What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul

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John Piper and Teaching My Children To Eat (Part 1)


One morning after a protracted battle with my toddler over her attempt to decline her breakfast oatmeal, I walked into the living room just in time to see her reaching her chubby hand into the back of her diaper and pulling it back towards her mouth to examine, in a more direct way, what she had just deposited in said diaper via the usual means. Of all the culinary adventures I had dreamt of having with my kids in my wide-eyed and optimistic pre-parental years, this day (or rather, morning – it was barely 10 a.m.) had not made the list.

During my own childhood, poverty and other circumstances meant that I was neither physically nor spiritually nourished particularly well. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a body that was overweight and unhealthy, and a theological perspective that was heavy on law and moralism, but feather-light on the gospel. God worked over the next decade after high school to transform my heart and mind in a way that manifested itself in a healthier body, and a healthier (and oh-so-much happier) understanding of what God’s Word was really about. When God gave me children of my own, I was determined to atone for the sins of my youth and give my girls a better foundation than I had had with eating, and with learning to love the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Even in those early years of mothering, I knew that instilling good habits and thinking about the lesser thing (food) could inform how they regarded the far greater thing (Scripture). Armed with an English and Bible degree from a brand name Christian college, and several years of nutrition and culinary training on top of that, I was confident that on at least these two fronts, I was going to dominate motherhood.

It felt like mere months into my new role as Director of Culinary Education for my first little Starke-let before I was already ready to tap out. I was surprised from the onset how much time I had to invest the seemingly simple lesson of what actually was food (anything God provided and Mommy prepared, regardless of individual aversions to particular textures, colors) and what most certainly was not (thumbtacks, chalk, discarded cigarette butts and the Substance Which Shall Not Be Named). Building on this core concept (which we had to continually review) were others, including:

Food Transportation Methods and Systems – why hands are appropriate delivery mechanisms for carrots sticks, Cheerios and peas, but not mashed potatoes or applesauce, or anything on Mommy’s plate

Food Ownership and Property Rights – why ownership of a food mandates its consumption (especially when granted by Mommy), but lack of ownership forbids it; when equitable redistribution of edible property is good and desirable (candy with Mommy, snacks at the park with friends) and when it is deceitful disobedience (surreptitiously feeding your cauliflower to the dog)

Food and Personal Creative Expression – why making a happy face on pancakes from half a banana, cranberries and a single, self-aware chocolate chip is a legitimate lunch activity, but mixing your sweet potatoes, chicken and milk into a paste with which to paint your sister is cause for immediate expulsion from the kitchen to Mommy’s bed for a timeout. (Optional followup lesson on the nature of bodily noises deemed a worthy and noble addition to collective eating experiences, versus those meriting dismissal as described above.)

Meal after snack after mess after meal, I worked to give my girls a healthy perspective about food. The temporary defeats were many. One of my girls, a very early teether, was offended at the very idea of chewing, and convinced that her teeth were literal thorns in her flesh and thus not to be trusted. She would sit with a tiny morsel of tri tip in her mouth forever, waiting for it to dissolve, or for when I was looking away so she could push the offending object out of her mouth down a slip ‘n’slide of drool onto her high chair. Another really believed that food was better for looking at, and playing with, but not actually eating. (She was generously willing to make exceptions for anything made mostly of white flour.) Many were the dinners that became breakfast, and on rare horrible days, that then became lunch, as my youngest Starke-let learned that the guiding principle (although by no means the exclusive one) for what she was to eat was not what she personally preferred, but what God had provided.

I tried not to make every meal a grand monument to culinary and nutritional principles. Sometimes God gave us chicken nuggets and French fries for dinner. (These days seemed to coincide with Daddy’s business travel schedule in a statistically significant way.) On other days, God gave homemade chicken pot pie containing a medley of vegetables that on first receipt were viewed as irrefutable evidence that God hates us all. But because I knew that God always loves us, just not always in ways we understand, I made sure that the vegetables were eaten with as much willingness as the French fries, even with less spontaneous joy.

The battles were hard. Victory has never really been declared. Thirteen year olds are just as capable of eyeing a new food with suspicion as a three year old. But today, (with necessary caveats for circumstances like an impending bout of the flu that I will only know about after the impending has led to the actual and I am kicking myself at 3 a.m. for my strictness in making the poor girl eat those three bites of chili before she could go to bed), all the Starke-lets will eat pretty much anything they’re offered. They have learned the appropriate social conventions with which to bless their hosts if what they receive is not to their immediate liking. Better yet, they have also learned to willingly eat and enjoy a wide range of foods and styles of cooking.

