it came over me as if i’d been out on a splintering raft in the middle of the swallowing seas, as if for days and days i’d not seen dry shore. nor steady mooring to cling to. but there, not too far out of my reach, was the sea-battered timber planted in the sandy bottom. the end post of a barnacle-crusted dock i couldn’t quite make out, and it came out of nowhere.
looked like hope to me.
so i reached for it. reached into the meat bin at the bottom of the fridge. hauled out the pack of cubes of cow (so sorry, cow). then i hauled out the cook pot, the one so hefty it could break a toe. a pack of toes. i glopped in a spill of oil, olive oil slick across the now-sizzling surface. and in plopped the cubes of beef. i browned and hummed. that’s what cooking on a thursday morning does.
i was burrowing into the holiness, the sacrament of middle-of-the-week, because-they-need-it, because-we-all-need-it supper. it would be ladled at long day’s end, when, for a moment, hands would be clasped, prayers raised, then forks. and a certain emptiness, filled.
that’s the mystery and alchemy of all-day puttering at the cookstove. it’s the only thing some days, some weeks, that beelines to the crannies in our heart where words can’t go. that seeps into hollows hungry for so very much.
since this was sacramental, after all, i set the altar while beef cubes sizzled: old chipped blue willow plates, ratty napkins that could use a spin through the sewing machine. cobalt glasses, ones that all day long catch the light, spill streams of blue across the old maple planks of the handed-down kitchen table, the one that still wears the imprint of third-grade homework from back in 1965 (or so i calculate, judging by the particular child’s scrawl and the certain words pressed into the wood).
sacramentum, the latin dictionary tells us, means “sign of the sacred.” is it sacrilegious, then, to call a plain old supper, one that simmered on the back burner all day long, one thought through, from splattered sheaf of follow-along instructions, clear through to pop-from-a-tube biscuits, is it sacrilegious to call a lump of root vegetables and beef, ones swimming all day long in thyme and bay leaf, crushed tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, is it sacrilegious to call it sacramental?
i think not.
to serve up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and irish butter, “i love you dearly, and i’m so sorry i’ve been distracted. so sorry i’ve been heating up old soup, chicken pot pie from a box.” to say, with store-bought pumpkin pie, under a swirl of canned whipped cream (i splurged on the one that shouted, “extra creamy!”), “forgive me for making it seem like something else might have been more top-of-the-to-do-list than carving out the holy half hour (let’s not be greedy here) when we all sit down and savor pay-attention cooking. and each other.”
because, really, i think we can taste the difference. oh, umami is umami. and sweet is sweet. but don’t the hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through — not whipping it off in the last 10 minutes before the hunger sirens screech — doesn’t it all find its way deep down into the deliciousness that doesn’t come through short cut piled atop short cut?
yesterday, the day was afghan autumnal, all gray and woolly, the sort of day when you hunker inside, when the cookstove yodels to you. when the burners itch to be cranked. and the bins of rutabaga and turnip and parsnip — all those underground offerings that soak up what the earth’s deep dark soil has to share — they beg for vegetable peeler, and chopping block, and long hours surrendering to flame.
it was the sort of day-after-hubbub when quiet invited me in for a long slow visit. nothing rushed about the day. a day to breathe deep, breathe slow. to fill my lungs with quiet prayers, the prayers of lavishing love on the ones so dear to me, the ones who deserve nothing less than the very best dinner i could chop and stir and taste-test along the way. and while i’m at it, why not take it up a zany notch? just because there’s never enough oomph in an ordinary day. and what day, really, deserves to be plain old ordinary?
by supper time, when the tableau beyond the panes of glass went inky black, when the glow of the kitchen lamp spilled gold across the table, the vapors that rose from the big red smash-your-toes cook pot, the hot breaths that trespassed out of the oven, they crept up the stairs to where homework was being done.
before i’d said a word, the stovetop’s incense was deep at work. the house was filled with something surely holy, for what else can you call it when you claim a whole long day to aim for higher?
to say in smell and taste and temperature and touch what words alone just might not say: “you are worth it to me to spend a whole day cooking, just for you. i’ve not lost sight of my holiest calling, to carve out a hallowed space here in this place of walls and windows and creaky floors and solid roof, to be the one reliable source of all that’s good, that’s edifying. to fill you with warm spoonfuls — as much as you want, there’s plenty here. and i’ve made it beautiful because you are, because beauty speaks to the deep-down whole of us. and you so richly deserve each and every morsel i can muster.”
