Saying Grace: An introduction
This morning I woke up and made both a loaf of bread and a pot of chili.
In many respects, each of these items — the loaf of bread and the pot of chili — represents sustenance at its most mundane. Bread, after all, is… well, bread. It seems to have existed in one form or another in pretty much every culture where people bothered to settle down. Sure, it may well have been a thing worth praying for two millennia ago. But in today’s modern culinary age it’s the very opposite of miraculous. Bread is what restaurants toss down on your table for free, along with water. Indeed, “bread and water” is the descriptive cliche for a meal almost not worth having. And chili? Please. Chili is what we expect dudes who can’t cook to make when they’re getting drunk waiting for the Superbowl to start.
But in my house (and probably Sam’s as well), both bread and chili mean something greater.
For me, bread is that magic substance that until recently terrified me as a cook. It was the mountain that looked a little too steep to be scaled, the river the eddied a bit too quickly to be sailed. Chili, meanwhile, is that up-and-comer that deserves my extra attention, as I attempt to convince other foodies that just because much of it is swill that comes out of a can doesn’t mean that chili doesn’t have the potential to be ambrosia. Rather than a throw-away, bread and chili are each a challenge in my kitchen.
But they are also each family. Bread is not a thing I learned how to make so much as a thing that my whole family learned, together, over the past year or so. Chili isn’t just a favorite recipe of my youngest son; it’s one of the few things he’ll happily eat as leftovers. This past spring he became my sous chef if an attempt to begin to learn its secret alchemy. It’s the one thing we almost always make together.
And on top of all that, at any given moment in my kitchen fresh bread and chili represent frugality, patience, the coming of winter, family nights, large gatherings, youth, maturity, and wafting odors that make the entire house smell like Heaven.
So you see, bread and chili are just bread and chili.
And at the same time, they are not.
Today marks the beginning of the Ordinary Times Food Symposium.
Over the next week or so, we’ll be focusing on food and all of the myriad of things that food represents. Allow me, if you will, the hubris of quoting myself from back in October:
“At times, food is a doorway to the most pleasurable and carnal of our sensual pleasures; at others, it is a deeply ingrained part of our most humble observances toward God. The topic of food is feasts, but it is also famine. (Is there a more starkly poignant an example of inequality than those who go to bed hungry in a word where others casually throw their excess food into the garbage?)
The way we discuss food is the way we talk about health and how we talk about sickness; how we define self-sacrifice and how we define gluttony; how we build our cultural borders and how we tear them down. Discussions about food show where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we are going. Food is as deeply personal as it is communal.
Without food, a table is but a place of convenient storage, a suspended plane where we temporarily discard books, car keys and the daily mail. But set food on that same table, and it magically becomes a place where we raise families, solve the World’s Problems over wine, celebrate, mourn, break hearts and fall in love.
When we talk about food, we talk about about art, and politics, and religion, and business, and family, and government, and freedom, and tyranny, and love.
When we talk about food, we talk about everything.”
We look forward to breaking bread with you.
[Images: My bread, and my bread with my chili. Weren’t you paying attention up top?]