Every so often, I come across a Cheers episode on television. For all the years between now and the days when it set my Thursday night schedule, the show holds up pretty well. My favorite scene is Norm walking in and heading to his usual perch.
Woody: How are you doing, Mr. Peterson?
Norm: Woody, it’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing Milkbone underwear.
What has weathered time the best is the theme song:
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name
and they’re always glad you came
you want to go where people know
their troubles are all the same you want to go
where everybody knows your name
The song holds up because it’s true, or at least it’s true for me. I love feeling like I belong. Friday night, my friend Lindsey and I went out to celebrate the Fall Festival of the Durham Chapter of the Pastoral Partners’ Support Group (the New England Chapter is chaired by my friend Doug, now in Mystic CT) since our partners, Ginger and Carla, were away on a church trip. Lindsey has been great about taking me to places in Durham I’ve yet to go, so we ended up at Bull McCabes, a great little Irish pub downtown. While we were eating and talking, two people I know – that’s right, TWO – stopped by the table to say hi.
Two people. In a bar I had never been in before.
“It’s how you know you’re home,” Lindsey said.
And it’s why I cook. Yes, I love food and looking at recipes and coming up with stuff for menus that is cool and interesting, but that only takes me so far. For me, the meal is not, ultimately, about what’s on the plate but who’s picking up the fork. It’s not for nothing that Jesus put a meal as the central ritual of what it means to follow him. When you eat and drink, he said, remember me. Though I certainly don’t claim to spend all my days in such deep theological thought, meals are a way to re-member – to put back together – what the day has torn apart, or at least disassembled. What I hope happens at the tables where our food is served is the eating and drinking is metaphor for deeper sustenance and nourishment shared among those dining together.
The restaurant at Duke has been on a slow burn. We have not been inundated with customers since the beginning of the year, but things have improved a little each week. And we have a strong group of regulars who come in at least once a week. In my role as the evening chef, I get to step out from the kitchen several times during the night and talk to people at their tables, which has also allowed me to get to know some of our repeating diners, and even to learn their names. A couple of them have even come to church.
Tonight, two students came in (not together) whose names I have had a hard time remembering for some reason. Tonight, I got them both right: Stacey and David. Stacey was with her friend Haley. They come in at least once a week and always get the chocolate chip pan cookie (with caramel ice cream and hot fudge sauce) for dessert. David is usually alone, but tonight brought his friend, John. Last Wednesday, Evan, Jim, and Matt came in and said, “Since we’re regulars now, we think we ought to take good care of our chef,” and gave me a bottle of wine. Yes, I’m planning a little something special for them when they come in this week.
I’m not under any illusions that we are all somehow becoming close friends because I call them by name when I bring out their entrees. What I am saying is I was reminded again tonight that the reason I love to cook has more to do with who is eating than what is being eaten.
Years ago, my friend Jeter Basden was leading a Sunday School Teachers’ Workshop for my youth Sunday School teachers in my youth minister days. He wrote this sentence on the board:
I teach young people the Bible
and said, “You tell me the direct object of the sentence and I’ll tell you what kind of teacher you are.” He went on to say, “If you think you teach the Bible, you can talk all day and miss them all; if you think you teach students, you can read from the phone book and change their lives.” Though there’s not a corresponding sentence for life in the kitchen, the premise holds up. I do my best work when I’m in touch with who I’m cooking for over what I’m cooking. Both matter a great deal, but only the former makes real strides towards re-membering. Stacey loved her meal. She told me so. But it mattered more that I remembered her name. I saw it in her smile when I got it right. I’ll bet she could see it in my smile, too.
P. S. — There’s a new recipe.