ONE OF MY FAVORITE paintings, Bringing Food by Brian Kershisnik, shows a side view of a woman in a blue dress flecked with red. Her arms are stretched out in front of her; her hands are cupped under a bowl. A conduit, shaded lighter than the subtle blue-dotted background, arches upward from the bowl and widens as it reaches right off the painting. The conduit, at first glance, may seem like steam rising from whatever hot dish it contains; but to me, the rising arch also represents spirit, the unseen power that can accompany the gift and preparation of food.
I grew up thinking food was an expression of love. Certainly, being the plump girl I was, this wasn’t surprising. My most vivid memories of childhood revolve around the smell, taste, and texture of food. When my mother knew my dad had had a stressful day, she’d bring out his favorite, fresh Parmesan cheese, and build a dinner that could be smothered in it. When my twelve-year-old brother was nervous the day before his first Boy Scout fifty-mile hike, my mother pulled out the metal bowl she used to bathe babies in, and with a large wooden spoon began what seemed a witch’s incantation of Sierra cookies. Filled with chips, nuts, oatmeal, Rice Krispies, raisins, and M&Ms, these chunky confections were baked and then wrapped in wax paper and shoved into the side pouch of his pack like a love note. For me, my mother made creamed spinach topped with French fried onions, which she served on Thanksgiving and at my birthday dinner every year. It was a savory side dish with enough cream and butter to turn any vegetable—even stringy spinach—into green ambrosia.
As you might expect, Christmas-giving at our house was centered on food gifts. A week before Christmas my mother would sequester herself in the kitchen and begin making batches of cinnamon rolls in multiples. Whoever was home was enlisted in the process of rolling, buttering, cutting, and frosting. In the evening, the whole family would pile in the station wagon and deliver still-warm plates to neighbors and friends along with a badly sung version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
I admit, the food instinct in me is layers deep. For years I have cooked for people I love. When tragedy strikes a friend or neighbor, I feel helpless until I realize I have three eggs in the fridge, a half-pound of brown sugar, and enough chocolate chips and pecans to make my signature chocolate cake. It is empathy served in a thirteen-by-nine-inch pan.
A few years ago, after my mother suffered a massive stroke, my sisters and I brought her home from the hospital to die. As we cared for her the final week of her life, we were on the receiving end of a wave of food-based empathy. People from her neighborhood and church, people I had never met, showed up at her door bearing slow-roasted beef, whole wheat cinnamon bread, pots of chunky vegetable soup, and ham—lots of ham. My sisters and I marveled as plates of food began to span the length of the blue-tiled counter. As we hovered over our mother, who by then had slipped into a coma, food and meals were the last thing we thought of—and yet, when we got around to sampling a slice of homemade bread, a corner of a mint brownie, a sip of warm soup, the taste was exquisite. It was love in a swallow.
The concept of food being an expression of love is not original to me or my mother. My guess is the idea started when Eve first tasted the forbidden fruit and immediately wanted to share it with Adam. (I’ve often wondered what that first bite tasted like. Did it have a kick of pain, a pungent zing of joy and knowing?) I believe God also uses food as an expression of love from time to time. For the wandering children of Israel, He provided manna straight from the kitchens of heaven. For the prophet Elijah He sent “bread and flesh” in the mouth of a raven (1 Kings 17:6). To the hungry widow who shared her last meal with Elijah, the Lord promised a cruse of oil that would never fail and a barrel of meal that would never waste (1 Kings 17:14). Out of love and compassion, it seems, God sometimes literally provides food as a way of nurturing His children, who in faith, come hungry. I like to think He is pleased when we do likewise.
And yet there is that perplexing story from the scriptures about Mary and Martha that puts a kink in my food-as-love theory. While Martha is “cumbered about with much serving” (or in other words, stuck in the kitchen), Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. Upset, Martha speaks up, and is told by Jesus that her sister “hath chosen that good part” (Luke 10:38-42). I wonder why Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, sorry. How about we all go in the kitchen and help while we talk about the eternities?” But He didn’t, so I am left to wonder what this story means to a Martha type like me. When I try to create a wonderful meal am I choosing the bad part? Should I spend my time reading the scriptures more instead of hovering over my flour-dusted KitchenAid? I don’t really believe that’s what Jesus was trying to teach, that we neglect the daily needful tasks in lieu of sitting around all day working on being spiritual. I think the real lesson may lie in what motivated Martha’s bustling. Was she trying to impress? Was she obsessed with using up the figs that were going bad on the windowsill? Had she felt obligated to fuss in the kitchen because her mother did such things? I like to think this story is about the intent of one’s heart, whether preparing food or taking time to visit—that it comes down to love.
