Just eating? This morning I was looking for inspiration for my blog. I was having a hard time thinking about faith and cooking. Then I stumbled upon this simple question which was the framework for a whole program on practicing faith in our eating, and eating is one of those things that I sometimes forget to think about when writing this blog. Just eating? While this phrase could mean only eating, the word, just, also means “being honorable and fair in one’s dealings.” Eating is something we can do with minimal to no thought or reflection or it can become an opportunity to practice our faith and our beliefs about justice. Eating is also a space in which we can be mindful of what we are doing and who we are with.
This morning as I was making my egg white omelet with reduced fat cheese, I realized just how grateful I was to be doing such a simple thing. Because of the bird flu, little things that I normally get at the store have been pulled from the shelves, like egg whites. Yesterday was the first time in weeks my grocery store had any, in any size. So this morning just being able to cook them cultivated an attitude of gratitude and thankfulness. It also made me realize that when I am cooking, I tend to be focused on what I am doing and listening to the food with all my senses. It is as if the food I am preparing is having a conversation with me. The aromas that come from the oven when I bake bread tell me they are ready to come out before my alarm ever goes off. The sound of the food going into the pan tells me if I was patient enough in allowing the pan to get hot enough. Sometimes it is the changing colors of the food which speak to me about how ready they are to eat.
When I sit to eat, I become mindful of who is at the table with me. I begin by giving thanks for their presence and the chance to break bread with them, even if there is no physical bread on the table. There is nothing more powerful then sharing a meal with people. Spiritual leaders across time have done so. A friend of mine found that one was able to build bridges between adversaries with food. In her doctoral studies, she found that competing gang members would set aside their disdain for each other over a home baked pie, or some fried chicken and collard greens.
We can just eat or we can engage in just eating, as a spiritual practice. When we do so, we are mindful of how this food got on our table and the labor which was involved in its doing so. Ruth Leonard, who teaches English in China, tells this story about her students,
“Three plastic bags sit in my kitchen in an old basket. One is full of freshly ground corn meal. One is full of peanuts, still showing the evidence of the ground they were grown in. The third is full of rice. I received these gifts from my students, who carried them from their hometowns on crowded trains. All week long, my students study English at XinXiang College in central China, but when the call comes from their parents to return home, they do it without questioning. They know they are needed, not merely wanted. Last month, several young men joined together to help a student whose mother is widowed. They traveled by bus, standing-room only; slept three to a cot and spent the weekend stooped in mud harvesting rice.
“I am only beginning to understand thankfulness and appreciation for the foods that are so necessary for life and the hard struggles to coax them from the ground. How easy it is to forget. This week's English lesson was about weddings in the West. The students listened with rapt attention as I told about the engagement ring, the cake, the dresses. We held a mock wedding, and all the students were giddy and embarrassed and excited. Then, I did the unthinkable. The wedding over, we tossed small handfuls of rice onto the smiling ‘couple.’
“The young men were gracious. Infinitely gracious. They did not stop smiling — but the touch of irony in their smiles did not elude me.”
This week, may we be intentional not just eating, but engaging in just eating.