I was alone in the kitchen in the morning since I arrive at my current ministry an hour or so before the cook does. During my time in the novitiate I have had the opportunity to experience ministry at a women’s’ shelter called Our Lady’s Inn. I started preparing some side dishes, and while I was cutting up carrots I found my mind wandering through other things. I was not frustrated, but rather amused at how easily I get distracted, even from things I am passionate about, like cooking. As I called my mind back to the present I wondered about what is so spiritual about food. I have often wondered this and occasionally think I might enjoy studying food anthropology. There seems to be a significant connection between us and our food. This moment in the kitchen when I connected with the carrots was a very peace-filled one for me.
I once heard Chefs Duff Goldman, Alice Waters and Anthony Bourdain speak on a panel. During the discussion Goldman said, “If you are rotten, your food will be rotten.” This sentiment of good intentions and mindfulness is common among famous chefs. Thomas Keller, for example, is known for his mindful connection to the foods he prepares. In one of his cookbooks a coworker at his restaurant relates how Keller insisted fish be stored in the position they would have swam in, for better texture and respect. Keller also talks about the emotional journey of food being the essence of a good meal. There seems to be so much more to cooking and eating than the mere ingredients used.
Edward Espe Brown wrote that when you have cooked mindfully and taste mindfully you will not only be aware of every subtle flavor and texture but of something that is beyond things, which he names virtue. Chef Alice Waters also cites mindfulness as a quality that makes a good chef not just in the kitchen but in the whole food chain, from seed to table. If you aren’t paying attention, said Waters, then you will not be able to notice all the flavors in the food you are preparing or be able to coax the most flavors out of your ingredients.
As I was reflecting on my experience in the kitchen I thought of one of my favorite passages where Jesus meets Peter and the disciples after the resurrection with breakfast (John 21). It is not written in the story how Jesus, the fish, or the fire came to be there. I like to imagine the scene, however, and picture Jesus appearing on the shore just before dawn, sighting Peter’s ship out fishing and lovingly gathering the fuel for the fire as he waited for them to return. I picture Jesus as he cleans and prepares the fish and lays out the meal. I think it’s important that Jesus invites the disciples to add the fish they had just caught to the fire before they shared in the meal. From what I read as I perused various anthropology articles on food there seems to be a common virtue among most civilizations that food is to be shared, and this ideal is certainly a component of the Middle Eastern practice of hospitality during Jesus’ time. Inviting the disciples to be hospitable to Jesus by sharing their catch is a sort of communion, just as the disciples eating Jesus’ breakfast is a reconnection between Jesus and Peter in the wake of their broken relationship.
Food has always allowed people to connect and share their lives. I think we are losing this in our culture today as eating alone loses its taboo, and fast food and TV dinners are on the rise. Simply eating next to someone does not mean you are eating with them. This reality reminds me of Anthony Gittins’ imperative that ministry must be an act that is with others, not over them. My ministry then is not only to put a meal on the table but to be mindfully present as I prepare it, to share it with others by eating with those I serve, and to ask for their input about it. I’m glad that I can connect my desire to be more mindful in general to an activity I enjoy and feel passionate about. I’m happy that I can practice this form of spirituality and hospitality in an arena that is a common aspect in everyone’s life.