Monthly Archives: May 2012

Ginsberg’s ‘Waiting’

What a wonderful book — a reflective and thoughtful memoir (and part social commentary) of 20 years spent as a waitress in American restaurants.  In places as far afield as New York, Oregon and California — from luncheonettes, pizza parlours and diners to Italian bistros and fine dining rooms — this is the story of the author’s life, much of it lived, as is typical of those who wait, aspiring to be someone or somewhere else.   In time, though, Ginsberg discovers that she cannot live her life as though waiting for the real thing to begin.  Suddenly she looks back over her shoulder at 20 years; this is her life, and one she is finally able to embrace and value.

 … perhaps the most valuable lesson I’d learned was that the act of waiting itself is an active one.  That period of time between the anticipation and the beginning of life’s events is when everything really happens–the time when actual living occurs.  I’d spent so much time worrying about the outcome of my life that I’d forgotten how to live it.  I’d also come to know that not everything was fraught with a vast and complicated meaning.  Sometimes it was only about timing the order just right, recommending a particularly good dessert, or making a friend out of a stranger at my table.  I began to see not only the simplicity of these acts but their beauty.

In some ways this book is similar in style to Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, though told from the other side of the servery.  It is full of great stories, the most flawed yet endearing characters, and an insider’s perspective on the restaurant industry.  Though Ginsberg is finally able to embrace her working role as a meaningful one, she never verges into romantic or idealist language about her profession.  Every page is real.  I closed the book feeling a renewed sense of respect for waiters, but even more for the wonder of ordinary life and those who live it.

Debra Ginsberg, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, New York: HarperCollins, 2000.


Cooking and calling

Commonly, the experience of ‘calling’ in the Christian faith is approached as a mysterious thing and highly prized; to have heard ‘the call’ is to have entered the ranks of the spiritual elite. Tragically, such a mystical approach leaves the majority of Christians in the stands; there they sit—excluded and disempowered—destined to be spectators while the divinely ‘chosen’ play centre field with God.

I often say that while it’s true the call of God is a mysterious thing, it is never exclusive. In fact, from a biblical perspective it’s one of the most inclusive and liberating gifts given to us—all of us. What’s more, the experience of calling is never uniform. It’s as diverse as those who hear it.

In the book Tough Cookies, Simon Wright tells the stories of four of Britain’s most talented chefs, their rise to prominence and their impact upon the culinary scene. I suppose it’s an odd place to go on the nature of call, but what strikes me is the strong sense of vocation each of these chefs have in what they do.  What’s even more telling is how each one come to that sense.  I reckon there’s some truth here for the church.

For the infamous Gordon Ramsey, it was not the love of food that took him into the kitchen. He stumbled into cooking when a career in professional football failed. But the longer he was there the more enraptured he became. Encountering first hand the genius of the renowned Marco Pierre White, Ramsey found his home: “When I walked into that kitchen, I thought ‘my God’ … this is me, I’ve found my base. I’ve found me. I wanted it!” It was a discovery that drove him from that point on, a passion slow to flower but once in bloom took over his life.

According to Wright, “The love of food wasn’t in Ramsey’s blood, it got in there like a virus born in the atmosphere of the places where he worked. Places where reverence and respect for the best things that grace our tables infected the very air that he breathed. It was a relationship that grew over time and it was a love that came in tandem with lust, a fierce desire to the meet the challenges thrown up by this extraordinarily demanding world, to stand up to each new trial, defy expectation and move on energized, to the next test.” 

For Heston Blumenthal, there was nothing gradual about it. It was the Damascus road and burning bush rolled into one. When Blumenthal was just fifteen years old, he and his family visited a two-Michelin-star restaurant in France. The visit was accidental, but it turned out to be a defining moment for the teenager, a captivating epiphany that has stayed with him the rest of his life. From that point on, food became his passion. It was an obsession he fed, a love affair he nurtured with such focus and energy, a driving force that arose directly out of his personality yet baffled even those closest to him. 

Shaun Hill’s story could not be more different. Any sense of passion was exceedingly slow to ignite. Ambition was never a motivating factor. Hill simply did what was in front of him, and in the course of doing so a love for food was nurtured. Quoting Hill: “I don’t think there has ever been a long-term plan … The problem with thinking too far ahead is that it stops your concentration on what your doing. So how I work is I do it while I really enjoy it and when I stop enjoying it I decide it’s time to go. This very regularly seems like a dumb idea at the time. But in order to do anything well you have to be completely, maybe not obsessed, but committed, not looking to the next chance.” For Hill, awareness of his own sense of vocation has only come in retrospect. It’s as he looks back over his shoulder that he is able to see some sense of who he is and what he’s about. 

