Learning to Cook, and Why it Matters
More than just a reflection of domesticity, cooking plays a role in the flourishing of human life and in the service of others.
The first meal Chuck and I made together after we married in May of 1975 was a dinner of orange Jell-O and canned asparagus. We'd decided to be vegetarians, but had no idea how to go about it in a healthy way. At the ages of eighteen and nineteen, we knew very little about good nutrition and even less about whole foods. As a result, on our first food gathering trip to Albertson's, we simply left the meat out of the grocery cart and came home with foods that were familiar to us.
I left my mother's home knowing almost nothing about cooking, nor why it would matter to learn. Other than making cookie dough or occasionally starting the meatloaf before my mom got home from work, I was largely ignorant of the culinary arts.
My mom did her serious cooking on the weekends, and on special occasions she made perfect apple pies, mouth-watering fried chicken, and many other delights. I could have learned a great deal from her, but growing up I wasn't really interested.
As a teenager, even one about to be married, I didn't give much thought to domestic life except as a place to work against sexual stereotypes and bring my budding 1970s feminist agenda to bear. Thinking of cooking as an important skill to possess never occurred to me. I never thought about how much it could figure into the flourishing of human life and be used in the service of others.
Thankfully, for our nutritional well-being, the first house Chuck and I rented in Marysville, California, was only a few blocks away from the original site of Sunflower Natural Foods, a wonderful grocery store and lunch counter. There, we had our first taste of natural food classics such as mushroom burgers and sandwiches made with whole grain bread, jack cheese, fresh tomatoes, avocados, and sprouts. As we roamed the aisles and became acquainted with new foods, we were captured by the unending possibilities for creating good meals.
While browsing the store on one of our first visits, we picked up two small paperbacks: Diet for a Small Planet and Recipes for a Small Planet. We began learning to combine grains, legumes, seeds, and dairy products to produce complete proteins and a healthier vegetarian diet. We also started cooking from the recipes. We still have the books and our favourites from those days are dog-eared and splashed with 35-year-old food stains. We loved Egg and Soy Grit Tacos, Vegetarian Enchiladas, and Chocolate Chip Cookies made with whole wheat flour, peanuts, and sunflower seeds. One night we invited my sister and brother-in-law for dinner and cooked them one of our best dishes, Mushrooms Supreme. Resembling a heavy soufflé, it's made with mushrooms, onions, whole wheat flour, milk, and eggs. There was nothing too esoteric about the recipe, but it was not what our family was used to. We still tease our brother-in-law— meat lover that he was and is—for leaving our house and heading straight to the nearest hamburger joint!
Learning about food was part of becoming interested in the wider world and beginning a more concentrated search for meaning. We designated one portion of our bedroom as a meditation spot and furnished it with a throw rug, two large pillows, a Buddha incense holder, and an orange crate to use as a bookshelf. Our tiny library of books and magazines reflected the times as well as our growing interests. There were stacks of Ms. magazines, poetry by Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, The Whole Earth Catalogue, Tao Te Ching, and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics. We sat cross-legged on the pillows, discussing ideas and eating sautÃ©ed vegetables over brown rice, feeling the camaraderie of being together in the world with our whole lives in front of us.
As we explored the ideas and art of our culture, we went to concerts, films, poetry readings, and lectures sponsored by the National Organization for Women. We drove to San Francisco to hear the best jazz artists play at the Great American Music Hall. And we continued to experiment with food. But we were also experimenting with other things that would turn the next years increasingly dark. The recreational drinking and curiosity about drugs that had begun before our marriage grew into a lethal pattern of substance abuse. With our lives crumbling in and around us, making and enjoying food together slipped away in the chaos and selfishness of our living.
Around the sixth year of our marriage, signs of hope and new life trickled in. After a few false starts for each of us, we began a program of recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon. As the months added up, we grew healthier. Those who knew us could see it reflected in our family life. By this time we had two children: three-and-a-half-year-old Molly, and Sam, who was nearing his first birthday.
In this first year of healing, I started paying attention to food again. We had fun planting a vegetable garden and hosting our first Easter gathering, and I began learning the discipline of keeping food in the house and meals on the table. I was still very much a novice when it came to making a home, but as my eyes opened to the needs around me, I started to think it mattered.
Between caring for our family in more intentional ways and beginning the tiniest movement towards a more welcoming life, I saw the world of cooking open before me and grew intensely interested. We were living in Sacramento, very close to Corti Brothers, a specialty foods and gourmet grocery store. They had the freshest and best of everything, and shopping there was pure inspiration. I also perked up at the way people around me were doing things. I noticed simple things, like the way a friend made French toast. She added vanilla and cinnamon to the egg batter—small touches, but ones I'd never thought of. And she used pure maple syrup: a revelation!
The kids and I made friends with a strange and delightful neighbour, an older woman whose given name was Ida, but who was known as Happy. Happy concocted some odd meals in her kitchen; however, she made one thing I loved—Cheese Cookies. The taste resembled the spicy goodness of carrot cake, with a savoury hint from the cheddar cheese. I wrote the recipe down on an index card and added it to the Xeroxed recipes my mom sent from time to time.
Lifestyle of caring
Just before our seventh wedding anniversary, the spiritual awakening that started in our recovery groups blossomed into a full-blown conversion to Christianity. In response to the gospel-bearing message of a saxophone player, Chuck and I came, one after the other, into new life.
We quickly got involved in the life of our first church, and I saw something I hadn't quite seen before: a community of people who took care of each other. In this lifestyle of caring, cooking was important. The folks in our new church opened their homes for Bible studies and provided refreshments. They took meals to people in the congregation who needed it: families with new babies, households experiencing illness or grief. My cooking repertoire expanded as I joined this work. I tried new recipes and became sensitive to the unique food needs of the people we served. I learned to consider health status and age, kids or no kids, and the kind of situation that precipitated the need for food. All these things would affect the menu. I also began thinking about combinations of flavour, texture, and colour when I designed a meal meant to nourish body and soul.
