food, for a change


    This coming weekend is Fall Break at Duke, something universities have added since I was in school. The students get an extra two days off next week, which means I do, too. The short break is a natural segue to a new menu for the restaurant, and a chance to try some new things.

    The prospect of a new menu also raises the question of why we need one. We’ve had a slow start this year. I’ve gotten to know a good number of regular customers who come in to eat quite often, yet we are not doing the kind of business we need to do. My reasons for making up a new menu go farther than just hoping for more customers, however. We work hard to use seasonal vegetables and fruit, so it’s time to say goodbye to tomatoes and hello to root vegetables. I’m also ready to cook some different things, though that, on it’s own, is not reason enough for change.

    I think there’s a second question that rises up: what kind of change do we need?

    Last night I was talking with two of our regulars who, when told about the coming change, said, “Don’t change the salmon.” She was happy for a new menu as long as we didn’t take away her favorite fish. As I thought about her comment later, I wondered how different the view of change is from the dining room as opposed to the kitchen. I’m thinking produce and process and she’s thinking food on the plate.

    Oh – I’m now to a third question: what passes for change?

    Is it really change if I simply trade in the vegetables for one season for those that naturally come next? If I still serve salmon, but this time with potatoes rather than risotto, have I done a new thing, or simply repackaged what was already there? When I move from the light dishes of summer to the comfort foods of winter, Is that change or just the natural progression of things? Is “We should do something different” automatically synonymous with substantive change?

    I know. I’m moving out of the kitchen and into a larger room.

    Some years back I became acquainted with a magazine called DoubleTake, which was founded by Robert Coles, among others. It was a wonderful mix of art and thought and culture and conversation. Unfortunately, it went out of publication a couple of years back. Before it did, it ran an interview of Bruce Springsteen by Will Percy, Walker Percy’s grandson. The connection was that Springsteen had corresponded with the elder Percy when the singer (and the author, I suppose) had been much younger. The interview brought things full circle. One of the exchanges stays with me and came back to mind as I began writing:

    WP: Do you think pop culture can still have a positive effect?

    BS: Well, it’s a funny thing. When punk rock music hit in the late 1970s, it wasn’t played on the radio, and nobody thought, Oh yeah, that’ll be popular in 1992 for two generations of kids. But the music dug in, and now it has a tremendous impact on the music and culture of the nineties. It was powerful, profound, music and it was going to find a way to make itself heard eventually. So I think there’s a lot of different ways of achieving the kind of impact that most writers and filmmakers, photographers, musicians want their work to have. It’s not always something that happens right away-the “Big Bang”!

    With the exception of certain moments in the history of popular culture, it’s difficult to tell what has an impact anymore, and particularly now when there’s so many alternatives. Now, we have the fifth Batman movie! I think about the part in the essay “The Man on the Train” where your uncle talks about alienation. He says the truly alienated man isn’t the guy who’s despairing and trying to find his place in the world. It’s the guy who just finished his twentieth Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novel. That is the lonely man! That is the alienated man! So you could say, similarly, the guy who just saw the fifth Batman picture, he’s the alienated man. But as much as anyone, I still like to go out on a Saturday night and buy the popcorn and watch things explode, but when that becomes such a major part of the choices that you have, when you have sixteen cinemas and fourteen of them are playing almost exactly the same picture, you feel that something’s going wrong here. And if you live outside a major metropolitan area, maybe you’re lucky if there’s a theater in town that’s playing films that fall slightly outside of those choices.

    There’s an illusion of choice that’s out there, but it’s an illusion, it’s not real choice. I think that’s true in the political arena and in pop culture, and I guess there’s a certain condescension and cynicism that goes along with it — the assumption that people aren’t ready for something new and different.

    We, as Americans, don’t do much to dispel the cynicism Springsteen articulated. We appear to be poster children for the path of least resistance, or at least the path of convenience, or the path of I’m-going-to-do-what’s-good-for-me-period. I wonder if that’s who we really are, or who we play on TV. Conventional wisdom says ife is usually easier when we know what to expect.

    Now we’re back to defining terms and asking questions: What do we mean by easier? Is easier really the point?

    The menu of faith offers us the vocabulary we need to change in ways that are nourishing and substantive: repentance, conversion, new creation. The sad irony is, in many cases, those are not the words we choose. We, as people of faith, have bought into the convenience and cynicism of the culture and are starving and stagnating. We need more and we need to offer more to our world than the same redundant and ridiculous rhetoric that passes for cultural conversation. We are called to more profound words and actions than the level of discourse promoted by most of our media.

    Now I’m stating the obvious.

    Let me try it another way. We belong to a God who is the source of creation and creativity, of nourishment and nuance, of community and connectedness. We are called to love the world – to feed the world – with all the resources available in the divine pantry, and with all the imagination that can grow out of our conversations.

    As I work on my menu for the restaurant, I’m working to remember the girl that wants the salmon to stay, asking questions of the other chefs, and scouring for menu ideas anywhere I can. The point of the change is to better meet my mission, if you will, to stand (to paraphrase Frederich Buechner) in the intersection of what I most want to cook and what the folks most want to eat.

    It’s a moving target, calling me to live in a state of change.

    Life, on a larger scale, feels much the same way.



    1. Well, yes, and insert that… church life metaphor. The person who only wants to sing Amazing Grace (or, Lord I Lift Your Name on High)… that is the alienated person, perhaps.

      Church revitalization/ redevelopment/ transformation is largely about being able to respond to the context in which we find ourselves. Since the context is ever changing… you see where I’m going. Imagine a winter menu that was all fresh tomatoes and basil… that menu would be out of touch with the real world that exists outside the windows of the restaurant.

      Thank you Milton. As ever, so thoughtful and helpful.

    2. Milton: I heard a radio broadcast about a unique restaurant the other day and thought of you. Have you heard of the SAME Cafe in Denver? If not, you should take a listen. It’s from the ELCA radio show Grace Matters. Here’s the link, if you’re interested:

      Thanks again for a great thought on work and change.

    3. This was one of the most effective and inspiring pieces of writing pertinent to my role at my church that I’ve read in a long time.


      I’m thinking.

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