Keeping the Feast (lines from King Lear)

We will be posting more sporadically this year as we investigate some major life decisions and actually get paid to write about food in Grand Rapids.

To be acknowledg’d, madam, is o’erpaid.
Earl of Kent, King Lear, 4.7

When we first got married, we had five months before our student loan payments came due. English majors never expect to be rich, so even the most serviceable of incomes feel almost decadent to us. I don’t know what other people spend money on—I have a vague image of speedboats and pet tigers—but we spent ours on food.

It was in those first five months that I set the course for my cooking, and, because we had ever so much money, I cooked expensively. My taste in food has always been continental, and the recipes I chose were lavish in their freshness, in their variety, in their many exigencies. To this day I consider brandy a “pantry staple.” It would be misleading to pretend that I was anything other than trés snob about what we ate.

Processed foods, banished. Mixes, banished. Mexican food, banished. Anything that comes in a packet, banished.

As I cooked, I kept (and still keep) a collection of recipes in my head that were suitable for guests. These were dishes that not only tasted exquisite but also presented beautifully. I learned to make bread that was so crusty and so hearty that a colleague of mine, a dear friend and a very continental type, told me was the best bread he had tasted in the United States. I perfected individualized desserts so that I would never have to serve a mangled crust or plop a sad lump of cobbler on a plate. (I own twenty individual ramekins just for such purposes.)

It would at this point be honest to admit that I don’t even like entertaining—I just like being excellent at it. Because Philip and I so enjoy a good meal, it seemed logical to assume that the heart of hospitality was offering the best possible meal to whoever walked through our door.

But eventually—probably at the peak of the first wave of Pinterest and Instagram—I started to tire of what seemed to me to be the most beautiful rat race. With so many photos and blogs and pins of precious table settings and exquisite frittatas, I started thinking deeply about, well, about telos (old habits die hard). And of course, food is fundamentally, almost tautologically, about nourishment, about being fed, in soul and in body.

It is not by accident that the sacrament of Eucharist is a meal, by which we are fed with spiritual food in the sacrament of his body and blood. The body and blood nourish our souls just as our daily bread nourishes our bodies; both point toward another end outside of the themselves; they provide the strength to go forward, to look outward, to live. In Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer, the service ends with this prayer:

Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace, 
and grant us strength and courage 
to love and serve you 
with gladness and singleness of heart; 
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In some way each meal could be an act of eucharist, of thanksgiving. “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Each meal could point outward; both the meal and company could revitalize us, giving us the joy and strength to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart.

And so, gradually, sometimes even subconsciously, I started scaling back the meals I offered guests. It seems to me that there might be something decidedly inhospitable about pulling out all the stops. Impressing guests is decidedly at odds with nourishing their souls, for at the threshold of awe is always a feeling of inadequacy. This is a beautiful experience when we worship, but an uncomfortable one when we are in another’s home.

I still try to provide a hearty meal prepared joyfully to nourish and delight guests. But these days I almost always buy bread instead of making it. May my guests never feel inadequate, as I often do when I encounter someone who seems to be able to grow, harvest, and cook all her own food with the courage of a pioneer woman and the elegance of Martha Stewart. 

Let me never forget, as a guest or as a host, that simply feeding someone is a beautiful act, for the one doing the feeding is saying, quite simply, “Live.”


8 thoughts on “Keeping the Feast (lines from King Lear)

  1. THIS.

    This was perfect.

    I think you really hit on the truth of hospitality, which is not to show off to the guest, but to share with the guest.

    However, if I am to show up at the Zoutendam house, you are totally welcome to wow me.

  2. Pingback: Peach Cobbler, or, Dr. Quinn and Kentucky Hospitality. | The Art in Life

  3. Again, as always, a great blog. How did you get the job of food critics? Do you write for newspapers, magazines, both, or something else?

  4. Pingback: The Soul of Hospitality | The Art in Life

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