“The unfortunate reality of modern American culture is that it has robbed too many homes of the once-central role of the table in family life and has stolen the goodness of eating real, home-cooked foods…If there is life to be found at the table today, it is life that must be intentionally rescued and reclaimed from its cultural exile.”
~ Sally Clarkson, The Life-Giving Table
I used to be an expert at burning toast (or is it burning bread?) I assume this is noteworthy, considering toasters are responsible for most of the work. There’s even a setting for how light or dark you prefer your toast to be. For my part, I just had to put bread in the toaster oven and push one index finger against the start button. And yet, almost without fail, my toast consistently emerged with a layer of black char that tastes good on marshmallows and terrible on whole grain. Given all this, I also became an expert at applying the sharp side of a butter knife to scrape the unwanted black bits from the toast, resulting in a heap of powdery ash in the trash can (and on the floor). It was a lot more work than necessary, but the recovery was usually successful. And worth it – almost anything tastes good with enough butter slathered on it.
Reclaiming the central role of the table in our own family life has been a little bit like burnt toast. Over the years, God has lovingly scraped away the black and broken bits that have blocked our ability to cultivate a habit of gathering together as a family. From busy schedules to a lack of enthusiasm to my propensity to burn everything, there seemed to be no end to the heap of ashes that piled up amidst my best intentions. Creating a life-giving table is hard and holy work. But God is faithful. And over time, as those ashes were blown away, something nourishing and beautiful began to emerge. We are still in process, but I’d say the recovery effort is proving to be more than worth it.
For most of my life, I was not what you would call a “foodie.” Even though my mother always provided us with an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, I’m ashamed to say that some of my favorite snacks growing up were room temperature sweet peas straight from the can and slices of American cheese. If I ever felt inclined to add a touch of whimsy, I’d put the cheese in a cup, microwave it until it got nice and gooey, and then eat it with a spoon. I remember actually taking notice of how the flavor fluctuated ever so slightly when it was warm. I wish I were making this up. Oh yes, and many times I burnt the cheese, too.
In my defense, I’m not sure it was that common to be a foodie before the days of the Cooking Channel and Food Network. My family didn’t go out to eat much when I was a child, and our lives didn’t really revolve around food, per se. They did, however, most certainly revolve around feasting. That word feast comes to us from the Latin word festus and is associated with the word joy. It’s where we get our word for festival or festivities. Feasting isn’t all about the food; it’s also about celebration and joy, of which the food plays just a part.
One secret my childhood taught me: you don’t need fancy food to feast. In my joy-filled early encounters with food, it wasn’t the meal itself I savored most; it was the joy and celebration that was always inextricably tied to family. Like the summers I spent running around with my cousins in my grandma’s Indiana backyard, while my grandpa served up baked beans and sloppy joes – which we always simply called “BBQ”. Maybe that’s a Midwest thing, this use of BBQ as a noun. It always led my Oregonian cousins to inquire with a certain level of angst, “BBQ what?” We ate on picnic tables and paper plates and swatted at bees. After eating, the older cousins would take turns risking our lives on the three-wheeler, while others played cornhole on a homemade set my wood-working grandpa crafted himself. Dessert was sun-soaked blueberries picked fresh off the rows of bushes that hugged the edge of the yard.
There were also great feasts during our week-long excursions in the family houseboat. Limited by the compact kitchenette and lack of refrigerated space, my mother was a wizard at making side dishes with ingredients like dehydrated milk and prepackaged noodles. Rarely were fresh vegetables involved; the exception being her highly requested fried potatoes, which she crisped up in a cast iron skillet just like my Kentucky grandmother did. The star of the show, however, was always whatever we’d caught out on the lake that day. Personally, I hated fish. Mostly, I’m sure, because my mom fileted them right there on the front deck of the boat. Back then, I didn’t know how to appreciate “wild caught;” it’s not that glamorous up close. But that was OK. The best part of the feast was cramming ourselves around an ill-fitting kitchen table and laughing until nightfall, when the kitchen was magically transformed into a bedroom.
Sundays after church were also a time for feasting at my grandparent’s house. Again, the meal wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. We were all together. To this day, I still prefer my pot roast a little too dry (served up with an ocean of ketchup) and my carrots unreasonably tender.
These memories are precious to me and light up even the darkest corners of my childhood. But when it came time to start my own family, I lost sight of my love for feasting for a while. It’s one thing to be invited to a feast as a child; it’s quite another to learn how to prepare one as a grownup. In my early married life, my husband and I lived far away from much of our family. And though my mom was close by (and still provided some wonderful feasts), many nights it was just the two of us and up to me to set the table. The combination of my overt practicality, lack of imagination, and propensity for burning everything meant that most of our meals were notably lackluster. There was an egregious amount of Hamburger Helper.
It should come as no surprise that adding children to the picture did not make this problem easier to solve. Sure, I had more people to invite to my table, but a feast this does not make. As we know, kids are notoriously unappreciative diners, and the all-round lack of enthusiasm for mealtime was a bit of a creativity-killer for me. As my kids got older, we also got bogged down with additional weight like sports schedules, homework, work meetings, early bedtimes, and sheer exhaustion from a well-lived day. All this means that for many years, mealtimes were simply something to get through, to endure. There was a lot of pacing in the kitchen, opening and closing of the fridge, and blank looks at my husband. “What do you want to do for dinner?” It kept sneaking up on me, this incessant and never-ending need to eat. If my family could live on melted American cheese, I would have gladly served it up with frequency.
But as I look back on those early years, it seems evident that the problem wasn’t just that we didn’t know what to eat. We didn’t lack food. We lacked joy. Gratitude. Celebration. The drudgery of filling demands and meeting needs had too often zapped my enthusiasm, withered my imagination, and left me feeling despondent and overwhelmed. Feasting is a state of mind before it is an event.
