The beginning of the school year has meant a move for me. I’m back at Duke, as the chef for a restaurant my boss contracts to run on the Duke campus. We are open Monday to Thursday nights, and then I still work Sunday nights at the restaurant where I worked this summer. I like being able to be a part of both places. The Duke restaurant was a new venture last year and I came on board in January. By the end of the school year, we began to get a pretty good idea of what we needed to do to really make it work. The restaurant is the nicest place on campus for students (or anyone else) to eat dinner. As Ginger says, “We never had a place on campus with salmon and sirloin and linen tablecloths and beer and wine.” And they can use their meal plan points to boot.
Last year, I worked from two until about ten, Sunday through Thursday. This year, my Sunday nights run until eleven because the other restaurant is open later, and, because my chef wants me to be a part of what happens at lunch in the same room at Duke (primarily a faculty restaurant), my days begin at eleven, rather than two, but still aren’t over until after nine o’clock. When I factor in the time I spend at home dealing with work email or refining recipes or doing other administrative tasks, I’m up to close to sixty hours a week.
I love to cook. I love what I’m getting to do at Duke. I get to come up with the menu, design how the dishes should taste and look, go out into the dining room and get to know some of the students who eat with us regularly, and hone my skills as a chef. When I’m at work, I’m not conscious of time. I get lost in the making and serving of the meals. I’m doing what I most love to do.
And I know doing it sixty hours a week is no way to live. Something’s got to give.
On our trip to Texas, I had time to read. One of the books I picked up was Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal by Margaret Visser. Though the book was published in 1986, it was new to me. Visser begins with the idea of a simple meal – corn on the cob with butter and salt, roast chicken with rice, salad dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, and ice cream – and then, as a self-described “anthropologist of everyday life,” tells more than you could ever imagine about each of the ingredients in the meal. She spends fifty-five pages on corn alone. Here’s part of what she has to say:
Corn, beans, and squash are as constantly wedded in Indian cooking today as they were in the past. . . And always they added ash: burnt hickory or the ash of some other wood, ot the roasted and crushed shells of mussels they had eaten, or (as in modern Ecuador) they burnt shells of land snails. All this was sheer tradition: corn, beans, and squash with a pinch of ash in every pot. Only very recently have scientists fully grasped the wisdom of the Indians’ behavior. Corn, we now know, is about 10 percent protein, but is deficient in the amino acids lycene and tryptophan, which people must get from food. In addition, although corn contains the vitamin niacin, almost all of it occurs in a “bound” form called niacytin, which makes it biologically unavailable to human beings. Corn, in other words, cannot feed people adequately if it is not supplemented by other foods, and beans and squash are excellent complements to corn. The holy threesome, in fact, enabled corn to be consumed as a staple. Wherever the rule has been broken, and corn eaten without the correct supplements, the consequences have been disastrous: outbreaks of pellagra and kwashiorkor, the agonizing diseases of nutrition deficiency. (32) (emphasis added)
Let me pull out the highlighted part, so you can see it as clearly, I hope, as it jumped out at me.
Corn, in other words, cannot feed people adequately if it is not supplemented by other foods, and beans and squash are excellent complements to corn. The holy threesome, in fact, enabled corn to be consumed as a staple. Wherever the rule has been broken, and corn eaten without the correct supplements, the consequences have been disastrous.
One of the central quotes we used at the retreat on vocation was Buechner’s definition of vocation: the place where your greatest joy and the world’s deepest need intersect. As best I can read my spiritual GPS, I’m pretty close to that intersection. I would like to be feeding folks who needed the food more than I am, (I’m working on that) and I have a strong sense of calling and peace about doing what I’m doing where I’m doing it. Coming from a family of fairly intentional workaholics and having spent a lot of time and energy trying to learn a different way to look at life and work other than burning out for Jesus, I struggle to heed the traffic signal in my vocational intersection that tells me to stop and rest, or to go do something else that feeds me, such as spend time with Ginger or write or read or head for the gym.
Visser’s brief history of corn caught me because, even though corn was the crop that spread around the world once the Europeans learned of it from the Native Americans, it isn’t enough all on its own. In her history I found metaphor: work, even work I see as my spiritual vocation, doesn’t have the spiritual nutrition to sustain me all by itself. My life has to have its share of beans and squash if I am to be the human being I was created to be.
Human being, as someone else noted long ago, not human doing.
The days ahead, for me, are ones of discernment, working to figure out how to balance the recipe of my life so I am nurtured and sustained and I nurture and sustain those who matter most to me. Part of the task for me will be drawing some boundaries around my job and sticking to them, which doesn’t come easily for me (see earlier comment about workaholics). Part of it will be making sure how I actually spend my time matches with what I say matters most to me. Ginger deserves more than the dregs of my day; so do I. I’m not in a crisis, but I am aware that the recipe of my life isn’t quite right. And a good cook knows if something doesn’t taste right you change the recipe.