During those early years of Eating 101, it was hard to imagine the day when my teething toddler would grow up to chew her kale so cheerfully. If anyone had told me it would take a literal decade before I could see the fruit of my labors clearly, I would not have received that attempt at encouragement with a lot of joy. But never did I honestly think about just giving up and submitting to the childish whims of my dear one’s immature taste buds and brains. The stakes were too high, I knew too much about where that road would ultimately lead. With God’s help, I fought the food battles, I failed a lot, I repented and got back at it a lot, and today, by God’s grace, the physical food part of mothering is going pretty well.

If only I could say the same about my work to help my kids enjoy spiritual food.

To be continued….


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Writer’s Envy and Chicken Dignity

To all you wonderful bloggers who can just sit down and make digital literary magic happen in a matter of minutes or hours – I salute you. I have been laboring over a longish piece on the connections between teaching my kids how to eat and teaching them how to read Scripture for close to a week and it’s still only two-thirds done.

At least one reason for my struggle is due to how often lately I’ve encountered writing that is better than my own by innumerable orders of magnitude. Many times, I’ve had a Shakespearean moment of sinful envy at how well some people can write, and how quickly. But then, occasionally, the writing is so good and topic is so close to my heart, that I all I can think is that I’m thankful they serve God and us with their gifts in talking about the important things of life so well.

The latest case in point in Joe Carter’s latest piece on the dignity of chickens.

I’ll wait while you snicker. Not too long ago, I might have as well. But one day last year I came home to find my husband reading an old animal husbandry book he found in a second hand bookstore, which shortly thereafter lead to he and my oldest daughter spending a weekend together building a chicken coop, and then shortly thereafter that the adoption of six baby chicks. Our first foray into urban chicken farming has been remarkably similar to our early years of parenting – lots of work on our part keeping the little darlings fed and healthy and the heck out of my heirloom tomato plants, and notsomuch with the work from them, except for constant eating and pooping. So. Much. Pooping.

Today, though, our five chickens (yes, the math is right, one needed to go the way of all chickens for reasons I’ll tell you another day) bless us regularly with beautiful, heavy brown eggs with dark yolks that practically glow. Beyond that, the lessons our families have learned about caring for the creatures who feed us have been life altering.  Feeding and watering them, watching their habits, learning to our delight that they have individual personalities, have given us a new window into the way God’s creation gives us food, and how He wants us to steward it, that I didn’t expect.

So go ahead and laugh to yourself about the idea of chicken dignity being a thing, let alone a thing worth writing about, let alone a thing worth writing in a way that I promise will put some gentle pressure on your tear ducts. Go ahead. Then read the piece. Then watch the video.

Then come back here and let me know if I wasn’t right, both about what Joe wrote, and how compellingly he wrote it.

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Friday Night Foodie Links (5/2)

During the week I try to keep the main thing the main thing and focus on Jesus and spiritual food. But on the weekends, I indulge my inner foodie and offer you fun, disturbing, and/or thought-provoking things about physical food. Bon Appetit!

From the NOT. FOOD. department:

  • I’m not a watermelon fan, thanks to a sad summer incident involving some childish overindulgence and subsequent public vomiting at a church picnic. So the sight of these cookies makes me nauseous on multiple levels.

Restaurants and Chefs

  • 900 people who supposedly know these things have named this year’s list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.  No, I haven’t eaten at any of them. But, yes, I do aspire to – Alinea in Chicago and Le Bernardin in New York being my two choices, should any of you have an in with either of them. And several hundred dollars to spare.
  • Danny Meyer is a genius (culinary, restaurant, business). Need proof? He uses all of his principles about food and hospitality to guide his stock market investment strategy.  The results this year? Outperformed the S&P by close to 3:1, proving that excellence in hospitality is very serious, and profitable, business.

Foodie Mockery (because they know not what they mock)

  • Jim Gaffigan being supportive of women trying to help their families eat better. Thanks, Jimmy. First the President says he doesn’t eat broccoli, now you with the kale.

Dishes I’ve Made and Liked Lately

  • I only do meatloaf if the recipe is awesome, and this one is. Great for freezing and sharing. (Bonus points for the unexpected ingredient, and hey – regularity!)

