In some people’s thinking cuisine is ranked on the lower end of the scale of “the arts”—five star restaurants notwithstanding. Unlike other disciplines, cooking is something that virtually anyone can do at some level, although to do it well requires learning and practice; to do it extremely well in the marketplace requires disciplined training and years of grueling work. Rather than an apology for cuisine as art, what follows is a redemptive-artistic reflection on food and cooking.
A lost grace
When our three children were in their mid-to-late teens, we were living in Colorado in a modernist-style home that was often full of their friends. One afternoon the family room was alive with laughter, music, and the passionate voices of high school students rising through the stairway into the kitchen. I was beginning to think about dinner, which I don’t plan days in advance unless it’s a special occasion. It was late summer, so school had just started and homework was easy to put off—of course everyone would stay for dinner.
To satisfy the hungry crowd I decided the menu was to be pasta for twelve, a big salad, and lots of garlic bread. Some of Rachel’s friends wandered into the kitchen as I was making the bread dough. Stephen was putting together the ingredients for the pasta. When they saw that the bread, the pasta and the sauce were not coming out of pre-packaged boxes and bottles, but were all being made from raw ingredients, they seemed almost disoriented. At the same time they were enticed by the sharp-sweet scent of garlic, tomatoes, and herbs in hot extra-virgin olive oil. A mound of flour sat on the work-top ready to be transformed into pasta dough. The smells, and the time of day drew them into the kitchen in the first place, but the novelty of seeing food prepared from scratch can only be explained by the fact that the busyness in our culture is turning home cooking into a lost art.
With his usual enthusiasm, Stephen invited the spectators to help, showing them how to mix up pasta dough. David, our son, stepped in to take over rolling out and cutting the dough into fettuccine through the hand-cranked pasta machine. He was eager to show how fun and easy it was. Making pasta is simple but artistically impressive. In a few short minutes one goes from having a pile of flour, eggs, and olive oil to long smooth strands of fresh pasta hanging on drying racks to keep it from sticking together, ready for the pot of boiling water. From their reactions you would have thought we were performing magic. We were doing what we ordinarily do.
Before long the bread was baking in the oven releasing its warm, yeasty aroma. The sauce was simmering on the stove top, and the lettuce was washed, drained and torn bite-sized. All that remained was to whisk up a fresh salad dressing and set the table. I never hesitate to put everyone to work, so I asked a couple of the girls to take on that job. We gathered up the cutlery, plates, napkins and glasses and headed to the dining room where I left them to it. After a few minutes I went back to check on the girls’ progress and discovered neither had a clue how to set a table properly. All the cutlery was in the wrong place and the napkins on the wrong side. I was surprised that what seemed elementary to me was something that had never been taught in their homes. Using the occasion to teach the basics of table-setting, I spoke up. “The plate goes in front of the chair; the napkin goes on the left of the plate, folded; the salad and dinner forks go on top of it. The salad fork goes on the outside since salad is eaten first, and then nearest the plate is the dinner fork. On the other side of the plate the spoon goes on the outside since the soup or pasta course come before the main course, so nearest the plate goes your knife. The water glass goes on the person’s right hand, and the salad plate goes on their left.” I told them that how a table is set not only communicates aesthetically, it also tells a story if you know the signals: if a spoon or fork is at the top of the plate it says, “there’s dessert.” They got it right and seemed happy to learn how to do set the stage for an act in which they would soon be among the players.
Over the next several years similar scenes often played out in our home. I marveled at how little these orphans of success knew about preparing food, creating an inviting table setting, or how to use knives, forks and spoons. It is sad how foreign it is to sit unhurriedly, to eat lovingly crafted food attentively, and to have a meaningful, personal conversation during the meal. What we considered to be the usual way for families to connect was exceedingly rare. Many of our younger friends ate alone, at no particular time, and usually in front of the television. When we offer food thoughtfully and with respect, caring for and honoring those present at our table, it creates an atmosphere where sharing, laughing, and relating happens naturally. Offering our hospitality is a medium of grace that opens hearts to deeper things. It is a simple way of loving.
So, how can you begin to develop the confidence to plan and prepare a meal for the people God brings into your life? 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. Plan ahead how to serve your soup and sandwich or cheese. Clear the clutter from the table and set it with the necessary cutlery and napkins. Use a casual tablecloth. Don’t try to be fancy or presumptuous—that is not what you are looking for. You are creating a space that is warm and inviting: a place that feels safe for a person who needs safety in relationship. Warm the soup bowls and plates if you are serving something hot. Place the cheese, unwrapped, around the cutting board with knives for cutting the cheeses, and let the cheese come to room temperature. Put your bread or crackers in a basket lined with a napkin, or on a platter. Maybe cut up an apple, or a pear, or place some grapes on another plate. This is so simple and yet so appealing to a friend.
