Once a year they roll over my house like a tidal wave, consuming everything in sight. I work for days preparing, cooking, cleaning—readying the annual feast for our church youth group.
And then I get out of the way.
I’ve never seen food disappear so fast.
This year, I invited our co-pastors to the feast. They’ve been at our church for about a year but they’ve been together much longer—as husband and wife.
This year, following dinner--as I scraped plates and scrubbed dirty pots--Mrs. Pastor leaned on the counter beside me. The kids were in the living room playing a game. In the kitchen we chatted about small things and I was feeling that warm glow of the triumphant hostess. Then I noticed her eyes linger on the plentiful leftovers, settle on food left on plates. Suddenly, I remembered a sermon she had preached a couple weeks before—in which she made a statement about all the food we waste in this country.
A chill crept over my warm glow. I wondered what she was thinking. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have made so much food. I wondered…
But then I heard laughter spill over from the other room and my guilt disappeared like so many soap bubbles down the drain. I love these kids. I have worked with them since they were in preschool. And now most of them are taller than I. This dinner is one way I give my love skin. The kids look forward to this one night of spoiling all year.
Vinita Hampton Wright gets this loving with food thing. In her essay Grandma Virgi’s Feast, Ms. Wright grapples with this same guilt brought on by a rich meal. I like where she ends up.
...I think Jesus understands my holiday failings. Although his Spirit reminds me that my body is a temple, he understands the comfort of abundance—and the nurturing properties of food. When he walked among us, he enjoyed the pungent flavor of roasted fish over a beach fire, the rich offerings of wedding feasts, the breads and sweets and savory meats served up by the hands of Jewish mothers and aunts and grandmothers during celebrations of family or faith. He understands the relief we experience when the harvest has been brought in, safe and sound, to sustain us through another season. He knows the unspoken yet overwhelming sense of thankfulness as we gather around the communal table and see those who have survived the storms and change of one more year, those whose love and –yes, idiosyncrasies—continue to grace our lives.
Jeremy Clive Huggins takes on another church feast in his essay, The church Potluck, Seriously. He wonders, what sort of person would show up at such a thing with no contribution? As I think of all the empty-handed guests at my table, Huggins ponders the depravity.
Pardon my Early Modern English. When I speculate on the reasons someone might show up unannounced like that, I get annoyed. Not so much because the guest is needy but because he displays his need so nakedly, so directly, so shamelessly, that he’s willing both to ask for help and to receive it. The way I used to, when I was willing to identify myself as the guest. I get annoyed because I see myself as I used to be, as I’m not anymore, and I know that I have lost, to a large degree, this willingness to admit my need, to confess it, to act on it, to receive.
This gives me pause. As the hostess, have I lost the ability to be the guest? Do I feed others and ignore my own need?
But Huggins goes deeper.
I would hate to confess this, except that you are not shocked by my condition. You probably don’t know me, but you know yourself. And you struggle with this, too. None of us wants twice-baked fish and overseasoned loaves. What I want, what we all want, though we express it in different ways, is for God to come to us directly, to walk down from his hill and hold us, to tell us, directly and in his own words, that what we’re doing is worthwhile, that we are loved.
The feast has always been a way for me to show my love. Could it be that this is all an elaborate ruse designed to cover my own longing? And, if so, am I willing to admit this need--to open myself to receive?
In her essay A Subsistence Feast, K. C. Lee tells of her return to a wilderness home for the therapy of it—to undo my pain and make some sort of sense of things, she says. Instead of healing in the rhythms of what is necessary—the rhythms of subsistence—she finds healing in receiving.
I don’t exactly dive in, but ease back into rhythm, so shaken with gratitude that I suddenly tear up as I rinse the day’s clam take and snip the first young lettuces and set the salmon net, and take the first bite of the first meal, hardly able to eat. In fact, I am tearing most of the time, not entirely sure why. I am one small child, surrounded by riches beyond what I could ever use up. I will likely never know why I was placed here and not in slums of Mumbai, Soweto, Rio, nor in the barrenness of the Gobi, The Sahara, the Atacama. I only know that I feel awe…All of the overwhelming whys have fallen hush. In thankfulness there is some peace.
That night, at my house--after the feast…after Mr. and Mrs. Pastor have left…when the Apples to Apples game is winding down in the living room—I am still doing dishes. That’s when she comes up behind, wraps her arm around my waist and rests her chin on my shoulder.
Thank you, Laura, she says. Thanks for all this. It was really great.
This one. How many years? She has needed me. But tonight she gives.
I turn around to face her—shake my pruny hands over the sink. I want to receive this right. I lift her chin with dish-wrinkled hand. I look into her eyes.
Thank you, I say. I love having you here.
She lowers her eyes, smiles faintly, and goes back to the other kids.
I wipe the water around the sink one last time and finally join the others.
Giving and receiving--I pile them heavy on the plate. The feast is rich.
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This is week ten of our book club discussion on The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. Join us every Monday morning as we dig into this feast! Next week we discuss the final two of these lovely essays: The Banqueting Table and Making the Perfect Loaf of Bread.