What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul

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A Soul Food Feast

For a kid, there are fewer moments of pure bliss than when you arrive at the entrance of the great industrialized entertainment megalopolis that is the Disneyland resort in Orlando, Florida. You have heard the stories on the playground. You have gazed longingly at the brochures. But that moment when your car turns into the parking lot and you get your first glimpse of the famous castle and all your anticipation is transformed into glorious reality – that’s a moment that sticks with you for a long, long time. So is the moment a young woman, raised on processed food bought with food stamps, finds herself on her first solo business trip to Orlando, with an expense account with no limit (other than her kind manager’s admonishment to not go too crazy), standing at the front door of Emeril’s.

Culinary naif that I was at the tine, I had the temerity to walk in on a Sunday at 7 without a reservation. I was suitably “punished” for my ignorance by being ushered fairly curtly to a seat at the counter overlooking the kitchen, otherwise known as restaurant Siberia. But ignorance is bliss, and all I back then was that I had been given a front row seat to the ultimate in dinner theater, and at the restaurant of Mr. Bam! himself, Emeril Lagasse.

Ironically, I can’t remember what I actually ordered to eat that night. What I do remember was letting the book I’d brought to read lay next to my plate unopened, as I watched an amazing flame- and steam-fuelled drama unfold in front of me. Young men in aprons and toques shouted cryptic things about “firing one risotto” (what did the risotto do to deserve that?) and “ three rib -eye all day” (why were they saying this at 7:30 at night?). The cook directly in front of me was running the appetizer line, focusing intently on the small plates and garnishes in front of him. But at one point, he reached his spoon out of sight, and then brought it back with what looked like a donut hole resting on it and then reached up to the counter and placed it on my bread plate. “Try dat,” he said brusquely, in an unmistakable New York accent. “I been workin’ on’at.” Blinking in surprise (free food at Emerils!), I popped it in my mouth. It was what I now know to be a potato croquette – ingredient and method wise, not more than a glorified tater tot. But the texture, and the unrecognizable spices he’d added, made it the Platonic ideal to which all tater tots should aspire. It was, I also now know, way oversalted. Had this happened to me last week, I wouldn’t have hesitated to say something about “maybe a little aggressive with the salt” to broadcast my foodie fides and as an act of good faith (when chefs ask for feedback, they want the truth – unless they disagree with you, but that’s a thought for another day). But back then I was too shy, so I just smiled, nodded enthusiastically and mumbled “good!!” and I was thanked for my opinion with another croquette on my plate. Then the bill came, with a price that was, in hindsight, far from outrageous, but still more than I had ever paid out of my own tiny pockets. Whipping out my shiny new corporate credit card, I signed for the check as if I had been doing this kind of thing my whole life.

As I sat in what felt like the deafening silence of a taxi after being immersed for two hours in the glorious din produced by a restaurant kitchen’s dinner service, I rewound all the events of the evening in my mind. I had been given a wide open window through the fourth wall of the theater of fine dining into the kitchen. And I never wanted it to close again. Fifteen years of cooking and learning about food in one of the world’s culinary capitals, my love for the world of food and the people who cook it is as strong as ever, thanks to an evening that delivered so much beyond what I anticipated.

Because God is a giver of gifts that are perfect as well as good, tomorrow I get to travel back to that same city, and maybe even back to Emeril’s, if God grants the time. But the possibility that He won’t doesn’t bother me in the least, because of what I’m actually travelling there to do. I will be joining four thousand women from across America at The Gospel Coalition’s biennial conference for women. At the first conference, I can honestly say God gave me a taste of Himself, and of what He wanted me to be, that was as perspective- altering as that countertop meal was many years ago. In the months that followed, I went through some deep waters, but armed with a greater understanding of who He was from all of Scripture, God gave me the strength to tread water, instead of drown. It truly was a feast for my soul that I’ll remember until the day I’m sitting at the ultimate one.

Many attendees are second-timers like me, but many others are coming for the first time, and many, many more will be watching via the livestream. They are like I was so many years ago, on the brink of something that has the potential to transform entirely their understanding – of God, of His Word, and His purposes for us as His beloved daughters. I’m praying for that – for them and for me. I’m praying that this will be a time of such incredible feasting on God’s Word, of such nourishing fellowship with women of every age, ethnicity, and circumstance, that we will go home transformed, never wanting to go back to the way things were.

While I’m taking my laptop in hopes of getting some writing in while I’m there, a friend and I were noting that a likely sign of a truly life changing conference is that we don’t want t lose moments tweeting or blogging in realtime! So, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write while I’m there.

