One of the summertime specialties at the Red Lion Inn, as in a lot of New England coastal restaurants, are Steamers. For the uninitiated, they are clams. We get ours from nearby Duxbury Bay and prepare them by boiling them in a mixture of white wine, clam juice, and rosemary. They are boiled until they open up and then served in the broth with clarified butter and garlic bread.
I bring them up because they also take some instruction to eat properly. When you take one out of the pot, it has a black tail hanging out of the shell. When you pull on the tail, the black skin comes off and you can pull the whole clam, both belly and tail, out of the shell to dip in the butter and eat. I had some with friends the other night at dinner and, as I watched them eat the steamers my mind flashed back to a recurring thought I have in similar situations: how did someone ever decide to eat a steamer the first time?
I was in Quincy Market years ago, which is a haven for street performers, and watched a guy juggle chainsaws. They were running at the time. I wondered then how he ever did that the first time, or practiced without ending up with a nickname like “Stumpy” or “Nub.” When the first person jumped out of an airplane, was he halfway down before he thought, “I should have invented the parachute first”?
Working with food offers many opportunities to ponder the question. Who was the first person, when they saw an egg drop out of a chicken’s butt, to think, “I should eat that”? What other animal droppings did they try before they found one that worked? Trial and error – perhaps trial and success – has to be involved. When I start trying to put new ingredients together, or I begin to think about how to prepare a dish, I lean into the history and experience of the cooks who have come before me and have stood staring at the ingredients in front of them, trying to figure out what to make for dinner. I have the luxury of following those who went first, those who gave it their best shot and then said, “OK, don’t do that again.” My seminary preaching professor used to say, “Being original means knowing how to hide your sources.” The truth is when I think of something for the first time, it’s a first for me but rarely is it a first for the universe. I owe much to those who have come before me.
Elaine Pagels has a wonderful book called Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. It has nothing to do with cooking, but it has much to do with how faith gets passed down, as she notes “Christianity had survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations – even centuries – before Christians formulated what they believed into creeds” (5). Faith has been passed down the years not by institutions but by individuals who lived, ate and worshipped together: “These simple everyday acts – taking off clothes, bathing, putting on new clothes, then sharing bread and wine – took on, for Jesus’ followers, powerful meanings” (14). My experience in faith is much like my experience with food: what is new to me is rarely new to the universe. I have learned about being faithful much like I learned to eat steamers: by watching and imitating.
Part of Pagels’ point is the variety we see in modern day theology has been there from the start, just as someone mixed coconut, pecans, and chicken long before I did. But imagination and originality are not the same thing. I don’t have to be the first one to ever think of something to be creative. We do our best work when we are mindful of what we have been given and what we have been taught and then we take the pieces and shape them into our own expression, which is both imaginative and full of history.