Food Places I’ve Been and Enjoyed Lately

We got the opportunity to get away for two days in Napa last week. Trying to get last minute reservations anywhere in this town on a Friday will usually get you laughed to scorn, but Tra Vigne welcomed us warmly. Think of it as what the Macaroni Grill wishes it could be – great accessible food, good wine, friendly service, and a bill that didn’t make us wonder how many liters of plasma we’d have to sell.

Food Tips, Tricks and Tools

  • I love cherry tomatoes. I hate cutting them. I hate eating them whole and having the scary “when will it explode inside my mouth and fling little choky seeds down my trachea?” moment. Thanks to this brilliant man, I can eat cherry tomatoes without fear.

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When Jesus Says Hard Things

What is it like to eat a human being? And what’s the big deal about it anyway?

If just the idea of those questions grosses you out, I’d encourage you not to read this piece at the Huffington Post, which uses the recent NBC drama “Hannibal” as an excuse to ask those questions and offer some perspective courtesy of modern history’s most infamous cannibal criminals. And if asking the question out loud is offensive well, even secular anthropologists will try not to judge you for your Western cultural bias. For most Westerners of any faith or no faith at all, the idea cannibalism is something from which we all instinctively recoil (ahem, unless we’re a Hollywood producer with an insatiable craving for yet another edgy late night TV hit). But we don’t often ask ourselves why.

The Old Testament gives us plenty of reasons. Genesis 1 tells us that we are creatures of a very particular kind. We are God’s image bearers, made to reflect him individually and collectively. To use one another as food, instead of receiving what God has already given, is to be literally inhuman. The kosher laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy elaborate on this idea. While the laws about which animals are permissible or impermissible for food are somewhat shrouded in mystery, the laws proscribing the ingestion of blood of any creature are explained clearly. The life of an animal is in its blood. To drink blood is a disordered quest for life outside the means God has already provided. (Dracula, anyone?) Many of the corresponding kosher laws center on honoring this central requirement – to cleanse any permissible meat of all residual blood before it’s eaten. Even today, with the sacrificial system on hiatus for contemporary Jews, dietary restrictions like these remain at the center of Jewish identity.

With all that in mind, spare a thought for Jesus’ followers, and especially for Peter, when, in John 6, Jesus actually seems to be commanding the people to throw out this restriction in an appalling way. The people have just had their physical hunger satisfied in the most spectacular manner since God fed their ancestors manna from heaven, and they are doing their level best to get Jesus to make this a permanent thing. After several rounds of verbal back and forthing, Jesus tells the people that he is prepared to feed them, but on His terms instead of theirs.

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54)

Don’t you kind of wish the Internet had been a thing back then? Can you imagine the Twitter-rage? Those 34 words comprise one of the most offensive things any Jew could have said to another. “Hard saying” seems like an understatement. It makes the decision of many of the disciples to turn their backs on Jesus and walk away seem totally understandable, even, dare I say it, biblical.

But it also makes Peter’s response incredibly beautiful.

Peter had been with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in general, and this latest miraculous adventure in particular. He had watched Jesus pass out the bread and the fish, and had helped haul the baskets of leftovers away himself. He had listened in as the crowd tried to filter this experience through their own presuppositions to meet their own demands. He heard Jesus’ outrageous words as clearly as everyone else. What must he have thought in those moments as he saw the crowds dissipate and watched so many of the other disciples leave in a cloud of dust and disgust? Peter was no deep-thinking intellectual. He was an act-on-instinct kind of guy. If anyone should have run away screaming and gagging, it should have been him.

Instead, Peter’s response revealed that he knew more, in a far deeper way, than any of the disciples who walked away that day. What Jesus had said to them all was indeed a hard saying, and Peter didn’t understand it any better than anyone else. But Peter’s lack of understanding was overruled, not so much by what he had already come to know, but by Whom he had come to know, by following him. The sum total of all that Jesus had spoken, and all that he was, was greater and more certain than the hard saying of this moment. Peter couldn’t not stay.

Many of us can see ourselves standing next to Peter in this scene. We have received our own “hard saying” from Jesus. We struggle to reconcile what Jesus is commanding with everything else that He’s promised. We watch the crowds walk away, and the temptation to follow is overwhelming.

In those moments, it’s what we have come to know about Jesus – about who He is and what all of His words to us truly give us – that help us speak like Peter in the midst of our struggle, and continue to walk with Him.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”