But if you’re reading this and attending the conference, I’m staying through Monday, which means Sunday night I might be free for that trip back to Emerils after all. TGCW women are all spiritual food-ers for sure, but if you’re also a physical food-er like me and you think that one splurge dinner is worth the hit to the book budget, I’d love to meet up.

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Sunday Night Soul Food (June 22)

Our dedicated music pastor has been gradually, intentionally introducing our church to the growing trend of singing old Puritan hymns set to more contemporary tunes. (Puritan covers, so to speak.) Because I’m a vocalist, some weeks I get the double blessing of learning a new hymn so I can teach it to the congregation. As much as possible I try and memorize the lyrics, not just so that I can do the best possible job at conveying the hymn’s meaning, but also because then the song stays with me throughout the week.

I’ve been grateful for that double blessing of late. Several weeks ago, I got to teach the congregation a beautiful hymn by a Puritan woman named Anne Steele. She has the kind of story that sounds romantic now that she’s several hundred years into her heavenly reward, but “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul” is not a treacly, triumphalistic song. It’s a song about clinging to God in the midst of the often exhausting trials of life.

I wrote the meditation below several weeks ago to introduce Anne’s hymn to our church, when I was in one of the seasons she describes. Today, I’m there again, and bringing Ann’s words back to mind fed my soul. If you’re going into this week already tired, her words will encourage you too.


“The hymn you’re going to hear now was written by a woman named Ann Steele. Ann lived in England in the 1700s.  When she was 3, her mother died. When she was 19, she suffered a terrible hip injury that rendered her increasingly disabled. There is also a story that she was engaged but her fiancé drowned the morning of their wedding (which may be aprocryphal), and she never married. She` was someone who lived with a number of what the Puritans call “hard providences.”

The Bible is filled with the writings of God’s people who have lived the same kind of life. Job, David, Mary, Peter – all of them went through seasons where God gave them something, or things, that were brutally difficult to receive. What makes their stories so helpful to us is that in their seasons of testing, they fought to turn toward God and His Word, instead of running away from Him and towards the things of the world. They turn toward the One who turned His face away from His own Son on the cross, so that we could forever be kept and held by Him.

Some of us are in that season this morning. Unemployment, difficult marriages, wandering children, surprise and protracted illness – all these things test our faith, and tempt us to turn away from the One who made us and knows us and loves us. When we turn toward God in times of testing and temptation, – through prayer, through feeding on His word, through coming here this morning, to hear God’s word and be with God’s people, when our flesh is begging us to just pack it in, sleep in and fall away, that is a sign that we actually belong to Him.”

 Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul

1. Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief,
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief,
For every pain I feel

2. But oh! When gloomy doubts prevail,
I fear to call Thee mine
The springs of comfort seem to fail,
And all my hopes decline
Yet gracious God, where shall I flee?
Thou art my only trust
And still my soul would cleave to Thee
Though prostrate in the dust

3. Hast Thou not bid me seek Thy face,
And shall I seek in vain?
And can the ear of sovereign grace,
Be deaf when I complain?
No still the ear of sovereign grace,
Attends the mourner’s prayer
Oh may I ever find access,
To breathe my sorrows there

4. Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet,
Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet


John Piper and Teaching My Children to Eat (Spiritually) (Part 2)

Teaching my daughters how to feed themselves, and others, has offered me the same maternal joyful highs and humbling lows as teaching them about food itself.

At first, the learning curve was very much on my end. For the most part, babies are born with remarkable instincts for where food is to be found and how it’s to be obtained. Moms are the ones who have to figure out how to get the demand lined up with the mechanics of the supply. Some Moms get their very first taste of Mommy guilt right from the get go when the 24 hour a day manufacturing plant is inefficient or parts seem to fail.

Within six to eight months though, the switch begins and the first lessons in nutritional autonomy, usually in the form of oatmeal delivered by means of a spoon, begin. Around this same time babies discover that they have in their own persons the same remarkable capability to deliver food – opposable thumbs are a wonder. From there the cycle of teaching which tool is good for what begins to turn, and turn, and turn. In this phase, a mom’s task is one of making every possible food finger-friendly. Culinary school students spend copious amounts of time and money learning how to turn whole foods into giant piles of tiny cubes; moms of toothless and teething babies get the same education for free. This season seems to go on for years….because it does. Many is the mom who has Rumpelstiltsken-esque nightmares about being imprisoned in a room filled with piles of chicken and potatoes to chop into pieces by morning, or who finds herself on a date with her husband at a restaurant blessedly devoid of a kids’ menu, yet still slicing her beautifully seared filet into tiny bits before eating it. The day my youngest daughter finally mastered a knife and fork I wanted to throw a party bigger than the one we threw when she learned how to use a potty.

