Kitchen sacraments

I put a blue mixing bowl on the counter. A glass measuring cup. Fork. Spoon. I turn on the tap and test the water. Once it’s warm, I hold the cup underneath.

Open a jar of yeast and a trace of aged apple wafts out.

Thud – a pail of flour lifted out of the cupboard hits the floor.

I light a cinnamon-scented candle and set it on the table, then wash my hands. Take off my rings before bringing flour and water together.

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent.

                                          *
The woman picks up her masa at noon. Diesel fumes linger around the communal corn grinder, which has pounded the skinned and lime-cooked white corn into masa harina – maize flour. She carries the bucket close to her bright red striped skirt.

At home, she places the masa in a bowl, adds enough water to shape it into dough.

Soon she will wet her hands, take some dough and expertly slap it into an even, round tortilla. The steel surface of the wood-fired comal can cook eight at once. Her family will eat them immediately: steaming hot, fluffy and tasting of wood smoke.

But first, she lights the kindling inside the comal. The second Sunday of Advent.  

                                           *
Last spring, her grandchildren had gathered wild thyme with their cousins. She usually dries the herbs and makes enough zaatar stock – thyme, ground sumac, roasted sesame seeds, cumin, coriander – to last a year.

Today water, yeast and flour have been beaten into a smooth and elastic mound. It’s done rising, now double in size. Grandmother splits the dough into sections and with an unhurried efficiency rolls out six circles. Her fingers skim over the dough and press out a hundred small indentations like she’s playing piano.

She stirs a spoonful of zaatar into olive oil until it makes a paste, which she spreads over every crater. The kitchen will soon fill with the heady, sweet aroma of bread mingling with savory roasted thyme and the citrus tang of sumac. Once the zaatar is smooth, she flicks the gas oven on; it flickers, then catches.

The third Sunday.

                                          *
A young girl kneels on the ground, shaping a crevice in the flour into which she adds water. She mixes wet and dry until a ball can be formed. She kneads the dough and then sets it aside, covered, while she feeds the fire.

Once the flames have flared up and died down again, she rearranges the coal until it can hold a heavy, cast iron frying pan. She tosses her scarf-covered hair out of the way, then retrieves the dough and pulls off a few walnut-sized pieces. When oil begins to pop off the greased pan, she places rolled sections onto its searing surface. The dough puffs up instantly. She pulls the chapatti off and, already cooking the next, sets it aside to cool.

It’s the final Sunday before Christmas.

                                          *
It’s a simple process, enacted millions of times a day around the world. It’s just bread. Meaningless, right? There is nothing inherently special about cooked grains. Chapattis will not end human trafficking. Corn tortillas won’t cure cancer – though a recent study did prove that blue corn may prevent it. Bread won’t bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians – even though both groups eat zaatar.

But making food out of love for another person, mimicking the care God shows us, is a little bit holy. It is, like the sacraments, an outward sign of inner grace. We cannot live by bread alone, but we also can’t live without it – and what better time than Christmas to use the kitchen as an avenue of grace?

In cooking for others, we exercise our God-given creativity, as a woman I interviewed in May – Rachel Marie Stone – reminded me; we also celebrate God’s bounty, even when the earth is covered in snow, and we acknowledge the goodness of God’s creation.

We act counter-culturally in a world where “food, like everything else, has been hijacked by haste” (Carl Honore, In Praise of Slow). 

Advent is a small-scale version of our permanent status as a people waiting for our King. This month we will celebrate his arrival even while we’re longing for his return. We’re in limbo, a typically tough place. Conflict and despair seem to thrive here.

A setting into which the light of Christ can shine all the more brightly.

“In Spanish,” Tom Ewell points out quite brilliantly, “the verb ‘esperar’ means both to hope and to wait. From a faith perspective, hopeful waiting is to expect grace, to believe that God promises that an ocean of light will ultimately overcome an ocean of darkness.”

And in that hopeful wait lies our task: to serve others. Because in English, Ewell adds, “the verb ‘to wait’ means both to be expectant and to serve.”

The Psalmist asks God to “purge me with hyssop” (51:7) – the same herb used to make zataar. Create new hearts all over the world, O God, this Advent season. From Canada to Guatemala, Lebanon to India. Take not your Holy Spirit from us as we wait.

Hope.

And serve.

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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