Meals are holy, lifegiving event

Published December 1, 1999

STEPHEN LEACOCK once wrote a macabre story about a futuristic Christmas dinner, a warning against the fast-food revolution that he foresaw.Before frozen food and microwaves were thought of, he envisaged Christmas dinner reduced to a pill. Only the addition of water was needed to make it a meal.He described a large traditional family gathering assembled at the table, saying grace over a pill containing everything ? turkey, stuffing, cranberry, right through to Christmas pudding. During grace the smallest child reached out and swallowed the pill. Distraught parents made the fatal mistake of giving him water; he exploded. Leacock says that when they pieced him together there was on his face the contented look that could only be worn by a child who has just eaten fourteen Christmas dinners. Leacock could not have imagined the extent to which ready-to-thaw food would move from fantasy to dominance in so many households. And for good reason in many homes. When our children were small, preparing food seemed an endless exercise which, together with all the other demands of children, left their mother exhausted by day’s end. But I now live in a freer world where preparing food has become a joy. Five years ago, alone on sabbatical, I began to cook. I still don’t cook in any creative sense but I can follow recipes. Usually they are recipes that involve a lot of measuring, slicing and stirring, and Dorothy and I do it together. Between the preparing and the eating it takes much of the evening, especially when we come home late from work. (When I was first cooking I insisted, when it was my turn, on doing it all myself to prove that I really could, but it’s much more fun as a joint operation, even when we are just cooking for the two of us.) In our house, cooking creates an environment. By supper time, the whole house smells of spice and anticipation. More profoundly, it creates a relationship with sauces and vegetables, meat and fish, rice and pasta. They become not something I devour so that I can move on to real life, but fellow creatures in the process of life. All of this rapturous outburst from a man come lately to cooking may strike women who spend time and effort alone in the kitchen as absurdly romantic. But in my defence I will say that when I was quite young I wanted to cook (well, bake cookies), but with wartime food rationing my mother sensibly declined to let me risk a week’s ration coupons. The consumerism of our day, working through its corporate and political spin doctors, wants to reduce us to consumers, pure and simple. Food, like the whole of creation, should become something we use mindlessly and relentlessly so that eventually all creation, (even people!), can be seen only in terms of their use to ME. And I connect all of this with the second great commandment, loving our neighbours as ourselves. When we entertain guests at a meal, we cook to produce a sign of our love for them. But if we do not love ourselves enough to see our own meals as a holy and lifegiving event, we are in trouble. For me, cooking has become a saving event. Most of the time it beats spending the evening trying to find something worth watching on TV. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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