After that monumental milestone was reached, the next adventure, the biggest one, the one I had envisioned in sepia-stained vignettes acted out in slow motion to a stringed orchestra soundtrack, was teaching my kids how to cook and bake for themselves. My own childhood cooking memories are mostly sad ones, overshadowed by my mother’s frequent illness and our, at times, significant poverty. “Cooking” in our house was often little more than opening freezer packages or cans, procured through food stamps or the kindness of others. But God, being rich in mercy, blessed me with a remarkable number of providences in the subsequent years:  cooking classes in high school, a career that involved a lot of after hours entertaining of clients in restaurants on the company dime, and even a home with professional grade kitchen (designed by my former restaurant manager husband), situated in a state that produces over half of the country’s produce, and a region that is world-famous for general foodiness. With all of those resources, how could I fail but to make my children little Master Chef Jr. candidates from the get go??

Pretty easily, as it turns out. Apart from the ordinary challenges of teaching kids a skill that involves tools that can dismember or disfigure them, the biggest battle was not letting the weight of my disadvantaged past, or the expectations wrought by my abundantly blessed present, crush my poor girls like so many delicate spices between a mortar and pestle.

No day better exemplifies my struggle than the one I spent trying to teach my ten-year-old daughter how to make an apple pie. We had weathered the peeling and cutting of the apples and preparing of pastry with all kid digits and maternal patience intact (mostly). But as I watched my daughter wrestle with the rolling pin and saw the piecrust begin to tear, I saw that my vision of Platonic pie perfection was at risk. I nudged my daughter out of the way and took the rolling pin in my hands to rescue it. “Mom, let me do it!” my girl protested. “Well, you’re not doing it properly!” I replied impatiently. “And pie is important!”. Sarah’s slumped shoulders and crestfallen face instantly broadcast my mistake. Instead of giving my daughter the warm memories of time spent together learning and experimenting and enjoying God’s gift of food, I was giving my daughter memories of how I cared more about culinary orthodoxy than her. I apologized instantly and sincerely, she forgave me, and we finished the pie together. (It came out just great.) Since then, the phrase “Pie Is IMPORTANT!” is offered up in our home as shorthand for “Quit being a kitchen mean freak!” whenever any of the Starkes are tempted to choose cooking truth over familial love.

God has brought back that day to my mind often as I’ve pondered struggles to find the “right” way to teach my girls to love God’s Word. When I say that being able to read and study the Bible is already in my girls’ genes, I’m not exaggerating much. Between my husband’s immediate family and mine, we have thirteen bachelors’, masters, and doctoral degrees, with several more pending, and almost all of them in disciplines like English or theology. Starkes don’t do sports; school is our sport. My own English and Bible degrees gave me an incredible foundation for teaching my girls how to read and appreciate literature in general, and the greatest Book of all. and I’m forever grateful for them. And yet, the same education that has helped me the most is, I’m now seeing,what puts me and my girls in actual danger, because it has been an education of a specific and potentially toxic kind.

The central tenet of all my training in my Reformed Baptist home, and at my evangelical college, was neither Jesus’ greatest commandment, nor the second one. My education centered on knowing all the right things about God, and why the wrong things were the wrong things, and why everyone who believed the wrong things was wrong, wrong, wrong. I was raised and educated to be a spiritual food critic, maybe even a food snob, rather than an appreciative eater. I can shred a bad sermon and pick apart a bad song lyric with ease. I know my eisegesis from my exegesis, (which is why going into mainstream Christian bookstores makes me break out in a rash). But when it comes to loving my neighbors, especially the neighbors who eat the spiritual junk food and don’t seem to mind it, too often I fall far short of love.

My only comfort (which, come to think of it, shouldn’t be all that comforting) is that I’m not alone. A quick scan of the Reformed internet reveals that there’s far more “someone is wrong about God on the Internet!” content than there is content about loving God and neighbor. I want more for my daughters, and myself, than more lessons in how to live as a food snob in a world filled with bad food. I want to be a better eater, I want to be a loving feeder of others, and I want that for my girls as well.

Next – how Tom Collicchio and John Piper are helping me teach my girls to be the right kind of spiritual eaters.