Thursday, July 13, 2006

Eat and drink as friends

Note: This is an introduction I wrote to the forthcoming cook book of St. Luke's Episcopal Church of Jacksonville, AL, entitled, Eat and Drink as Friends.

A bishop (who shall remain nameless) remarked to me recently that Sam’s Club had ruined Episcopalian coffee hours and receptions. Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he elaborated, saying, that easy access to things such as frozen “mini-pizzas”, miniature quiches, and egg rolls has caused many an Episcopalian matron to stray from the time-honored ways of her foremothers who would have excommunicated her without a second thought for serving anything frozen, canned, or instant. My anonymous purple-shirted friend noted that there are still Episcopalian church women who are keeping the faith, most notably in the smaller and older towns of the deep South. This is also the theme of the recent book Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral According to the authors the real divisions between Episcopalians and other denominations are not theological or liturgical but gastronomical: “Episcopalians are snooty because they spurn cake mixes and canned goods, without which there would be no such thing as Methodist cuisine…The casserole is the most characteristically Methodist foodstuff.”

My own unscientific and unsystematic research supports the conclusions arrived at independently by my episcopal friend and Metcalfe and Hayes. Having served congregations in Alabama’s Black Belt, two suburban parishes in San Francisco, an urban parish in Philadelphia, and St. Luke’s, Jacksonville, I can attest that the cooks in Alabama are head and shoulders above the rest. Hospitality just seems to be a part of the DNA of Episcopalian churchwomen in the Deep South, and they can throw grand parties at the drop of a hat.

My parishioners at St. Stephen’s, Eutaw, Alabama, love to tell the story of the wedding that the caterer forgot. The reception was to be at Kirkwood, a magnificent antebellum house at the north end of town. On the way to the wedding people who passed Kirkwood thought it strange that the caterer was not unloading food from her van. After the wedding they discovered that the caterer had forgotten the wedding! Fortunately, however, this was the Black Belt. Parishioners rushed home, yanked open drawers, and snatched up china, crystal, silver, and linen. Women pulled homemade rolls, crawfish etoufee, caramel cake, and cheese straws out of refrigerators and freezers. Men raided their liquor cabinets for champagne and wine. Within an hour the bride and groom were being feted at a reception that was good enough for a presidential inauguration.

Southern hospitality is real and its roots are deep. In 1838 English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse came to Alabama to teach. In one letter back to England he wrote of the “generous, almost boundless hospitality, [of] the southern planter.” Perhaps one reason for Southern hospitality is that there were few cities in the South in the early 19th century; towns were small and widely separated; and only primitive roads connected the plantations with each other. Like the ancient Near East, this placed a premium on hospitality. Travelers had to depend on “the kindness of strangers” in an era when travel was difficult, time-consuming, and often dangerous.

But there is also a theological reason for Christian hospitality. We believe that the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is a sacrament, that is, that in some sense the bread and wine are instruments through which we are objectively connected with Christ and incorporated into him. There is, however, a simpler way to understand what happens when the community gathers to share bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. What was or is your grandmother’s favorite dish? What does she always bring to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner? Is it turkey and dressing? Ambrosia? Chicken and dumplings? Regardless of what it is, there is something of her in the food. You experience her again every time you prepare and eat her favorite dish.

Every meal we eat is so much more than just food. It is the labor of those who raised the raw ingredients; it is the skill of the cook; it is the cultural traditions embodied in the recipes. The Eucharist, then, is a special example of this general principle. At the Lord’s Table, Jesus himself is the host. We set the table with our best linen and silver, light candles, and mind our manners, and Christ is among us again just as surely as he was with his disciples at a Passover seder long ago in Jerusalem. How he comes again, we know not, but as a great hymn puts it, “Thou art here, we know not how; thou art here, we know not how.” Christ solemnly promised us that he would be present when we take, bless, and give bread and wine in his Name, but something of the love embodied in the Eucharistic meal is present whenever a meal is prepared and served with care and love.

Much love is embodied in these recipes from St. Luke’s. It is a community that welcomes strangers and is as open to new ideas as it is to new people. For more than one hundred and fifty years St. Luke’s has proclaimed the gospel at the corner of Church and Ladiga in Jacksonville. I hope that you will have the opportunity to come and join these good people as they gather around the Lord’s Table on Sunday, but if you can’t visit St. Luke’s, then as you prepare the recipes in this book, say a prayer for them that they would continue to bear luminous witness to God’s love that took human form and lived among us and continues to be embodied in bread and wine. And open your heart to the gracious gift of hospitality expressed in the delights of the table that St. Luke’s cooks have shared in this book.