Finally, Marcus Wareing’s sense of vocation came primarily through hard slog, persistence and failure. And even more through significant relationships, firstly with his father and then with other notable chefs like Ramsey. According to Wright, “When you think about it, it’s a common enough tale. Seldom does anyone achieve much without finding a mentor for at least some of the way, someone to feed off, someone to believe in, someone to journey with. Very little comes from a vacuum.”

Wareing’s self confidence was always slight, but his belief in the wisdom and giftedness of others was unrelenting. He burrowed into these relationships, determined to learn everything he could, to feed of the passion and talent of others. And as he did his own giftedness in the kitchen blossomed: “When he was racked by doubt, questioning his own abilities, he still kept to the path, relentless … like a lonely long-distance runner pressing on through the pain, like a boxer on the ropes refusing to go down.”

What strikes me is that each story is so different, each personality unique. Yet each is gifted and has found a ‘home’ in the kitchen.

We Baptists hold tenaciously to the ‘priesthood of all believers’ … all believers. It behooves us to be sure that our language of ‘calling’ is one that both empowers and includes, one that celebrates difference, and one that invites every person of faith onto the field and into the game … or the kitchen!

[Simon Wright, Tough Cookies: Tales of Obsession, Toil and Tenacity from Britain’s Kitchen Heavyweights. London: Profile Books, 2005]

The Spirit of Food

I hate tapas! There, I’ve said it. I can’t stand the current Melbourne obsession with multiple share-plates of miniscule ‘tastings’ that leave me nothing but frustrated and hungry. If I’m gong out to eat I want a meal I can sink my teeth into, as well as my mind. I want substance and depth, not a culinary tease! If I order the ‘hand-filleted Cantabrian artisan anchovy on crouton with smoked tomato sorbet’ I know it will be gone in seconds and leave nothing but the most fleeting memory. Why bother?

To be honest, my aversion to tapas goes beyond food. It’s the same with theology. And it’s exactly why I’ve avoided Leslie Leyland Fields’ The Spirit of Food for close to two years. When I see a book on a subject I care about—and food is definitely one of them—with the sub-title Thirty-four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, I struggle for a good reason to read it. If 34 authors share 257 pages, that means each one will have just 7.5 pages to make their point. That’s called theological tapas.

Don’t get me wrong. Just like items on a tapas menu take just as much skill and attention to create as more substantial fare, many of the essays show a compelling depth of engagement. But in such a brief form there is little space to develop an argument, make a case or even tell a story. So I’m not a fan.

Confession made, I concede my personal bias is not commonly shared. There are many who love tapas, and just as many–less gastronomically constipated than me–who will love the approach of this book. Fields has gathered a diverse collection of perspectives on the role food plays in nurturing faith and spirit. About a third of the essays come from other sources, including classics from Robert Farrar Capon and Wendell Berry. The bulk of contributions are written for the book.

The theme that holds the essays together, each concluding with a recipe, is Fields’ contention that food is sacrament—a daily, tangible expression of grace. The essays illustrate this with varying degrees of success. To be honest, a small handful could have been left off the menu altogether. Others are of a theological and personal depth that leaves you wanting more. Denise Frame Harlan’s And She Took Flour, Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma’s Choice Cuisine, and Jacqueline Rhodes’ The Soul of Soul Food are among those. Gina Ochsner’s Filled to Brokenness and Suzanne Wolfe’s This is My Body are both aching but intelligent stories of eating disorders, and Wolfe’s alone is worth the cost of the book.

As an aside, I often grieve the fact that the voices of those who work professionally in the kitchen are startlingly absent from collections like this. To her credit, Fields has included two of them. Sadly, neither of them shines. In fact, Reynaud’s In Praise of Hollandaise is close to a theological embarrassment but perhaps I’m expecting too much.

All in all, if you like tapas, there’s a good chance you’ll love this book. It certainly takes eating seriously and does so with moments of extraordinary insight. At its best, it entices, challenges, touches the heart and inspires the mind. I’ll just have to go elsewhere for the main course.

[This is a review written for an upcoming issue of Zadok Perspectives.  The book is Leslie Leyland Fields (ed), The Spirit of Food: Thirty-four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010]

From the kitchen to the pulpit

Chefs are not always great writers. There are some wonderful exceptions, but most gifted chefs are doing what they do best without literary diversion. While recipe books abound, to have a chef write more explicitly of what draws him to his profession–and what keeps him there–is rare.

