I managed to elude sleep on the plane and completed the book as I rode the skywalks through JFK airport. Reflecting on all that I’d just digested, I was thankful that I had put off reading the book for over a month – it had so much more meaning last night than it would have had in November.
The book is written by chef blogger and Christian devotee Milton Brasher-Cunningham. He writes about that which he is most passionate – food and the community that is formed around it. Each chapter features a poem as appetizer, a main course of memoirs and anecdotes, and a recipe to top it off. And despite the order, it’s still difficult at times to follow Brasher-Cunningham’s line of thought.
To be honest, I wanted to dislike this book from the first page of the preface! (the first paragraph is in dire need of a paragraph break). But the more I read, the more I warmed up to the author’s casual prose. He writes comfortably (albeit clumsily at times) as though we’re in the most natural of places for him - sitting about the dining room table.
And I was sold on his brilliance when he acknowledged his “particular way of organizing,” noting:
It’s not that I don’t know where things are, it’s just the coherence of the system is not apparent to anyone except me. My mind works much the same way: when I begin thinking about a particular idea, I pull things together across time and space;
And here’s where he – and his book – finds redemption…
Old stories become new again and find new life in connections.
Indeed, perhaps his book would not have impacted me as it did if it were written any other way. Perhaps this, in itself, was what he might describe as an important slight difference. What seemed enormous to me in that first paragraph shrank in perspective, while Brasher-Cunningham’s stories – and the heart behind them – rose like dough from the page (what is this, like, the 5th food analogy? I’m writing a review on a book about food. Deal with it!).
He uses the image of ripples to describe how each seemingly small choice, event, and conversation has a most significant impact on who we are and who we become.
I considered that any number of factors, changed ever so slightly, could have prevented the bicycle wreck I had in May 2008; that without the bike wreck, I could not have moved to NYC; that without NYC Lord knows who and where I would be today.
I considered the circumstances under which I learned of one Wild Goose Fest, an event held in North Carolina designed to explore the intersections of faith, art, and justice; how I volunteered to manage waste for the inaugural event in 2011; then I looked incredulously at the author’s photo on the rear cover of this book, recognizing the man – the fellow volunteer – who picked me up at the airport for Wild Goose that summer.
I considered how my relationships and my passions drew me toward Washington Heights; how I rambled into a Broadway storefront last year to discover a volunteer-run book store, a community center, a life raft; that a fellow volunteer there helped me find work at a coffee shop and bakery in Inwood; that I might learn how challenging it really is to wash dishes; and as I learned from a Darling baker named Tad, now I might better understand and learn from Brasher-Cunningham’s perspective.
Tad had the remarkable ability to be up and opening the shop by 4:30am every day, then preparing scones, cornbread, baguette sandwiches, cakes, quiche, Spanish omelette, bread pudding, pies (etc) for hours on end. And he did it all with a smile and a song. He had a most optimistic outlook on life and humanity, even as he wondered aloud about human propensities to violence and domination. Tad seemed to believe in the profound dynamism of being his own counter-example.
So when Brasher-Cunningham asks, “How do we incarnate the daily fidelity required to live meaningfully?” I already know the answer!
What Tad did not – could not? – prepare me for was a course in comfort food. So when he died on December 5th, just a few weeks ago and quite unexpectedly, I wasn’t sure how to swallow the news. But in Keeping the Feast we are treated to thoughts on both life and death and the food that accompanies them. As I read, I fondly remembered a memorial event that we held at Darling just ten days after Tad’s passing. He had planned to teach a gingerbread house workshop that day, so we all gathered to eat pizza, drink beer, and build gingerbread houses together.
What puts the comfort in food is the chance to re-member one another, to put ourselves back together, to see our place in the big picture, to find in the midst of the free fall of our existence the truth of God’s indefatigable tether of grace that holds us and holds on.
In another chapter, Brasher-Cunningham writes,
Stability, if not overrated, is certainly over-expected. Life is made of change. Our lives are dynamic, not static. There is no way to stand still, to stay the same. We are dynamic creatures created to negotiate this changing thing called life.
In the wake of losing our head baker, these sentiments are quite the understatement. But we at Darling have had to move on, to keep headed forward. For my own part, I’ve refocused on what God has for me in NYC. But not without still more disappointment.
Back in mid November I interviewed to join NYC Teaching Fellows, a program that puts wannabe teachers through eight weeks of training and plugs them right into the public school system, also subsidizing their tuition to obtain a master’s degree in education. I eagerly awaited word of my status, confident that I would excel in this sort of position. And on December 20th I finally received the word. Nuh-uh.
My favorite dishwasher… was short, tenacious, and unflappable in his happiness regardless of how the dishes stacked up.
I continue washing dishes.
We may not be able to control much of the situations we walk into, yet we can determine how we will leave things when we depart.
I enjoy my work at Darling and I think it’s important (more on this in the next entry), but I also know that there’s something more for me, for my neighborhood, for my future. I don’t know what it is but I will continue to lean into God, washing each dish with love in my heart and a dance in my step; and enjoying the company of co-laborers and friends – and the food we share – along the way.
This would certainly be Brasher-Cunningham’s exhortation for me, for all of us. After all, you build a life the way you build a soup, “tweaking ingredients as you go, changing the recipe, and adding in the flavors around you.”
Let's make some good soup together.