A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Why Cook? The Eternal Aspects of Food (er, Beyond Twinkies)

For those of you new to this blog, don’t get me wrong–this is not a call to cook. We’ve all got our own ways of loving on people. But for those of us who like it…I’ve been noodling on why it matters to me. –Janel

Corinne cookingThe question needed to be asked.

Why do I spend so much time cooking, anyway?

Cooking is actually unlike me in some ways. I like to think of myself as one of those uber-intentional women, full of time used effectively and practically. So why do I invest so much time on something that’s so temporal, so fleeting?

In the African nation where I live and for the kind of nutrition I want for my family, cooking takes even more effort. Financially, environmentally, and compassionately, it makes more sense for me to buy fresh tomatoes from the local stand down the street, or to soak and cook my own beans that support someone locally, rather than buy the can schlepped from the U.S. all the way around the globe. Granted, I love the taste of fresh food. But let’s be realistic. I have other things to do than stir beans.

This issue is exacerbated by the speed at which my family of six hoovers up meals. Sometimes the lovely little short people who belong to me even complain about the healthy, home-cooked meal around them, despite the fact that there are literally children starving in Africa—down the street. But let’s not go there, shall we?

Here’s what I landed on as the rationale behind the search for perfect recipes, the rolling out of dough, the chopping and searing and sautéing. Yes, there’s an eternal aspect to food, I’ve discovered. You know. Beyond Twinkies.

I believe firmly in the healing, spiritual power of food. There is something of Jesus’ “prepared place” when we have food that nourishes, satisfies, even tantalizes these bodies He’s so closely connected to our souls. As women, we see how tightly woven our hormones, rest, and other physical changes are with our souls.

Psalm 23 mentions our Shepherd leading us to green pastures, where presumably we sheep would eat; a highlight of heaven is the wedding feast. God provided food for a weary Elijah in the wilderness. Jesus broke bread for thousands upon thousands, seeing their physical needs as important and good even though they could be hearing more preaching of the Son of God Himself. I believe God partly gave us bread so that He could describe Himself as the Bread of Life, and explain that we don’t live on bread alone. If we never craved the aromas and flavors that satisfy the senses God gave—or if we thought all bread was similar to a stale loaf of Sunbeam—we might not imagine Him with much appeal.

Authors Lisa Tatlock and Pat Ennis remind us that a home is place where people gather unseen resources—like comfort, peace, joy, nourishment—from tangible surroundings. If that’s the case, for my guests and my family, it makes sense that I embrace them with food that lifts their senses, embraces them, and feeds their bodies.

Food creates a sense of what home is, and what nourishment is. Watching kids in the documentary Super Size Me play in the McDonald’s PlayPlace or sitting in a cafeteria with French fries as their “vegetable”, I realized how much the food of our childhood—and the atmosphere surrounding eating— determines much of our tastes, our positive memories, and our sense of normal. I come from a long line of casserole-baking, pie-rolling, bread-raising women. Though it’s not in any sense a rule, I do find that a handful of my friends who don’t like to cook had mothers who didn’t like to cook, didn’t make cooking an enjoyable experience, or associated cooking with pre-feminist days. Interestingly enough, I see that Jesus, Abraham, and Jacob were among the great cooks of the Bible, along with Martha and Sarah, so I find that chefs of either gender are in good company.

Food has tight associations with enjoyment, memory, and having needs met. Odor is one of the most powerful memory triggers, and our olfactory senses go hand-in-hand with our taste buds. My dad dipped a spoon into peanut butter and covered it in honey for a snack; I have upped the ante by replacing the honey with chocolate chips. (Sadly, I have had to forego his love of potato chips drizzled in ranch dressing, in light of the fact that I would likely now be shaped like a Hidden Valley bottle.) Smells of my husband’s famous chili still transport me to crisp fall days and sweatshirts even now, in a land with no autumn. Maybe for you the smell of sizzling oil transports you back to the county fair; gingerbread places you in your grandmother’s kitchen at Christmas, arranging the Red Hots for eyes; s’mores find you on a log bench at summer camp in cutoffs and flip-flops. Food and smells cement locations and circumstances and emotions in our minds. Social psychology has even shown that people actually enjoy a movie more when they have popcorn. I’m intrigued that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, emphasis mine). It’s safe to say food greases the wheels of relationships and quality time—and good food is good grease. (Not to be confused with greasy food.)

I believe that creativity follows God. One might think that I’m implying good cooks are more spiritual, more holy than the rest of the commoners. Not so! God’s Body is wonderfully varied, and I still think you can have a wholesome spiritual life and an excellent home if you despise cooking, or have a hard time mastering toast.

But as evaporative as the whole discipline can seem, I do see spiritual opportunities in cooking. In the Garden of Eden, God asked us to be gardeners and cultivators, turning the chaos of raw material—dirt and seeds; pencil and paper; voice; numbers; children; vegetables and meat—into order and beauty. Even washing and combing hair, I’ve been told, are elements of this cultivation, this subduing. So there is something of following God in creating, in cultivating, in making something nourishing or useful as we exercise a rule of goodness over creation. Yes, we want to use our time in ways that are wise, making the most of every opportunity. But we also want to spend our time listening, and expressing the unique image of God in each of us. God is the ultimate Chef, in every sense of the word.

Does this mean I never tear open a package of (imported) Oreos? Hardly. And don’t hate me, but my microwave definitely has my number. But there’s some eternal value to cooking, even past the empty bowls, crumpled napkins, and occasionally inappropriate body functions. Compliments to the chef, Mom.

So what are your thoughts about cooking? Do you love it? Hate it? …Why?

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2 Comments

  1. Janel, you inspire me! This was so beautiful to read, both for my mind and for my heart. Thank you 🙂

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