You Are What You Eat: An Autobiography

I’m working on an essay about food. It’s an autobiography through food, actually, and it’s still most definitely a work-in-progress. I’ve been thinking about this project, especially how food is so central to our personal identities, ever since I went to see Please Don’t Call Me Homeless (I wrote about that production here and here).

I don’t typically like sharing works-in-progress, but I’ve got it on my mind at the moment, and I’d be happy to get some feedback.

Here’s an excerpt from one section of the essay, “You Are What You Eat”:

The most difficult thing about living on the streets, he said, was not what most people think. It’s not food and clothing that are the biggest problems. It’s things you might not expect: ice water, toilet paper, things you take for granted. Safety. He could stand in line somewhere and get a meal at almost any time, if you knew where to go, he said. A sack lunch. A juice box.

He was off the streets now, performing in a production of Please Don’t Call Me Homeless…I Don’t Call You Homed. He was playing his former self.

Just before intermission, the cast came down off the stage and helped a group of volunteers hand out sack lunches to the audience, to people who had never waited in line in a city park or a soup kitchen for a free meal. The crumpled brown paper bags were passed down the rows until everyone had gotten one. Everyone.

One was passed to me, and I peeked inside. Two squashed triangles of white bread stuck together with a slice of balogna. No cheese. Two vanilla sandwich cookies. A Capri Sun.

This isn’t a meal, I thought. I couldn’t help myself. This isn’t food.

Just that morning I’d sat in the warmth of my own home and had an e-mail conversation about organic, local milk, and whether it was worth the price to buy it. About the life span of cows at factory farms in America. About local food issues, farmers’ markets, and raising healthy children.

As a rule, I do not eat balogna or white bread.

I do not buy sandwich cookies.

But as they passed the sack lunches around, they began to sing. One a capella voice became a room-full.

And I sang, too.

Amazing grace

how sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found

was blind but now I see.

Community, Mourning, & Food: Let Them Eat Pie

For the second time in less than two months, J & I found ourselves this week surrounded by family in mourning. We drove to Western Pennsylvania and gathered with family from far away and from close by. We mourned, yes, but we also celebrated; cried, but also laughed; we hugged, and we remembered, and we ate.

Did we ever eat.

On Wednesday evening, the day we arrived, so did a vat of potato salad like I had never seen. At least ten pounds of potatoes lost their lives and quite a few onions, too–after seven of us ate it for dinner, along with a delivered meatloaf, only 1/5 of the salad had disappeared.

Two full dinners arrived on Thursday, and by Thursday evening, we had more loaves of bread on the counter than people in the house. We had soup and beef stew, cole slaw and salad, lemon cake and raspberry bars. And every time we turned around, more food arrived: breakfast food, dinner food, desserts, desserts, desserts. By late Thursday night, an aunt joked that nobody had stopped by in awhile, and within a few minutes the doorbell rang. Breakfast casserole and muffins!

In days like this, we know what community is.

Grandma had lived in the same town for her near-ninety years. She and Grandpa went to the same church for the sixty-one years they were married. They raised their kids here, and many of their grandkids. This is the community J has known his whole life. And for the last ten years, it is a community that has welcomed me in, too.

One of my favorite moments of the last week came on Thursday afternoon. Some of us had been outside in the cold looking at a renovation project, and when we stumbled inside, we found that three pies had been delivered: a cherry rhubarb, a coconut cream, and a blackberry-blueberry combination. As the pies were pulled from their baskets, we realized that they were still warm.

Grandpa was sitting at the table in the kitchen, and we were all standing or sitting around him, marveling at the pie excellence in front of us.

And then the patriarch requested a piece of pie.

Right now.

Before dinner.

And so the pies were cut, first just the cherry rhubarb. Then the coconut cream. Then the berry. It became clear that if we wanted to eat pie, we’d better grab it while we could.

That is the image of community I will carry with me in the coming months: Grandpa, requesting pie in the middle of the afternoon, and the rest of the family surrounding him, happy to oblige.

Main Street, USA

I live in a picturesque town in the middle of America.

This is my town, but not my photo. I swiped it from virtualtourist.com.

On Sunday, here on our picturesque Main Street, a handful of folks gathered to talk about homelessness and hunger in our little town, in our little county, in our little corner of rural America. You might not know that this week, the week of Thanksgiving–when most of us get to eat lots of food, visit with families, and count our blessings–is National Hunger and  Homelessness Awareness Week. Some of us who gathered were community organizers, some musicians, some just concerned citizens. I fall into the latter category.

From one concerned citizen to another, no matter where you live, here’s what I found out.

