by Rev. Ryan Snider
The heat broke down the sugar molecules of the onions and they sat in a pool of hot oil. The air was filled with a sweet aroma. Science makes life smell so good. My memories of the kitchen are idyllic—Norman Rockwell—mundane and beautiful. Tyson chicken strips and homemade marinara sauce. This is the place where mom and dad lingered over the last drop of coffee from the pot in the morning. We held hands and said, “God is great. God is good” and put dishes into the washer. We gathered at the counter for late night discussions, always about the high school teacher who should’ve been fired. Do you remember that time he let that girl bring her horse to school?
None of this can possibly be completely accurate. Memories are deceptive, after all. Our kitchen was also a broken place; there was a crack down the center of the table. Or, it was a square instead of a circle, with sharp edges. It was too small and short-sighted. It was a sphere thatexacerbated our culture’s hierarchies and power structures—a place where dads cook with fire, but not flour. Moms, meanwhile, are supposed to do everything else and also clean, while settling for a chicken wing and the occasional compliment, “this tastes better than last time.” Resentment and exhaustion were palpable in the kitchen as we all consumed the dead so that we could live another day.
As a parent, I often remark that the effort of a family dinner is hardly worth the investment. Getting the kids to eat is a hostage situation and not a meal. The question, “what’s for dinner?” is more of a threat than a question. There’s a bathroom emergency, food is thrown on the floor, the dishwasher is never loaded afterward. This happens until we throw in the towel—just give the kids the iPad and heat up some chicken nuggets. Still, we persevere, hoping that the table can teach us something about running the race with grace and patience.
Having a family is like learning to eat broccoli and drink black coffee. You might not have chosen them, but you can develop a taste for them. I assure you that it’s possible. Heck, even a Midwesterner can learn to love sweet tea and grits. Sometimes we have to start by smothering them with cheese and adding too much creamer. But the goal, the proper end, is to learn to enjoy them for who they are and were created to be and not who we want them to be. The good news is that the reverse is also true—maybe you feel like you’re the broccoli, and you’re afraid that no one could ever possibly love you. But then, everyone shows up at the table, again, night after night. The dinner table is the best place to taste another’s life, and then taste again, until you can understand the complexities a bit better.
My family of four sits down at the table, we light the candle, and ask each other, “What was your best today?” In the preparation of dry chicken and half-hearted blessings, or the drudgery of recounting the day and ingesting the food, we become a family.
We tell our story at the kitchen table. It’s the place where our identities are transmitted through oral and written recipes. It’s odd—we’re scared to “impose” values and beliefs on our children, but then we go right ahead and foist our histories into their mouths. No plate of food is created ex nihilo; instead, the family history is served in the bowl. Every bite joins us to our parents, which often joins them to theirs. Or maybe it’s a church potluck one hundred years ago where recipes were passed down with a side of Jesus. You can research lineage at ancestry.com, or follow the transmission of dinner recipes until you end up at a Dutch kitchen table in Pennsylvania.
My childhood family became the kind of people who eat salad for dessert. “You will know us by our bowls of Spring Mix,” we say with pride.
Isn’t this why reading through the Israelites’ food menu is so interesting? Pompous Christians scoff at the particularity, or the apparent arbitrariness, of their antiquated recipes. No shrimp or pork? Who cares so much about what we put into our mouths? A people, who want to know who they are, that’s who. Or a people who want to become holy—set apart. The kitchen was a place for shared mission and work, a liturgy, that bestowed identity. Your body isn’t just yours; it’s a part of the body that gathers around the table. The Jews were on to something with their cheese-less, beef burgers.
Norman Wirzba, professor of food and theology, is fond of saying that food is never only about calories. The dinner table can make us into a different kind of people—like a crock pot that slowly simmers us into something more tender and delicious. In our family, we will be different, bite after bite and argument after argument. We pray and say thank you. Yes, the casserole tastes like a glob of mayonnaise. Eat it. At our table, we are a people who say grace, not only to God, but to one another. You’ve already heard the story about the cheese factory? Listen. It’s about respect. Your Grandmother has made a pecan pie, and it’s your little brother’s favorite. Save it for him. If no one takes too much of the manna, there will be enough for everyone. This is simple wilderness economics.
In other words, we create a family politic at our table. Here’s one part of our family identity: we want to become the kind of family that pays attention. Who made the meal and how do we show gratitude? Who cleans up? Do we honor the animals and vegetables that have made it to our plate? Can we practice patient listening?