At the table set a tone that says, “this is a place to linger.” Ask those at your table about their day, or what are they reading. Listen for clues to what makes them laugh, or makes them angry or frustrated. Nothing gets a conversation going like showing interest in someone and being willing to listen. If you have a friend who won’t open up, you can talk about your day and what you are reading. As you talk you will be demonstrating how to have a meaningful conversation around a table without the distractions that usually hold our attention and keep us from touching each other’s lives. Obviously (or maybe not in our day) in place of the television, turn on pleasant music (at a non-intrusive volume). The focus of this art of the table is more than the food: it is the restoration of your soul and the souls of those who join you at your table.
Theologian Meredith Kline has observed that the Sabbath was “a celebration of a completed divine work.” This is highly suggestive to us: when we sit down to a meal having just completed the work of preparation, we then enter into a celebration-rest together at the table where there is both food to nourish our bodies and fellowship to revive our souls. In this way every meal is a still life, in real time and space, of the convergence of God’s creative and redemptive acts, even if this is not overtly explained with words in a blessing or a conversation. The complex array of tastes, colors, textures, and smells in which we participate around the table rise out of the wisdom, wonder and variety of God’s creative acts. The table fellowship is a foretaste of full redemption when Christ’s finished work culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb, at which we will sit and enjoy the finest of friends, good aged wine and the best of foods. Friends of food recognize Isaiah 25 as a notable description of the feast of redemption, where, as in Babette’s Feast, earthly scruples will be swallowed up, utterly outstripped by God’s lavish display of love and artistry for his children.
Assuming that our table is seated with friends we’ve made who may not share our deepest convictions, these ideas may not make sense to them. It may take several times sitting at table together before our friends respect and trust us enough to ask questions. Or for us to have a chance to explain. However, we have never felt timid about raising a glass of wine or lifting up the plate, and with simple gratitude and joy, extolling the Creator, who celebrated his creative power and genius by resting and blessing his handiwork, and who invites us to come and eat of the bread of life that he gives. And we don’t recall any expectant mother or anxious student decline our request to pray for them as we pray before a meal.
Our experience as we have cooked together and learned about food have also brought an increasing sense of awe and wonder in the Creator. For the nearly infinite diversity of his gifts of taste and smell, color and texture, combinations of which he has filled his world. All of it has moved our hearts and caused us to take delight in the simple sharing of food and table fellowship—a gift of God.
Steve has a stirring memory (no pun intended) of Karen cooking one day, entirely absorbed in her medium; all her senses engaged—the sight of food browning, the sound as its moisture content changed, smelling, tasting, and touching the food the way she always does. This day she mused quietly: “When I cook, it is worship.”
Basic Pasta Dough
2 1/2 to 3 cups flour
3 large eggs
1/2-teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Mound 1 1/2 cups of the flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs and the olive oil. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and oil and begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well.
As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up from the base of the mound to retain the well shape. The dough will come together when half of the flour is incorporated.
Start kneading the dough with both hands, using the palms of your hands. Once you have a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up and discard any leftover bits. Lightly flour the board and continue kneading for 6 more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature. Roll or shape as desired.
Basic Tomato Sauce
1/4-cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled & sliced thin
2-inch sprig of fresh basil- stem and leaves
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes
Salt & fresh ground pepper
Splash of balsamic vinegar
1 pat (1/2 tablespoon) butter
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until soft then add the basil. Next add the tomatoes and juice leaving the tomatoes whole for now season with salt and pepper. Let simmer for about 30 minutes. Now break up the tomatoes with a wood spoon add the balsamic vinegar and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat correct the seasonings and add torn fresh basil leaves and the pat of butter. Serve over fresh pasta with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Yield: 4 cups
Choose a mixture of lettuce of your choice or one of the mixtures available in most good grocery stores. Avoid lettuce sold in plastic bags, they are often not fresh and have picked up the smell of the plastic.
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
1/2-teaspoon grainy mustard
Salt & freshly ground pepper
5-6 tablespoons good quality olive oil
Wash and dry the salad leaves. Gently tear the lettuce into bite size pieces.
In a salad bowl, mix the vinegar, honey, salt & pepper together with a whisk. Next slowly whisk in the olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning.
Place the lettuce gently on top of the dressing and toss just before serving.