The following is the first of what hopefully becomes a regular, infrequent series on this site: personal essays relating to food themes. If you are a writer and would like to submit a contribution, contact me. Or, if creative nonfiction about food is not your thing, visit the home page for what else is new!
As a freelance writer and mother of two small children, I dwell in two dichotomous realities: the immaterial world of articulating concepts and the material world of childcare needs. My managers ask me to put ideas into sentences; my children ask me to give them something to eat.
I love my kids, more with each day they grow. They’re adorable and funny and, still shockingly, people, each in his or her own right. I’m eager to learn them and know them and talk about life. But, right now, in the baby and toddler years, much of what they need isn’t heart-to-heart conversations or philosophy; it’s my hands and feet, performing constant, repetitive tasks. It’s reading the same book again and again. There are diapers to change and laundry to fold and a mess on the floor each time we eat.
More than once, the daily conflict of dirty clothes and Word documents, toy baskets and think pieces, tangible and intangible, physical and mental labor, has arrested me in my tracks. I know caring for others is valuable, but are the menial tasks of the job as important as the lofty ones? Does scrubbing a carpet stain compare with bonding over cookies at the counter?
There is a view out there, fancy term Gnosticism, that divides material and spiritual, earthly and heavenly. In laymen’s terms, it says the physical, material world is bad, and the spiritual, immaterial world is good. What you do is not as important as what you know.
So the everyday, ordinary tasks of chopping an onion and pushing the diced pieces in the pan, for example, or the completely human work of taking stained crib sheets off a bed to replace them with new ones, holding a wobbly toddler’s hand, kneading dough, scooping out oatmeal: this is all work you do just so you can get to the important work. It doesn’t matter. It’s small. These material things, this pedestrian work, it’s ignorable, maybe even dislikable.
This concept doesn’t have to be spoken or taught directly for it to affect you. You don’t have to master the word Gnosticism; someone will probably comment here that I haven’t. But if you feel it, this sense of how some work matters and some work doesn’t, mark it down: you will have a hard time not resenting what are considered the lesser tasks.
Your child needs food, again? The house’s air filter needs to be replaced, today? Who has time for cleaning crumbs and scrubbing bathtubs when there is meaningful, valuable, important work out there to be done?
But here’s the thing about tangible work, whether you’re talking about wiping the countertops after kids eat, replacing a door in your home renovation or combining ingredients to make a meal: it’s necessary.
I come back to this idea a lot when I think about keeping a food blog. Food, does it matter? Food, what’s the point? But no matter how much I love other things more than food, no matter what other concepts or ideas are more worthy of attention, my arrogant little brain still needs a regular reminder of my limitations. I am a human. I am dependent. I hunger. I eat.
When I recovered from a traumatic birth, my grand ambitions shrunk to tangible tasks each day: sleep, eat, help the baby sleep and eat, do it again. When I faced intense personal pain, my conceptual world reduced to essentials: What tasks does God put before me, today? What work would he have me do, now?
At a time of year when the incarnation of Christ—the humbling of God himself to become man—is on many people’s minds, it bears highlighting again: our humanity is not ugly, dirty, invaluable or a mistake. God Himself took on flesh, walked on legs, ate.
I love the passage in John 21, where the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples. What does the Son of God, who’s suffered humiliation and crucifixion, who’s conquered death and now stands among his disciples again, start by saying?
“Come and have breakfast.”
He not only ate, he made a meal for his friends. Many people are familiar with Jesus’s description of himself as the Bread of Life: the ultimate satisfaction, the One we all ultimately hunger for. He is! It strikes me, too, however, that Jesus, in taking on human flesh, made himself likewise someone who ate and cooked and needed to. The One who created the world and created food, partook of it. Like I, like you.
As a Christian, I believe knowing Jesus and thinking on Him moment to moment endows my good tasks with more meaning than I could muster. Making dinner for my household, cleaning another mess, wrapping a wound, stretching and folding bread dough: these earthy, human, everyday activities, unseen or unspectacular, become wondrously valuable when they are done as unto him.
In his book, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places,” Eugene Peterson writes, “Ideas and causes and projects are important, but if they are not worked out in the garden where we have been put, they distract us from the present work and company, and hamstring the fine and delicate coordination between freedom and necessity that is at the heart of a life of free obedience.”
The garden where we have been put. In other words, ideas fully fleshed have to have application. Concepts outworked will move our hands. All my reading and thinking and philosophizing matters little when it doesn’t translate to the way I serve my household, the meaning I put into my daily tasks, the impact it makes on what I do as well as think. This is as true of making food as it is of any other necessary work before me, like helping my children, like washing a dish. In doing these material, physical tasks, I have another place in which I can do it as unto Him.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” I Corinthians 10:31, ESV