Slow cooking as a spiritual exercise
Claire Hein Blanton
January 22, 2020
Each year, as January ties up the end of the bustling Christmas season, many of us resolve to do something better in the new year. Topping the lists are the perennial desires to be healthier, spend less and improve oneself. My New Year’s resolution touches upon all three – I want to learn how to be a better cook. There are many reasons for this, not least that home cooking in theory saves money and is healthier than premade alternatives, at least for those with the budget and time to prepare meals (Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott. Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It. Oxford University Press: New York, New York, 2019). My desire to cook more, and to cook slower, is a spiritual exercise.
I recently inherited my grandmother’s handwritten cookbook of family recipes. She wrote one for my mother and my aunt in beautiful cursive, with asides about when she would prepare this dish, how long it had been in our family, and who authored the recipe if it had not been passed down from her family. I liken this recipe book as an artifact from Southern Baptist life in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Many of the recipes yield dozens of products, certainly supersized for the Sunday potluck after church. There are several non-alcoholic punch recipes, fried foods, and desserts. Also, many salads with copious amounts of mayo. Perhaps my grandmother’s cookbook is not the hallmark of the “healthier” cookbook variety, but it is inexpensive compared to the fancier and healthier ones which adorn my bookshelf.
Slow cooking, the kind of cooking that does not skip steps or offer shortcuts, carries through the importance of hospitality in the Bible. When Sarah prepares the meal for the travelers who will promise Abraham that she will bear an heir, it is an all-day ordeal. If Abraham is hurried in his instructions to prepare a meal for his visitors, it is because roasting an animal and baking bread are time-consuming labors (Gen: 18:1-15). Meals embody God’s care for creation – whether it is the miracles around Elijah (1 Kings 17), the feeding of the multitudes in the gospels, or Jesus’ first miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding feast. The holy presence is illuminated in the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. Christ is recognized in the breaking of the bread on the way to Emmaus and John’s gospel ends with Christ once again feeding his disciples on the beach. Food preparation two thousand plus years ago was slow and was a labor of love.
My grandmother’s cookbook is full of slow cooking. In part, it takes time to decipher some of the ingredients and instructions from her vernacular. I had not heard someone describe margarine as “oleo” since she passed in 2006. But more than that, it is slow cooking because it is meant to be slow. I brought the book out at Christmas to recreate some recipes that reminded me of her and of my mom. One in particular was our family recipe for Cinnamon Pudding Cake. While the cake mixture proved fairly straightforward, the pudding aspect needed me to slow boil butter and brown sugar for exactly “5 minutes.” Standing alone in my kitchen, constantly stirring a pot, waiting for something to happen, I was struck at how much I missed by not having either of them show me how to do this. I suppose I kept thinking that I had more time to learn how to cook the recipes that we passed down.
Then at five minutes, the mixture started to boil. My immediate reaction was to break into a smile, look upward and excitedly tell my mom and grandmother that I had done it correctly. Maybe that was a small miracle, maybe it was a small extension of grace, but for me it was a holy moment.
If we can find God in our shared meals, perhaps there is space to find God in the preparation of those meals if we take the time.
If we can find God in our shared meals, perhaps there is space to find God in the preparation of those meals if we take the time. I do not expect to find enlightenment each time I make a meal. Nor do I imagine that my cooking skills will suddenly explode and my family will be gifted with beautiful and delicious meals each night. I do believe, however, that I am learning to find God in unexpected places, like my grandmother’s cookbook. Perhaps this should not be so surprising. My grandmother cooked with love and those recipes embody that love for her family, her friends, and her church. We find God in love, maybe we find God in slow cooking as well.
Claire Hein Blanton is an ordained Baptist minister in Houston, Texas. She is currently studying for her PhD in systematic theology and ethics from the University of Aberdeen.