Will work for food: the importance of food in mentoring

The breaking of bread is an integral part of mentoring relationships—shaping and moulding over great, or even ordinary meals.

April 24 th 2009

It is only by God's grace that am I not one of the 800 million people worldwide that go to bed hungry every night. Nor am I yet among the ever-growing number of unemployed. So though the title of this short reflection may appear to trivialize the hardship that many face each day when they design and display a sign that reads "Will work for food," it is not my intention to do so. Rather, I believe that the provision of food for services can have a profound and lasting impact on both the giver and the recipient. I know—I have been both.

"Mentoring" is a bit of a buzzword today, but the concept has been around for a long time. It's been defined as that "developmental relationship between a more experienced person and a less experienced person, referred to as a protégé." Someone who takes you under their wing and imparts to you their craft or calling: that's a mentor. And in my experience, that moulding and shaping of the less experienced by the more experienced is enhanced by food.

This conclusion, of course, has been coloured by my own personal experiences. I admit that I am an incurable foodie. I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to read cookbooks, even after a very large festive dinner at Christmas time. But food is important, not only for human survival—eating to live—but also for sociological, psychological, even spiritual reasons—living to eat. Margaret Visser's books, Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner, are a Canadian's testimony to this. Relationships—be they friendships, nuptials, or even the final end to relationships marked by funerals or memorial services—will be fed (pardon the pun) by the food and drink which accompanies the formal events to mark these relationships.

So we should not be surprised at the importance of food in the development of professional or personal mentoring relationships. But to prove the point, let me illustrate the role of food in two of my mentoring relationships, first as protégé and then two decades later as mentor.

Twenty years ago, as a young practising lawyer, I felt called to embark upon the academic life of law, but had neither the necessary graduate degrees, the financial wherewithal, or an entry point to make it happen as a full-time pursuit. That changed one day when one of my wife's former law professors invited me to engage in a strange but exciting project. I would do legal research for him, but as he had no research money to pay me for my labour, he would invite me to lunch. The idea of "will work for food" did not cross my mind when I agreed, but that was indeed the arrangement.

Each week on Friday, I would meet with my professor and in exchange for my research on the international law of nuclear non-proliferation, he would pick up the tab of my meal. He would always order salmon while I surfed the menu at the Halifax Club week after week, ordering something different every time. My mentorship by the learned, kind and gentle professor advanced almost imperceptibly, between the time that the food was ordered and the time that the dishes were swept away by courteous, well-dressed wait staff. One more week, one more order of salmon, one more new dish off the menu, one more lesson taught and learned.

Two decades later, I have completed graduate degrees, become a university law professor myself and lawyer at Agriculture Canada, and I now sense a longing to pass along my experience and knowledge. Still a hopeless foodie, I have oriented my studies, research and work life around agriculture and food law, particularly food labelling. So upon which unsuspecting individual might my mentoring instincts fall?

A former student in need of work and encouragement entered my life in a most unexpected way a couple of years ago. At the sandwich Sunday after a baptism at our church, I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned to see who it was, and Russell (name changed), with an inquiring look, said, "Professor Buckingham?" Life had been fickle for Russell since his student days—the triumphs of a Canadian varsity athletic championship were followed by the despair of failed relationships and the demons of addiction. Then criminal charges, and then a prison sentence.

Along his path, I learned a thing or two about the Biblical injunction to "visit those in prison." Russell survived his prison ordeal—I hope in part with the aid of my visits, letters and phone calls. While I could not feed him physically, feeding him spiritually made his "two years less a day" not only bearable, but made possible his return to the outside world with an intact faith and sense of God's purpose stamped on his life.

Now Russell is back in Ottawa and we meet every other week. I have hired him as my research assistant and while I have a modest research budget to pay him, I cannot pay the market rate for the legal research that he does in researching esoteric aspects of the legal regulation of food in Canada.

But every time we meet, we also share lunch at a different restaurant. The best fellowship and discussion we have is while we are "breaking bread" at these meals. I hope that I am passing on pearls of wisdom as we dine on Thai or Italian or Brazilian or another cuisine of the week. I trust God is using me to mentor Russell as we chat about the important things of life—the real Kingdom, a Son's sacrifice, the importance of investing in the lives of our brothers and sisters—all while we share the fellowship of a great (or even just an ordinary) meal.

I, for one, "will work for food". There is no shame in that—and there may even be a blessing.

 

Donald Buckingham is a government lawyer, law professor and author. He is currently Legal Counsel with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Ottawa. Passionate about the various aspects of agriculture and food since he was a child growing up on a Saskatchewan farm, Don has enjoyed academic, professional and personal visits around the world to teach, do research and of course, to eat. He is the co-author of Agriculure Law in Canada and is now penning Food Regulation and Law in Canada. Dr. Don lives in east Ottawa with his wife, two kids, a West Highland Terrier and one black cat. In his spare time, Don loves to cook and his next great adventure is to train to become a chef.

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