The recovery effort to re-instill the table as a central role of our family was therefore a part of a much larger project, one that began with recovering my enthusiasm, my creativity, and my joy in all things, not just mealtimes. Adulthood had lured me away from so many life-giving pieces of myself I had once known – a child in love with simple pleasures, a creative and hopeful artist enamored with possibility, a nurturer eager to use my own gifts to bring life to my world. This recovery effort wasn’t just about getting meals on the table; it was about learning to see my world again through the eyes of an artist.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron reminds us that the word enthusiasm comes from two Greek words meaning “filled with God.” A crucial step in recovering and reclaiming my artist heart was remembering the joy of life lived with God. I was fairly good at pursuing a life lived for God. But in adopting this posture, I couldn’t grab hold of what it meant to receive, to know God as one who chooses to set a table for me every single day and longs to see me feast in His presence. When I’m not resting in open-handed, child-like love with God as Father, it becomes much harder to hold onto joy, and the black char of duty and obligation overshadow the delight of being a celebrated daughter. Before providing feasts for others, I am beckoned first to fill up at my Father’s table.
Feasting – Joy.
Enthusiasm – filled with God.
Joy-filled with God. I think this beautifully captures my journey to recovering mealtimes, as I continuously learn to surrender to a wildly creative God and allow him to shepherd my inner artist. “Enthusiasm,” says Cameron, “is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.” We can apply this truth to making meals, as much as we can apply it to creating a beautiful painting or any other work of art, including the masterpiece that is our very lives.
And this commitment to making art with our lives is why the table is worth fighting for, even when our seasons take a hard turn. Even when we get winter instead of spring. Even now as I write, the entire world is shaking under the weight of a global pandemic, and hearts are anxious and hurting. What better way to regain our footing than planting them firmly under the table? “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, says the Psalmist. This is not mere sentimentality.
The table is more than just a meal; it is a holy act of defiance in the midst of war, where food is a blessing to our bodies and the feast is healing to our souls. Like all good art, the table is where heaven and earth meet.
So, what does all of this look like for our family today? Obviously, it doesn’t mean that meals magically appear. There is certainly a practical, down-to-earth, element involved in getting a dinner onto the table. For us, meal planning has been a priceless gift for opening the door wide to the world of feasting and helping us keep the table central. We subscribe to an online service that provides recipes every week and automatically creates a shopping list, which goes a long way in helping to take care of the practical element. This way, we always have a plan and we always know we have what we need to execute that plan. But because the recipes are brand new every week, adventure is also a built-in part of our feasting. Our kids don’t always appreciate what we serve them, but we’re learning to enjoy the experience of trying new things – even if it results in comments like “this tastes like a farm,” which was my son’s reaction just last night to the broccolini I put on his plate. Even these reactions have become a means of surprise and laughter and a source of joy. We are all learning what it looks like to simply receive, to delight in the gift, even if we don’t always love what we’re handed.
My husband and I have also discovered a joy for cooking together. Rather than rushing around a kitchen alone in an attempt to have everyone sitting down to eat immediately upon his arrival, I now usually wait for him to get home. We have found that this is a rhythm that fits us. Most nights, my husband walks in and greets the kids, pours us some wine, turns on our favorite playlist that week (lately it’s been The Beatles or The Gray Havens), and we enjoy an hour sauntering around in the kitchen, unwinding, and talking about the day. The kids almost always wander back in, and usually four separate times we answer the question, “what’s for dinner?” There may be groans. Sometimes there are cheers. Both are just fine with us. Our six-year-old dances. Our daughter helps brown the meat. Our sons wrestle (sometimes playfully, sometimes not-so-nicely). We trip over children and hop between pots and pans and cutting boards cascading with fresh cut veggies. An absolute mess is made. We make mistakes (I still burn things sometimes), but this is what all good art is made of.
The recovery of the table as central is one of the most life-giving changes we’ve experienced in our home. Of course, seasons get busy and plans get thwarted, but the table has become a place to which we consistently return, no matter how turbulent life gets. Rather than something to get through so we can get on to the next event, I’m learning that putting together a good meal is the event. It is the very framework within which we live our lives together as a family. Creating food that is both nourishing and beautiful is not easy. But it lifts our eyes up to a nourishing and beautiful God. Preparing a feast takes time. But it is inside that stretch of time that the wonder of life unfolds. And it is worth it.
So, in the spirit of feasting, I’d like to raise my glass and toast to you, dear reader. May the God of joy and creativity meet you today in your kitchen. In your chaos. In your ruts and in your moments of overwhelm. May he renew your child-like wonder and stoke the fires of your artist heart. May he open your eyes to the creativity and beauty all around you, even now, and grant you courage to prepare a table in the presence of all that threatens to shake you. May he scrape away the char of duty and demand and reveal to you a joy-filled enthusiasm for feasting once again. And in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, may we all learn what it is to value cheer and song above hoarded gold. For it is indeed what makes for a merrier world.
The featured image is courtesy of Brooke Lark via Unsplash. We are so grateful for Brooke and her generosity!
Nicole Howe is a writer, speaker, Bible study teacher, wife, and homeschooling mama to four kiddos. She serves as editor and regular contributor for the quarterly publication, An Unexpected Journal and holds a Masters Degree in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University, where she discovered the power of the imagination to restore awe and wonder to her floundering faith. Drawing deep insights from her ordinary experiences, Nicole is passionate about helping others discover the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of Christ in broken and unlikely places. When she’s not devouring books, Nicole loves singing, pretending to be a chef, and performing Improv at her local theater.