The Amen House, one of my little town’s local nonprofits that offers emergency assistance to folks in need, is giving assistance on average to 350 families per month. Did you read that correctly? 350 families, no repeats, per month. And they report to be registering approximately thirty new families each month. Remember that I live in a very little town. These are single-parent and dual-parent families, grandparent-led families, white, Hispanic, and black families. The economic crisis is affecting lots of us. There are thousands of people, even here in my little town, who don’t have enough food to eat.

Look at that photo again. Not much homelessness or hunger in sight.

But it’s there, folks.

And it’s not far from where you live either.

I guarantee it.

Potlucks, Paranoia, & Pumpkin Pie (part 2)

[In case you missed it, part one is here.]

Apart from my paranoia leading up to the potluck, it was a success overall. The day turned out to be warm, albeit a little windy. Okay, a lot windy. One of the college students who sat outside at the picnic table to eat had long hair, and when I looked out the window, her hair was blowing horizontally. But it was still good to have a place for the little guys who came to the potluck to run around. (And luckily, the previous owners of the house had a very deeply dug metal swingset that is at least safe enough our friends trust their kids playing on it.)

We had marrieds and singles, kids and adults, college students and middle-aged. All we really need to complete the circle are a few senior citizens to stand in as grandparents. I’m sure we can swing that eventually. Friends from church, the philosophy dept, the college broadly, and our neighborhood came, and it was nice that not everyone knew each other. Luckily, our friends are friendly and like to chat. That’s why they’re our friends.

In fact, our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. A, came with their newborn, and they were greeted at the door by folks they didn’t know and welcomed to the party before I even heard them arrive. (Later, I saw their newborn being carried around by another one of our friends, even taken outside, so clearly they were willing to trust these friendly strangers.)

The potluck itself was “harvest” themed–and in addition to the butternut squash-apple soup and bread we provided, we had a pork and pumpkin stew, some fruit salad with nuts and cranberries, some baked mac & cheese with cauliflower in it, baked spaghetti, and then cookies, pumpkin pie, and ‘cushaw’ pie. (The latter is basically a pumpkin pie made with a big green and white winter squash instead of pumpkin. That might sound strange but since rumor has it that canned pumpkin in the store is often canned cushaw, we’ve probably all had our fair share of cushaw pie without even knowing it.)

I don’t know what next month’s potluck will involve–different folks? Different food? Different stresses and chaos leading up to it? Yep. But there’s one thing I can guarantee it will involve: a big batch of community.

Until then, go cook yourself some cushaw, and let me know how it goes.

Potlucks, Paranoia, & Pumpkin Pie (part 1)

I did attempt to end the last blog post on an “up” note, but as I look back on it, it was kind of a downer of a post in general. So let’s have a chat about the potluck, that “forced” hospitality as I called it, which brought on the whole bowl-crashing, bread-destroying chaos on Saturday night.

Sunday morning, as it turns out, was much better. J got up early and made an “easy no-knead what bread” recipe, which got rave reviews, and since it only rises once, we even made it to Sunday school. After church, we ended up with about two dozen people here for a potluck.

Here’s the background about the potluck situation: The goal eventually is to have sort of an open-house/standing-invitation potluck every week after church, but for now, once a month is about all we can manage. The more we think about community and consumption and food habits and fellowship and Sabbath-keeping (whew!), it seems that these all need to come together, somehow, in a concrete way. Eating out at a restaurant after church, as seems to be the tradition in both of the places we’ve lived since being “real” adults, somehow just doesn’t work for us. It feels wrong, and I tend to go with my gut instinct on these matters.

So, our solution: low-key potlucks.

So, my problem: I am not low-key.

You see, most days I love my house, and the grit and the grime and its unfinished-ness doesn’t bother me. But when my brain realizes that we’re about to have people wandering through, something in me seizes up. (And it doesn’t matter if it’s a horde of college students coming over for theology reading group on Thursday nights or if it’s my parents or my friends or what.) It kind of bothers me that one wall in our living room still has the cracked mud and plaster showing; that our mantle for the fireplace is still in the basement, not stripped of paint; that the baseboards are unpainted, chipped, and in many places, just missing; that we still have old-lady curtains hanging in the living room; that our leather furniture is flaking off…clearly not real leather. And that doesn’t even begin to get to the bottom of my issues–dirty sinks and toilets, sticky 50s linoleum, crumbs on the counter top, laundry piled in front of the washing machine… oh my goodness, I have such issues.

It is certainly paranoia. Shouldn’t hospitality be more than a clean house? At the very least, it shouldn’t involve pretending to have it all perfect and together. That’s not being very honest–and dishonesty and hospitality can’t go hand in hand. Or maybe I’m crazy. (Okay, we’ve established that already.)

