, the breath of life and as such it’s worth taking seriously.

McCracken’s call for contemplative consumption is wise and necessary. For food is, as he succinctly puts it, wonderful. I for one am grateful.

PS – I think you’ll be hearing more from about this book. It’s quite good.

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