Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Chicken, Casserole, and Other Comforts

Yes, it's been deader than week old roadkill here, between a most inconvenient bout with pneumonia followed by my father's knee surgery. I've been trying out my Florence Nightingale skills during his recovery, which has left me little time to blog but lots of time to think. About family, community, comfort....and casseroles.

This little thought-worm started chewing its way through my brain when I heard a woman in my Weight Watchers group mention that she was having a hard time sticking to her food plan while her daughter was in the hospital. I have never been one to randomly offer food to strangers but for some reason I knew I should offer to bring her a dinner. God pokes us at odd times, in odd ways. Her daughter is the same age as mine, and I could only imagine how I would feel were it Ember in a sickbed. Cooking a meal for her wasn't just about food but about extending my domestic sphere, temporarily, to include her and her daughter. A small, tiny bit of homemaking in the middle of a hospital corridor.

So I brought chicken, along with the requisite side dishes, not entirely sure what to expect. I worried I'd seasoned it wrong or forgotten the napkins or some other such nonsense. Certainly I wasn't thinking about her reaction which was perhaps why I was so blown away at how much she was moved by the meal. She seemed genuinely touched that someone would cook for her, which made me realize how rare this type of hospitality is in our society.

Perhaps my urge to offer comfort food in a crisis can be pinned on my grandmother, a bona fide Arkansas cook whose pies sold out around town and whose biscuits and gravy will probably be served for breakfast in heaven. Women from her generation didn't send Hallmark cards; they sent casseroles. And pies, and homebaked breads, and roasts....and you get the idea. Whether the occasion was joyous or solmen, whether the recipient was family or friend or simply a neighbor in need, these women rolled up their sleeves and cooked.

Until now, I never realized the value in what they were doing. When the feminist movement ousted women from the kitchen and into the workforce, domestic gifts-- such as comfort casseroles-- were dismissed as artificial and silly. The stereotype emerged of an overly hair-sprayed woman bringing a rock-hard tuna casserole to a grieving family, expecting her food to be a panacea for all their ills. It was portrayed as naive, even silly, for a women to put so much value on mere food. Perhaps domestic women, with nothing else to offer, had to make do with such poor gifts but liberated women could give a real gift with the financial resources they had at their disposal. I bought into this image, as did many women of my generation.

My first glimmer that this might be a skewed image came in the first week after the birth of my daughter. I was flat on my back, hormonal to the point of insanity, sleep-deprived....and starving. My husband, bless his heart, made me toast. A woman trying to breastfeed a newborn cannot survive on toast. It was the evening meals brought by the women of my church family that nourished my body and encouraged my spirit. Each meal bore the unmistakable imprint of the home where it was prepared, and each meal served its purpose-- not as a cure-all but as a stepping stone towards normalcy. The practical needs of daily living do not stop even in the midst of the most life-changing events. Even to meet those needs for one night is a gift, for it allows those in the midst of change to focus their finite energy where it is most needed. I came away from those meals with a profound gratefulness and a desire to show other women the kindness I had received.

My second encounter with the blessing of shared meals came after my father's surgery. Again, the gift of food brought my family into a sphere of domestic care that edified our souls as much as it fed our stomachs. To know you are not alone in a crisis, to know that at the end of a long day there will be a hot meal waiting for you-- these are not trifles, no matter how much our society portrays them as such.

Of course, a meal given out of sheer duty can be stripped of its power. Of course, we need to make sure we provide something more than yesterday's spaghetti. This does not mean that we need to aspire to five-star gourmet cuisine, simply that we put thought into the preparation of the meals we intend for ministry. The real beauty of comfort food isn't that it is high-class or expensive or elaborate, but that it comforts. Every woman has the potential to give that gift, in a way that is hers alone. Every time she does, she serves not only those receiving the meal but also her own family, and most importantly Christ Himself.

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