Some of our closest friends in Texas always had an open home, always invited people into their apartment, no matter if there were dishes in the sink, books all over the coffee table, kids’ toys on the floor, dust bunnies sneaking around, cats crawling all over you.

I always wanted to be like that.

Always.

And maybe someday I will be. But let me tell you, when I am freaking out because guests are about to arrive and J gently reminds me, “Hospitality is not about having a clean  house,” well, most of the time, I am not happy to hear it. In fact, most of the time it makes me want to scream.

But I’m growing. Really.

[Potluck part 2 coming very soon.]

Sometimes “despair” feels like the last word.

Have you ever had one of those days when it is difficult to function? Lots to do, no energy to do any of it? The smallest of difficulties becomes an impossible hurdle. A minor annoyance is worth crying over. An irritation in the throat turns into a cold. A little tiredness becomes exhaustion. A little stress becomes full-blown anxiety.

For whatever reason, I’ve had a few of those days right in a row. It has not been easy to function.

But yesterday we had our monthly potluck scheduled here at the house after church, and when we finally began to prepare the promised soup and homemade bread on Saturday night in preparation of the potluck, I was not feeling very hospitable, to say the least. I was, in fact, quite in despair about my weekend, feeling like I’d been run over by a semi of stress.

Around 7, I started making the oatmeal bread (one of my favorite kinds of bread) and J began cutting up butternut squash for the soup. Around 9 or so, I was getting ready to shape the bread into loaves, the dough having risen twice. I was planning to put the bread pans in the frig and bake it in the morning. The dough was in my favorite Pyrex bowl (which I’ve written about before), and my  hands were oily from punching it down. This was not a good combination. As I grabbed the bowl to move it over to another counter, it slipped out of my hands.

Pyrex is supposed to be sturdy, and I’ve actually dropped this bowl before. But Saturday night, it must have hit the floor at just the right angle, or the dough had just enough weight behind it. Whatever the reason, it shattered. The shards of glass went everywhere, including into the dough itself. It couldn’t be saved. None of it.

How did I react? Let’s just say that this was a low moment. Very low indeed.

On a different day, on a different weekend, I could probably have handled it just fine. I could have shrugged, said a little “oops,” been a little disappointed about the bowl itself breaking, considering it was my favorite. But overall, I could have recovered. Not this time. Not this weekend. Not in the face of (what felt like) forced hospitality approaching the next day.

It was a low moment.

In yesterday’s sermon about the Joel passage from the Lectionary, our pastor mentioned a quote from Frederick Buechner. It was a simple idea, as most Buechner thoughts are, but it was something I personally really needed to hear. (Though I haven’t been able to track down the original source yet, I’m including it here as a belated Sabbath meditation.)

Buechner says that though despair often feels like the last word, it isn’t. It is rather the next-to-last word.

The last word, in fact, is hope.

Hershey’s, part 1: The Great American Chocolate Bar

It’s gotten cold recently, and this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate. On Monday night, J had a student group (the philosophy club, actually, since he’s the faculty advisor) over for a cook-out and s’mores over a fire. The person who’d donated the s’mores fixin’s brought us none other than Hershey’s chocolate. Coincidentally, on that same day, I broke out my cherished Hershey’s sweatshirt that my brother bought me a few years back when he worked for “the sweetest place on earth.” J also sported his Hershey’s hoodie for the cookout, to his students’ delight. (Remember that I grew up close to Hershey, PA, so the connection to the chocolate is, for me, primarily a connection to place.)

These two occurrences–eating chocolate and wearing the Hershey’s sweatshirts–not only got my favorite childhood jingle stuck in my head (if you’ve been to Chocolate World as often as I have, you know the song) but it also prompted me to save a blank blog post with the above title. (I do this when I have a blog post idea but don’t have time to write about it just yet.) I was going to write about all of the warm fuzzies I feel when I eat Hershey’s, about how it’s way better than any fancy European chocolate because it’s so rich and smooth and doesn’t burn your throat, how I can sing the entire song, how strangers in airports talk to me when I wear my sweatshirt because chocolate makes everybody happy… Quite frankly, there were lots of great connections to community. *sigh*

That’s what I was planning to write about on Monday night, and it would have been a lovely post.

Throughout the week, I ate a few pieces of Hershey’s, snuck from the refrigerator where J hides all chocolate goodies from himself. Then Thursday night, J had another group of students over (theology reading group)  to use up the rest of the s’mores stuff. As we were chatting about the s’mores and my love of  Hershey’s, J told me about one of his fellow professors being surprised when a student from the first s’mores night referred to J as “Hershey’s” as they passed on campus. This professor looked at J, and said, “Hershey’s? That’s blood chocolate.”

[stay tuned for part 2]