“Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” Matthew 15:32
Terry and I are bibliophiles, a fancy word for people obsessed with books. We have friends who still mention the trauma they felt twenty-five years ago when carrying twenty huge plastic totes filled with books upstairs into our apartment. The number of books we have owned has waxed and waned over the years. At one point, we had well over a thousand books crammed into a dozen bookshelves. Our library cards always have items checked out on them, our books-to-be-read list continues to grow, and we explore new places often through their bookstores.
Between the two of us, our interests cover a lot of different genres. We love classics, both for adults and young people. We read a lot of personal development books based on Christian principles and we love good biographies. However, we differ in some areas. Terry loves a good science fiction story, thriller, or mystery. I love both literary and historical fiction, along with memoirs, travel, and nature books. Recently, I discovered a new genre that has pleasantly surprised me: cookbooks.
I have always loved beautiful cookbooks. The glossy pictures of different recipes have inspired me to try new dishes in my kitchen. I have sometimes purchased cookbooks solely based on the quality of their photographs. But my interest in cookbooks has been limited to the list of ingredients and the steps of the recipes. In my opinion, cookbooks were just beautiful instruction books, until this year.
My journey of cookbook enlightenment started with Shanua Niequist’s “Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes.” In this book, each chapter is a short, memoir-style essay that closes with a recipe that has captured her heart. These essays and recipes tell stories about her life: the highlights, the challenges, and her growth personally and within community. She states in her introduction, “Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another.”
I read this book, cover to cover. I even discovered more insights into what are called the “headnotes” of a recipe. This is the short blurb after the name of the dish but before the ingredient list. I found myself reading the recipe itself, noting any tips or suggestions she offered. It was the first time I have ever had a visceral experience with a cookbook! Just like a novel, I not only felt sad that it ended but also wanted to share its delights with others.
I wondered to myself, do other cookbooks offer this much insight into life through their recipes? Can I find the “common ground” that Niequist refers to in other books as well? Immediately, I went to the library and found “Ripe Figs” by Yasmin Khan. It sparked joy as soon as I picked it up with its beautiful cover photo of perfectly sliced figs bordered by an exotic blue and white graphic design. This cookbook explored food and culture through migration in Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece. Khan not only shares some of the that hardships refugees experience but interweaves them with her own struggles recovering from a miscarriage as she explores different cultures. She attempts to recreate the recipes she loved in her own kitchen with ingredients that can be easily found in most cities. Her sentences danced across the page, enticing my palate with foreign spices, fruits, and vegetables. I loved the book so much, I immediately searched for more of her cookbooks and bought “Ripe Figs” for my sister on her birthday!
Since then, I have checked out several other cookbooks, usually focused on Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. These books have allowed me to armchair travel, exploring other cultures through food. When reading “Chaat” by Maneet Chauhan, I could sense the busyness of Indian railway stations with vendors selling their delectable bites to travelers passing through. In “Sumac: Recipes and Stories from Syria” by Anas Atassi, I wanted the linens on my tables to create memories for my family similar to the ones that Atassi experienced as a child in his grandmother’s home. While reading “Parwana” by Durkhani Ayubi, I got a timely lesson on the Afghan people through the eyes of one family and their food.
These books have not only exposed me to different ingredients and cultures but have also reminded me of the importance of gathering around a table with family and friends. We were never meant to be alone, God always intended us to be in community. It struck me that when Jesus performed miracles, instead of sending the people home afterward, he invited them to have dinner despite his lack of food. Through His hospitality, He performed a miracle that not only provided them with physical nourishment for their bodies but let them know He cared about all their needs. Like any good host, I imagine Jesus walked through the crowd asking each family if they had enough. This personal interaction probably made each person feel like he was not just a number Jesus could record as a miracle, but that he or she was valued as an individual. This means of connecting though food is illustrated throughout the gospels with records of Jesus dining not only his with chosen disciples and friends but with people of ill-repute as well. Despite criticism from the religious elite, Jesus chose to connect with people through food.
If social media Is any indicator of trends, our current world is filled with divisiveness on all sides covering all sorts of issues. This is not only causing discord in society but between family members, friends, and the body of Christ. In “Bread and Wine”, Niequist says, “The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.” That is the desire of my heart as well! I don’t mind having lively conversations on controversial topics. But more than my desire to debate or enlighten, I want my guests to feel seen, heard, and loved. I want to connect across the able over a steaming bowl of soup, a comforting dish of pasta or a savory roast. Like Jesus, I want to welcome people to my table, no matter their background, beliefs, or opinions. Just like the authors of these cookbooks have connected me with their cultures, I believe that through this simple act of hospitality, miracles will unfold that connect us to one another!