the day was chilly brisk. i did what i could to make the kitchen glow, the holy light of heaven here on earth. and to fill those who came to the chairs at long day’s end.
far as i can tell, that’s a sacrament, a sign of the sacred. with a fat splat of butter drooling off the plate.
like all the best recipes, i start with something on paper, and then i riff. i zig when instructions say zag. add a dollop instead of a dab. the beef stew recipe i’ve decided is the one worthy of a long day’s cooking is one from that gloriously down-to-earth pioneer woman, ree drummond, and it’s one she calls “sunday night stew.” even on a thursday.
your thoughts on the sacrament called slow-cooked supper? or how do you best dollop extra helpings of plain pure love?
Only you can write about stew and make it holy. The 8rh wonder of the world. I am yours Andrea Lavin Solow
bless YOUR beautiful heart, you who makes every feast a love fest! xoxo
Beautiful, evocative and true. And this: “…the stovetop’s incense was deep at work,” a key to the magic of a home-cooked meal. I wonder if our cookees feel its intention as we cookers do. Will they later? Small dollops of extra love? My 21-year-old texted me wonderful news last night from her hotel room in DC to mine in Fort Collins, CO. We were both deep in preparation for the rigors of each of our next days but texting back a “yay!” felt like letting the moment pass without fully acknowledging the glories of the news or connecting about its shades and nuances. I dialed. She was pleased to hear my voice but baffled-sounding at first (I’m guessing she thought there was emergency) because in her text-for-everything culture, a text reply would have done. But at the end our not-too-long call, she got its meaning and the value to celebrate her news, not to mention the fun of dishing about it.
you just perfectly captured the nuance of the “text-only” age. i am loving that there was beautiful news to be shared, first of all. in this short chapter of college news i am guessing it falls in that genre, perhaps.
and your question of whether the cookees notice, that’s one for the ages. did i notice? did i ache so deeply when i noticed its absence in moments when i wanted it that i set out to always err on the overdone? those are the questions. every once in a while i will catch a moment’s awareness that one of my does does — despite all the distractions to steer them in other directions — they have noticed: the way i tuck in branches in the vase in the front hall; i remember that being noticed and nearly falling over with surprise. and i have to think children might most remember when they are invited into the process; my little guy grabbed the potato masher the other night, and i think — just a hunch! — that he loved standing beside me, partaking of the magic. just hunches. but don’t we have to believe that our loving is seeping deep down to where it’s intended? don’t we have to?
Of course we do! It has with you and your mom, right? As it did with mine. They may not know it yet, but they will. (One of my mantras.)
It’s no accident that communion is a shared meal. And no accident that Thanksgiving is centered on a shared meal. And you’re right, the preparation is part of the sacrament — in church, we kneel as we observe it. Beautiful. (And thanks for the recipe!)
“In church, we kneel as we observe it.”
you just took my breath away….
so so beautiful. you make me want to run into a church, here on this chilly gray afghan of another day…..xoxo
What an excellent analogy! I will now think of this when I come to the table at church 🙂 Thank you!!
Oh, I enjoyed every word! Or should I say, every morsel 😉 Feeding others is such an expression of love especially when it’s done with attention. How I love being both on the giving and receiving end of this sacrament.
Giving thanks to you for your beautiful writing.
and bless you for pulling up a chair. thank you.
I absolutely love this post. This is exactly how I feel when I go the length of preparing a homecooked meal for my family. Taking the extra time to cook a meal from a recipe we have found in a magazine or cookbook, or even on television; always seems so special ❤
Thank you, Barb for another wonderful vision 🙂
bless your heart. bless it and bless it…
Our slow-cooker supper is almost as simple as the one we kneel for in church, but packs as much unconditional love as that one. Including love for the cook. Coming home from the playoff game that ran longer than normal with a hungry band boy, welcomed by the aroma that as much as calls out “you’re home! Hooray!”, and we sit right down to it. For me it’s like having a personal chef…having lost so many brain cells raising boys, the morning’s preparations are gone in the mist. This week’s forecast calls for more slow-cooking. Let it snow, let it snow, let it…well, don’t want to get carried away.
notherbarb, hullo! i’ve missed you. and you tempt me to want to pull that old slow cooker out of its cobwebs and finally figure out its magic. and how to make it do so……i love your meditation above, on the power of the holy vespers whirling through the kitchen, ensnaring the hungry boy the moment he walks through the door.
how much snow are they talking about? better go check my weather map. and my slow cooker….