We tell our family story at the table as we love, and are loved by, those who ended up in our house through the great lottery of birth. If we accomplish that draconian task, our love might spread outward.
When our kids turned three and one years old, the dinner table had become a cold, dark place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. To our glad surprise, we stumbled upon some friends who longed for a bigger table. They asked us, “Will you eat with us?” It’s not as innocuous as it sounds, this question that might also be rendered: will you share in our lives?
We gathered every other week to share potluck at a brewery. Millennials! We offered prayers of thanksgiving for malts, yeast, hops, and water. And then, we passed the buffalo chicken. Will they like me? We added people, here and there. Soon, we moved our gatherings to one another’s houses. Like any biological family, we didn’t choose one another. A potluck of people—friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. Infants and babies. Twenty somethings and thirty somethings and forty somethings with different tastes in theology, in politics, in food. But we could all use more recipes to help get us through life, or at least to make our lives more interesting.
One family always cooked pink beans and rice. It was a Brazilian inspired dish with cumin and turmeric, perfected after years of shared tables. We covered it with a cilantro sauce. Simple, but delicious—something I never could have cooked for myself, even if I wanted to, which I didn’t. It was a dish formed out of a childhood spent in Brazil. But at the table, we consume and are consumed by another culture, history, and family. The table is the place where strangers become friends—offering our lives to one another and taking this extension of another person into our very bodies to be digested and transformed into new life. Sounds a bit like Eucharist.
Today, our family eats pink beans and rice once a week. Have we become honorary Brazilians?
I understand that this all sounds sentimental. Eat together. It’ll be easy, I tell you. Don’t be fooled. Many nights I wanted to be there, at the table, but it was also a chore. I equally would have liked to get the kids to bed on time, put on pajamas, and fired up Netflix. And who has time to read all the ingredients on the back of these boxes to prepare gluten-free dishes? This was not for my sake, mind you, but for another’s severe gluten allergy. I’m sure the feeling was reciprocal, though. My kids always lost their cool half-way through the dinner. Food was thrown, obviously. But someone would graciously pick up a kid and plop him in her lap and continue to ask nosy questions about God, faith, and global warming. Bless her—she was holy.
To the weak, we become weaker.
I wonder if this is what Paul means when he talks about the Lord’s Supper. Paul knew that the dinner table could either fracture or extend the family, so he wrote the Corinthians a letter about their table manners. Unless Paul is exaggerating, some people had so much wine that they were drunk, while others had to be content with so little food that they remained hungry. Was it steak versus chicken nuggets? Some ate early, while others were forced to wait. These were all the customs of the Roman table.
Here’s the point: the kitchen became the place that reinforced individual status, instead of becoming a place where hierarchy and status were shattered. We are no longer completely defined by the stories of our nuclear families or cultures. Paul, like the Jews before him, knew that the kitchen creates a particular way of being in the world together, which means that the table is also about embodying a specific politic. Can the kitchen become a sphere that challenges norms and customs of society?
The answer is, “Yes,” especially when Jesus is invited to the table. Paul reminds the Corinthians that Jesus instituted a new way of eating when he lifted up a cup and broke bread. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16). The Corinthians were Romans, but they were also Christians. And the meal that we call The Lord’s Supper was meant to teach the disciples how to become Christians. So Paul told them to “discern the body.” In other words, put down the sourdough and grab a slice of gluten-free, rosemary focaccia. Because there is one focaccia, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one focaccia (10:17).
This is what Paul calls the Body of Christ, which is a radical understanding of what it means to be a community. We are joined together as fingers on hands, and hands on arms. Each part of the body is indispensable. It’s takes all of us—together. There is no notion that we can do this life ourselves, apart from a dinner table. That’s not how it works, not here, not in the faith community that Jesus creates. Around this table, we created a larger family with a surplus of children and parents. No child has too many parents. And no parent has enough children.
The dinner table reminds us of this truth: you don’t have to do it alone. In fact, you can’t. Your family is not enough. Plus, your family story could become so much more beautiful.
One of my students me what kind of house furniture I would be if I had to become a piece of furniture. I chose a dinner table chair. That way, I’ll never be alone. There’s almost always another chair nearby. And together, we’d gather around the table, which is God’s blessing for our lives, and become a family.
I love our family’s story, but I also love the story of Jesus, who is creating a bigger story than we could have ever cooked up on our own. Come, be a chair beside me.
Rev. Ryan Snider is a chaplain at a liberal arts college in North Georgia.