I remember the summer I fell in love with cooking.
I was 19 years old and on a three-week-long choir tour in Greece. I had been a fan of Mediterranean cuisine long before the trip, but those three weeks awakened me to the joy of cooking.
It was all due to one man named Henri. Our choir was staying at a Christian camp somewhere in Greece, both at the very beginning and the end of the trip. Henri served as the camp chef. The details of his life story were never entirely clear, save that he was a highly-trained chef who had devoted his formidable skills to the service of his brothers and sisters who stayed at that camp, who would feast at his table.
And what a feast it was. I remember the night he served us risotto alongside lamb meatballs with a fresh tomato and parsley sauce. I literally sang the opening bars to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ upon tasting it, and my choir-mates laughed a little at my theatrics. I meant that outburst – delicious food causes me to worship.
When I came home from that choir tour, I decided I wanted to learn how to cook. I could already follow a recipe well enough, but I wanted to learn to create in the kitchen. I began tinkering more and more. As a child and teenager, my gastronomic efforts were marked by overcooked food. I set things on fire in the kitchen more than once. I determined to leave that reputation behind and learn to prepare food so that I could honor guests with an excellent meal the same way that Henri did.
As I have continued my quest toward being a good cook, I have discovered that food made with artistry blesses a person more deeply than just satisfying their physical hunger. The time spent in a kitchen says that they are worth the time food preparation takes. At its core, cooking is service. Whatever Gordon Ramsay may try to make us believe, being a chef is not a glamorous role. It is hard work for the good and enjoyment of other people. Good food and hospitality should be an offer of rest and safety. It should say, in a world that is intent on making us believe we are emotionally homeless, ‘You have a home here.’
Good food can also help us to reset the rhythm of our lives. In 21st century America, where if things are not instant, they are at least express, taking time to make everything from scratch speaks a needed message: we have time to celebrate the goodness of God in the food he has placed on this earth. We have time to celebrate each other by sharing a meal. That our bodies need regular fuel reminds us that we are finite and inherently weak, even while the process by which we convert food into energy is miraculous and glorious.
In learning to cook, I discovered another element of joy: creation. There are few things as satisfying to me as the pure creative power of taking raw food and transforming, shaping, blending, and flavoring it until the taste I envisioned and could nearly smell in the empty air sits realized and plentiful on my kitchen table. Like all other art, it is then best consumed in the company of friends.
As I look at the purposes of art, good food fulfills all of them. It enriches the lives of those who consume it. It causes me to worship the God who made the ingredients, who allows me the skills and means necessary to prepare it, who made my taste buds, and who decreed that the human body would enjoy and profit from a wide variety of food (and not merely, say, the slop that Mr. Anderson, et al., were forced to eat in the Matrix movies). It allows me to play with color and texture and nuance as I think of new combinations of flavors. It reminds me of my humanity and my need for rest and renewal. Given that Adam and Eve’s first sin involved eating, that Jesus called us to remember His death by sharing a meal, and that, one day, we will feast together at the marriage supper of the Lamb who was slain, it thus echoes the Gospel.
A few weeks ago, I read a quote on the Instagram account of singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. It said, ‘Let every feast be a declaration of war against all that is not true.’ I’m not sure who said it, but I’m fairly certain he was quoting someone else. Whoever said it has crystalized what I love about good food: it is a beautiful declaration of war. Good food tells me that God loves me. It wages war against the lie that he is stingy. It proclaims to every guest that they are beloved and combats the lie that all they are worthy of is the inattention of a TV dinner.
A good dinner speaks love outpoured from God to man, and then from man to neighbor. Was there ever a better reason to create?