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How Then Shall We Cook?

There is a silent alarm that goes off when I have had an unusually challenging day, and all children come running to help—now dropping eggs onto the floor, now licking the hand that touched the raw chicken. My daughter transcends the laws of physics to somehow touch everything in the room at once like an octopus in hyperdrive. “Hey! I was going to do that!” she says as she tries to snatch my knife. My middle son bounds in and out of the time-space continuum like a zealous golden retriever puppy who forgot his retrieval mission. He comes to help when it is never the right time and is always standing directly in front of the drawer that I need to open. My oldest is a delight to cook with, but that is the fruit of many years of underfootedness.

My relationship with the kitchen is complicated. I like cooking in its idyllic form—preparing artisanal ingredients while sipping a smooth cote-du-Rhone, listening to Louis Armstrong as the dappled early evening rays break through the oak leaves. I want to cook Babette’s feast; I don’t want to cook dinner. I am tired. There will be complaints and spilled milk. There will be dishes and, in the end, I will have to do it all again. And again. And again.

All my vices roar to the surface in the kitchen at 5 pm—my pettiness and short temper and self-pity. Many hours of my week are spent planning, procuring, and preparing food. And when it’s all done, blast it, why didn’t anyone tell me that we are out of milk again? There are more interesting or more important things that I could be doing…

If holiness is the disembodied intellectual comprehension of abstract concepts such as justification and atonement, then my work in the kitchen is contemptible. I am justified in my response. Cooking bars the way for holiness and impedes the “real thing.” However, it is the body that keeps the feast. As literary scholar Thomas Howard asserts, ‘Take and eat’ is our Lord’s bidding to us, not ‘Take and understand.’”[1] With a sacramental vision, the kitchen is no longer the thing that takes me away from important work. It is the work. It is Reality.

In his book, Dove Descending, Howard annotates T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets line by line. Howard believes (and I agree) that Eliot’s sacramentalism is key to understanding the Quartets. Here is how he explains sacramentalism:

But Eliot, being a Christian and a sacramentalist, believes that the physical is the very mode under which we make our way along to our destiny (telos) and that the effort to shuffle off the physical, or to deplore it, is both misbegotten and disastrous. (For readers unfamiliar with the term, a sacramentalist is one who believes that the points at which eternity touches time are physical points: Creation; Noah’s ark; Moses’ tabernacle; the Incarnation, entailing as it does a uterine wall, a gestation, a parturition, a circumcision, water turned to wine, a scourge, thorns, splinters, nails, a corpse, a body up from its tomb, a taking of that body into the eternal Trinity, and a Church made up of us mortals.)[2]

Deploring my work in the kitchen (at worst) or seeing it as a nuisance (at best) is both misbegotten and disastrous. The kitchen is the eucharistic center of the home—the place for sacrifice and feasting. When I work in the kitchen, I am on holy ground.

There are moments when it is easy to see the sacramental function of my work in the kitchen. What better way to contemplate the intersection of time and eternity than by making small batch strawberry lemon preserves? Or when your eye is on the timer, waiting for the ingredients of the flakiest all-butter pie crust to be chilled to perfection? But browning ground beef for dinner does not feel holy. It is not beautiful or interesting. Yet the examples that Howard mentions of eternity touching time are not romantic or fun. Splinter. Scourge. Corpse. Can I add ground beef to the list? As I break the meat into ever smaller pieces, I pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ…”

I have prayed this prayer in the kitchen for years. Last week, something strange happened—I wanted to cook dinner. Our house had been teeming with workmen for two weeks. Water damage resulted in a remodeling project at the very worst time, and the stars aligned so that our homeschool year began on demo day. A haze of dust coated the second story. Flies congregated in the kitchen from the oft-opened doors. If there ever were a day for take-out, this was it. There were rooms to dust, belongings to sort, and linens to wash. But I went to the kitchen that night in a faithful act of subcreation, creating order from disorder. I saw beauty as I gathered freshly cut vegetables into a salad. My heart aligned with my hands. For a night, I could see.

It was only one night. This afternoon I begrudgingly whisked the chicken marinade, thinking, “I have important things I need to be doing. I ought to be finishing my article about the sacramental nature of cooking.” Maybe there will be more nights like that and maybe there won’t. The feeling is not the point—the sacrifice is the point. Sacrifices are not primarily felt or understood, they are made.

Eventually, with sacrifice comes sight. I cook that I may be no longer blind.

 

 

[1] Thomas Howard. Evangelical is not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984), 153.

[2] Thomas Howard. Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 41.

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