I have had to refigure this Mary and Martha story many times. When I married, the man I got was not the food-based variety. This was a curious thing to me. How was my husband supposed to taste how much I loved him when he was as happy with grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup as with salmon amandine? We were married nearly a decade when I finally realized food was not, nor ever would be, his language of love. We had a houseful of company that had gathered for a family reunion. I was planning and preparing a big dinner for that evening when my husband asked me to go along with the group on a long horseback ride up the mountain. I thought, does this man have a clue what it takes to feed a crowd like this? “What about dinner?” I asked him.
He simply said, “I don’t care about dinner; I care about having you with me.”
It was a gong-sized epiphany. Choosing the good part, I went on the ride. That night for dinner we had, you guessed it, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches instead of chicken enchiladas. And everyone felt welcome—and yes, even loved.
These days, I am experiencing a further twist on my Martha leanings, perhaps a revision of lessons I’ve been learning for decades. Last year I was asked to be Relief Society president in our ward, a calling in which visiting people is a full-time job. At first, I felt each visit needed to be accompanied by a love-filled offering of home-baked food. When I made banana bread it was by the dozen; when I made cinnamon rolls I tripled the recipe. But then a strange thing started happening: my usual successful baking efforts kept bombing. My bread would go flat, my cupcakes were dry, and my rolls ended up doughy. I switched to making single batches, thinking my math was screwy, but to my consternation, I kept getting the same less-desirable results. I couldn’t even seem to make a decent batch of cookies. I told my counselors about my cooking disasters and suggested jokingly that we invent a new calling, Relief Society baker.
But one day I realized God was entreating me to be more like Mary and I tried to listen. I started showing up on people’s doorsteps empty-handed. I remember the first time I attempted it, with a winging-it sort of prayer in my heart. The woman I visited answered the door in curlers and invited me in without a hint of embarrassment. She was making rolls for her son’s class party. I washed my hands, rolled up my sleeves, and we worked together for twenty minutes, twisting the dough into dog-bone shapes and getting to know each other. I had been told she didn’t feel welcome in our ward, but that day as we worked together, I think we both started to see each other differently. Not only did I have a greater appreciation for her, but I also realized I could communicate love without some buttery confection in my hand.
Perhaps the Savior’s example of preparing a meal for His apostles after His resurrection suggests there is room for both Mary and Martha in our lives. There is something both ordinary and holy about this story of the Savior performing this simple act. I believe we can relate to the apostles, who surely were tired and hungry as they pulled their nets to shore at the end of a long night of fishing. The fire burning on the beach was welcoming and inviting. As their sandals touched dry ground, the apostles must have smelled the searing fish, heard the sizzling over the flame, and seen the bread neatly laid out. As they neared, the Savior greeted them with open arms, saying, “Come and dine” (John 21:9-18).
This common, everyday occurrence was made holy by the warmth and affection with which it was prepared and would prove to be a prelude to one significant parting lesson the Savior taught. When the apostles’ stomachs were filled, the Savior said to Simon Peter, onto whom the weight of leading the ministry would fall, “Feed my sheep.” He repeated it again and then again, no doubt hoping the impact of His counsel with repetition would sink somewhere deep within the man who would lead His church. This example of the Savior preparing food and feeding first the body and then the soul suggests His injunction to “feed my sheep” could be figurative as well as literal.
Considering all this, I confess I still love creating delicious food for family and friends. I know there is something sublime about the smell of herb chicken and fresh rolls wafting through the house, with music in the background and candles on the table and friends arriving at the door. But I am less plagued these days by the story of Mary and Martha. In fact, I bought the print of Minerva Teichert’s painting of these amazing sisters. It hangs by my bed, and when I wake up in the morning they are there, Mary at Jesus’ feet and Martha standing close by. On some days I realize I am Mary and I don’t fire up my oven even once in lieu of other offerings of time. But other days, a smooth wooden spoon is an instrument of joy in my hand as I stir up a Martha-sized batch of Sierra cookies and think about who to take them to. It is intriguing to me, this painting, how broad the strokes of paint are and how the faces of the sisters lack detail.
But I see them fleshed out, because I know them both.