Such was the case with a new book called Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist. I just finished the book today and loved every sentence of it. Shauna, if possible, loves food even more than I do. It was a comfort to read the book and know that I'm not the only one in the world whose love of food veers towards obsessive. (Just ask my friend who went with me to Trader Joe's yesterday.) Better than that, Shauna grounds food and meals solidly in the living out of a faithful Christian life. You don't have to be a foodie to do this. In fact, I have a friend who hates cooking. But when it was her turn to host the Children's Ministry Committee from church, she made us a wonderful waffle, bacon and egg meal. Whether or not she enjoyed putting it together, there's no doubt that the meal unified us and prepared us for the discussion and prayer portion of our meeting.
Bread and Wine is full of stories from Shauna's life. Most of the stories were things I could relate to whole-heartedly and have experienced numerous times in cooking: spontaneity, inconvenience, unexpected mistakes and successes both, meaningful conversation, working-with-what-you-have meals, and simple, memory-evoking pleasures. Shauna also made it clear that it's okay for meals prepared for other people to be flawed. Perfection isn't the goal; fellowship is. I was comforted by this. I've often had friends over for dinner and have been more concerned with how something I cooked turned out than with the people at my table. Besides, what's life without a little imperfection anyway? It's why we try again (and again and again).
I always have cooking experiences from which I can draw useful spiritual lessons. One in particular stands out from recent weeks: making baklava with my friend Janie. She was making two trays of baklava for two different events, and I'd always wanted to make it. I came over to her house one Wednesday evening, and we got to work. After melting something like seven sticks of butter, we unrolled bundles of filo dough, impossibly thin and delicate. Following the complex instructions carefully, we layered the filo dough and brushed it liberally with the melted butter. Every once in a while, we'd spread a pecan-sugar mixture in between the layers. In the middle of the directions, we realized that we were going to run out of filo dough. Fortunately, mishap though it was, no one will ever know that we used 20 sheets of filo instead of 30.
When all the layers were assembled, it took us a good 15 minutes to score the baklava into narrow diamonds, so the honey-sugar syrup could soak into every crevice. By this time, it was nearly 9 PM, and I had to work the next morning, so I didn't get to help Janie complete the baklava. However, at work the next day, I had a visitor stop by with a package:
Biting into the honey-soaked squares of baklava made the work of the night before worth it. Actually, I take that back. Walking around my office and sharing squares of the baklava with my co-workers made it worth it. It was seeing my co-workers' eyes light up and hearing the crackle of the baked filo dough as they took a bite that made the often inconvenient work of making the baklava worth the effort. It's a tactile way of connecting one person to another. It's a blessed sharing and receiving.
Shauna writes: "This is what I want you to do: I want you to tell someone you love them, and dinner's at six. I want you to throw open your front door and welcome the people you love into the inevitable mess with hugs and laughter. I want you to light a burner on the stove, to chop and stir and season with love and abandon...Gather the people you love around your table and feed them with love and honesty and creativity. Feed them with your hands and the flavors and smells that remind you of home and beauty and the best stories you've ever heard, the best stories you've ever lived."
All I can say to that is: "Amen!" Go and do likewise.