faith and phyllo


    One morning this week, as Ginger and I were eating breakfast and getting ready to go to work, Martha Stewart was on the Today Show showing how to make some nifty Thanksgiving dishes. One of the things she showed Meredith Vierra how to make was a Sweet Potato Soufflé Pie. She made it all look not only easy but effortless. Here’s the thing: it wasn’t.

    I understand the time constraints of live television, but what she did in about seven minutes takes hours of preparation and a fair amount of expertise. A look at the recipe gives a clue to what one is in for: bake the potatoes for an hour and fifteen minutes; put them through a ricer (yeah, everyone has one of those) and let them cool completely (another hour); mix in the other stuff; heat the milk and fresh ginger and then strain it through a “fine mesh sieve” (got that, too?); line the Springform pan with the phyllo dough, piece by piece, brushing it with butter (trust me, phyllo isn’t that easy to handle); mix in the egg whites; pour the mixture into the phyllo; cook for fifty minutes; and let stand another twenty before serving.

    She never said a word about spending close to three hours making the soufflé. She never warned that working with phyllo dough will turn you into a serial killer (cereal killer?). She just kept pulling bowls and pans with stuff already done from underneath the counter as if that’s how it happens in everyone’s kitchen. I came away from the segment feeling as though the point was not to make me think I could make the soufflé (and I cook for a living!), but that I would notice how much better she was in the kitchen than I am. She was promoting herself, not teaching me.

    My friend Billy’s dad was brilliant when it came to most all things having anything to do with computers and engineering. He had a problem solver’s mind and he was brilliant on top of that. At his funeral, the recurring theme had to do with how he responded when you went to him with something he knew how to do and you did not. Rather than impress you with his expertise, or fix whatever was wrong so he could get back to what he was doing, he would ask questions: what do you think is wrong? what do you think we should do? have you considered this? Before long, not only was the problem solved, but you had learned something knew without feeling stupid. What a gift.

    I was pretty good at math until the second semester of my junior year, when we moved from Accra, Ghana to Houston, Texas. My Algebra II teacher was Ms. Gibbs; she was impatient and I was lost. The pivotal day, as I remember it, came when I raised my hand to ask a question about something and she said, after hearing my question, “I don’t have time for stupid questions.” I never took another math class, even though I placed out of my BA math requirement at Baylor because of my ACT scores. Whatever affinity I had for math she ran down and left as intellectual road kill.

    I majored in history.

    I’m a cook because of the way my mother taught in her kitchen. I was always an inquisitive kid and the kitchen was the best room of belonging in our house, wherever we were living at the time. While we were talking and she was cooking, I would ask, “What are you making?” She would answer by inviting me to help. The next time she was making the same thing, she would say, “You watched me do this the other day; you make it this time,” and before long I felt like it was my kitchen, too.

    Much of what passes for Christian rhetoric in the public (and, I suppose, private) arena is not good teaching because it begins from the vantage point of “Let me tell you where you’re wrong.” Condescension is not a good conduit for grace. We can’t look down our noses at people in Jesus’ name and expect them to knock us over trying to get through the church doors. Jan Edmiston has a great post on “Radical Hospitality” that’s points out the incongruity between God’s expansive love and the exclusionary actions of some Christian groups. Those who are being labeled as sinful, and thus unworthy, are going to be as excited about finding hope in Jesus’ name as I would be about taking another class with Ms. Gibbs. If church is not a place for broken hearts, searching souls, and stupid questions, what’s left?

    We make following Jesus sound as complicated as a Martha Stewart recipe. The path of discipleship is difficult but not complicated. It’s difficult because of its call to intentionality to love God with all of our beings and to love our neighbors – the smart, the stupid, and the sinful – as ourselves – who are also the smart, the stupid, and the sinful. It’s difficult because we are called to be encouragers, not experts. It’s difficult because Christ leads us more with questions than with answers – oh, and that line about “Love everyone as I have loved you.”

    As I get ready to prepare Thanksgiving Dinner, I like reading through Food & Wine and seeing what newfangled versions of old standards they have created. Martha’s soufflé looked good despite all the grief I’ve given her. What I’ll end up making are not new things but favorite things. Everyone coming to dinner has at least one particular dish they want on the table, from sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows to Refrigerator Rolls to canned cranberry sauce. The point is not for me to prove I can cook fancy stuff but to create a table that makes everyone feel a place was created just for them. I love cooking all of it, and opening the can of cranberry sauce, because I’m cooking for family.

    I watch Ginger do the same thing as she plans worship each week and works with the various committees in the church. We talk a lot about making people, both new folks and old timers, feel welcome and at home. It’s hard work and she makes us all feel like we can do it, like faith is easier than phyllo dough.



    1. What a beautiful essay, Milton.
      My former husband was, long ago, an editorial assistant at Martha Stewart’s publisher. He learned that the recipes in her books were never quite completely correct; therefore it is literally true that we will not be able to get the same outcome. I’m sure the TV presentations are similar.

    2. Nice. And folding in the prep of worship and the meal at the end…it is so true.

      I like cornbread dressing. In Wyoming we always called it stuffing and my southern in-laws have made it holiday ritual teasing me about it.

      And the next day sandwich! Bread, mayo, a thin spread of corn-bread dressing, turkey, a spread of gravy and a wee bit of cranberry sauce. It’s like a love sandwich.

    3. Great post, Milton. Warm, comfortable, challenging. I’m sure your family and friends will be blessed to sit at the Thanksgiving table you prepare.
      Bill Hill

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