I’m now deep into Barbara Kingsolver’s new memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and have been fed so many wonderful things that I’m struggling to know how to write about them. I have three or four things bouncing around in my head, so I’m going to try and blend them into something both interesting and nourishing, like a good recipe.
The first ingredient is this story of hers about “saving” time:
When I was in college, living two states away from my family, I studied the map one weekend and found a different route home from the one I usually traveled. I drove back to Kentucky the new way, which did turn out to be faster. During my visit I made sure all of my relatives heard about the navigational brilliance that saved me thirty-seven minutes.
“Thirty-seven,” my grandfather mused. “And here you just used up fifteen of them telling all about it. What’s your plan for the other twenty-two?”
Good question. I’m still stumped for an answer, whenever the religion of time-saving pushes me to zip through a meal or a chore, rushing everybody out the door to the next point on a schedule. (124)
Why is it that life feels harder to live with now that I have any number of time-saving devices. I used to lose time waiting for phone calls, or talking on the phone unable to multitask because the cord was too short. I typed my term papers without spell check; I went to the library to look up stuff on the card catalog. I reheated and thawed foods without a microwave. I got letters in the mail that were actually something other than credit card applications and notifications of what I might have won. Though I’m also quite grateful for answering machines, cell phones, and wifi, none of them has helped us use our time in a more meaningful way. They’ve trained us to believe that life is 24/7/365, that we are indispensable, and we have to keep moving. Granddad’s question stumps us all: what’s our plan?
Perhaps we could use the extra minutes to sit down for a meal.
If I were to define my style of feeding my family, on a permanent basis, by the dictum, “Get it over with, quick,” something cherished in our family would collapse. And I’m not just talking about waistlines, though we’d miss those. I’m discussing dinnertime, the cornerstone of our family’s mental health. If I had to quantify it, I’d say 75 percent of my crucial parenting effort has taken place during or surrounding the time our family convenes for our evening meal. I’m sure I’m not the only parent to think so. A survey of National Merit scholars – exceptionally successful eighteen-year-olds crossing all lines of ethnicity, gender, geography, and class – turned up a common thread in their lives: the habit of sitting down to a family dinner table. It’s not just the food making them brilliant. It’s probably the parents – their care, priorities, and culture of support. The words, “I’ll expect you home for dinner.” (125-26)
Meal times matter a great deal to me. (In the early days of the blog, I wrote about them here and here.) I love preparing the meal and sitting around our table as long as folks will stay and I love going out to eat with folks when the point is to be together. One of the not-so-subtle messages of Communion for me is “the congregation that eats together grows together.” Though the message is clear, we mostly miss it. Ginger and I keep imagining congregations who would intentionally decide that committees could only meet one night a month – all of them on the same night – so people could have time to get together for something other than institutional reasons, or not have to miss another family dinner because of another church meeting.
When church is That Place We Go On Sunday and our jobs are The Place We Go Everyday, and meals are What We Do On The Way To The Next Thing, life turns into a train of barely connected compartments in a runaway train. When suppertime connects to scholastics and church to companionship, poetry sneaks in like the aroma of a fresh baked pie, making room for rest, filling our souls, and reminding us living as though we are enough and we are together is a quotidian exercise, rather than a quixotic one.
The connections are crucial.
Modern psychologists generally agree, noting that workers will build a better car when they participate in the whole assembly rather than just slapping on one bolt, over and over, all the tedious livelong day. In the case of modern food, our single-bolt job has become the boring act of poking the thing in our mouths, with no feeling for any other stage of the process. It’s a pretty obvious consequence that one should care little about the product. When I ponder the question of why Americans eat so much bad food on purpose, this is my best guess: alimentary alienation. We can’t feel how or why it hurts. We’re dying for an antidote.
If you ask me, that’s reason enough to keep a kitchen at the center of a family’s life, as a place to understand favorite foods as processes, not just products. It’s the prime motivation behind our vegetable garden, our regular baking of bread, and other experiments that ultimately become routines. Our cheese-making for example. (131)
First, of course, I have to get this out of my system: blessed are the cheese makers.
In two working days, my package of cheese-making supplies will arrive and I will begin my attempt at mozzarella, ricotta, and – eventually – cheddar and friends. When Ginger learns I have a recipe for queso blanco, a white Mexican cheese used in chile con queso, I know I’ll be making that regularly. I can already taste the salad of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes from the garden, and basil picked from the window box, even though the tomatoes are weeks away.
And while I wait for the tomatoes to grow and the cheese to cure (is that the right word?), or even for dinner to finish cooking, I’ll be saving time: redeeming time, that is. How did Isaiah put it? “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.”
Ah, yes: blessed are the cheese makers.