One of the most life-giving authors I discovered in those early days was Edith Schaeffer. Fireworks went off in my brain when I read her books. Edith saw family life and caring for other people as an artwork. The details of caring for human life were the playground of creativity and the place where our choices were significant in communicating love. Her language captured my imagination and I began to long for good stories in our household, and to value the work that might bring them about. Throughout her writing was a strong thread: a biblical understanding that human beings are made in the image of an Artist, the Creator of all things seen and unseen. As image-bearers, we have the capacity to imagine and create in all of life for the good of people and planet. The implications were huge for any vocation or sphere of life.
But in caring for a family, along with the hospitality work to which we were slowly being called, these implications were game-changing. These truths became foundational to all our future work. And when I thought of creating our family culture, receiving others into our lives and home, creating traditions and celebrations, and meeting people's needs for comfort, deep fellowship, and aesthetic pleasure, food seemed to figure in everywhere.
As our children grew, gathering at the table became increasingly important. Because my husband's musical vocation meant long hours in the studio or on the road, we were very intentional about having dinner together as often as possible. It was a golden time for conversation between the four of us, and though it was often rushed, it was still a time set apart to nurture our family relationships. It was our time to hear about each other's day, tell whatever stories were waiting to be told, and pay attention to each other, without distraction. If there were dinner guests, our table fellowship was blessed by the addition of other people's stories.
Coinciding with an increasing need to cook was my growing interest in the creative world of the culinary arts. In the mid-1980s, I came upon my first Alice Waters cookbook. The kids and I visited our friend Kathi Riley Smith, a chef who lived and worked in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. We ate delectable cinnamon croissants on the beach, and in the evening, Kathi cooked a simple meal using fresh herbs, handmade pasta, chicken cooked to perfection, and the best produce available. I went to bed that night with the Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, and Calzone cookbook as my nighttime reading. I encountered foods I'd never heard of and cooking terms I didn't know. I was intrigued by the delicious-sounding recipes, captured by Kathi's inspiring cooking life, and curious about all the cookbooks that lined her shelves. I was eager to learn more.
I began collecting cookbooks through a book-of-the-month club. The Classic Italian Cook Book by Marcella Hazan was the first to arrive in the mail. I read it like a textbook, starting at the beginning and working my way through, trying recipes along the way. In the next years I accumulated a growing library of cookbooks, food magazines, and recipes written on scraps of paper. All of these recipes became my tools, the inspiration I turned to each week as I made menus and grocery lists to feed our family and our growing table of guests.
Art House America
In 1989, we moved our family from California to Tennessee. Within a year of living in Nashville, we bought an old country church with the purpose of beginning a ministry to the arts community and anyone else interested in developing an artful, faithful life. We called our place The Art House, and later the name Art House America became the organizational title for our non-profit work. We slowly renovated the old church and it became our home, as well as the place for all our hosting. From that point forward, cooking became even more important. Caring for people bodily, spiritually, and vocationally became a steady factor in our work.
Hospitality has always been a central theme in our Art House life and feeding people is an essential part of everything. It's been necessary in taking care of people's physical need for sustenance, but also in providing tables at which to nurture relationships. Whether it's an artist at our dinner table, several people striking up a conversation over homemade cookies at a retreat, or a quiet, one-on-one meeting over coffee and muffins, food is the anchor and the occasion to stop and attend to one another.
I've been able to use all of the cookbooks and food magazines I collected over the years in the care of those God has brought into our lives. They hold the recipes that mark our family history with scents and tastes particular to our original foursome, and continue to be cooked for and enjoyed by our children-in-law and grandchildren and the guests that fill our home. James Beard's Macaroni and Cheese became our macaroni and cheese. Marcella Hazan's Lentil Soup is still my grown son's favourite. When Thanksgiving rolls around, I get out my 1994 issue of Martha Stewart Living with the dog-eared recipe for Corn Bread Stuffing with Sage, Sun-dried Tomatoes, and Sausage. And barely a month goes by that I don't open The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook and make a double batch of granola to serve at the breakfast table when we have houseguests.
Last winter and spring, we had several batches of guests who had late evening plane arrivals—in some cases, hours past dinnertime. In mulling over how to welcome our weary travelers with food that would stay warm and fresh on the stove until they arrived, I updated a recipe for Vegetable Basil Soup from one the first cookbooks I ever bought—Sunset Easy Basics for Good Cooking. We gave up being vegetarians years ago, but along with many other Americans (thanks to food writers like Michael Pollan and documentaries like Food, Inc.), we care more and more about where our food comes from and how it's prepared. So instead of cans of broth I start with fresh stock made from pastured, organic chickens. And rather than dried basil I use fresh. Finally, to the broth and vegetables I add farm fresh pork sausage from Whole Foods Market, sliced and sautéed. With a hearty loaf of bread, this soup is the perfect answer to a late night meal meant to nourish, nurture, and communicate that our guests are thought of in advance, cared about, and welcomed.
Learning to cook has opened the door to a more flourishing life. Through cooking, I've learned to comfort, celebrate, care for the sick, create traditions, welcome loved ones and strangers, and create environments for relationships to grow. Cooking has a power that goes beyond meeting our basic need for food. Creating good food and welcoming tables speaks to the deepest parts of our being. We are created to live artfully in daily life, to need real food to nourish our bodies, to have tables at which to belong, and to have stopping places where we can know and be known.
Cooking matters because people matter. Feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger are signposts of the Christian life. There are countless opportunities and ways to live these out, but learning to cook is a good place to start.