It is this that makes Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef an interesting read. The esteemed Frenchman, based in Manhattan, draws together a summation of his culinary wisdom through a series of letters to an aspiring chef just beginning her career. Though the book is not particularly well written, Boulud manages to convey his passion for life in the kitchen. While he’s a man of sizeable ego—I expect this goes with his echelon of culinary success—what he provides is a most practical resource and a significant insight into the world of professional cooking.

Now I am sure this fact alone would put most of you to sleep. But stay with me!

What struck me as I read this book is just how applicable Boulud’s wisdom is beyond the kitchen. Today I am a minister in the church, and I reckon Boulud’s final letter entitled Ten Commandments of a Chef—a helpful summary of the entire  book—could well serve as a good recipe for effective ministry.

Here’s what he says:

1. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP: As the basic tools of the kitchen, knives are respected and indispensable. What’s more, Boulud says, the daily ritual of sharpening is mandatory. The tools of pastoral ministry are many and the Bible is surely one of the most foundational. Though it’s a wieldy and sometimes perplexing read, I’ve learned to respect its unique authority and wisdom.  I’ve learned that the daily rituals involved in honing my skills as a listener, an exegete and an interpreter of this book are basic to effective and sustained ministry.

2. WORK WITH THE BEST PEOPLE: Boulud emphasizes the need for good mentors in the kitchen, a number of them, all with different strengths and in a range of disciplines. I’ve had such people in the kitchen and the church, those who have formed me both as chef and pastor. A career without mentors, Boulud says, is an impoverished and shallow one; so my ‘greatness’ in pastoral leadership will only bloom in the fertile soil of those who have gone before me.

3. KEEP YOUR STATION ORDERLY: Good organizational skills and thorough preparation early in the day, Boulud says, enable the chef to face the overwhelming intensity of demand with speed, efficiency and consistent excellence. What this means for pastoral leaders of various personality types is up for discussion, but there is truth to be had regardless. I reckon attention to detail is an underrated aspect of ministry.

4. PURCHASE WISELY: A good chef respects the culinary value of every single ingredient he works with. Nothing should be wasted, Boulud urges, nor taken for granted. What we can do with the purchasing metaphor I’m not sure, but respect for the rich diversity evident in the body of Christ is biblical advice. Boulud finds an irrepressible joy in appreciating the most mundane ingredient and discovering its unique potential.  That makes me smile when I think of the church as a richly diverse community of gifted individuals.

5. SEASON WITH PRECISION: Precise seasoning elevates the potential of every ingredient and every meal served. So, Boulud says, the most creative chef will be disciplined and focused when it comes to this art. It is an art, both in cooking and pastoral ministry. The end of a promising career in the kitchen is in sight when everything that goes out to the dining room begins to taste the same. So, too, in our preaching, our leadership and pastoral care.  Ouch!

6. MASTER THE HEAT: It’s such a fundamental element of good cooking. An intimate knowledge of heat and mastering its use is essential to an excellent result. Kitchens are hot places. A good chef can work in it and with it to greatest advantage. The old saying, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ has an unattractive side when applied to ministry: a macho spirituality that rings hollow. Yet is has a side of truth too. The heat comes in all sorts of ways. And sometimes our spiritual metal shows through when it’s at its peak.

7. LEARN THE WORLD OF FOOD: Immersion in the diverse world of food enriches the resources a good chef has to draw upon and will open the way for greatness. One of Boulud’s most insistent encouragements to the young chef is to experience a broad range of cuisines as early in her career as possible. Some of the most notable and innovative changes to impact the world of fine food have arisen out of a creative fusion between styles and traditions. I can only say that as a young pastor, I wish that I had been guided to know and appreciate the richness and diversity within the wider Church and to find ways to bring the tremendous resources of the faith to bear upon my own life and ministry within one particular tradition.

8. KNOW THE CLASSICS: According to Boulud, knowing the fundamentals of stocks, sauces and seasoning is a non-negotiable. Innovations in cookery always arise out of a respect for the traditions in which they bloom. There is no end to new innovations in church and ministry. The rate at which new books and resources are published is breath taking. Yet there is something about returning routinely to the classic resources of our faith, to good theology, to the stories of faith and spirituality that have formed our traditions and us. Innovation is wonderful, but it must never lose touch with its past or its reason for being.

9. ACCEPT CRITICISM: Learn to receive it graciously, use it wisely, and give it sensitively and constructively. So Boulud says from some painful years of experience. It will destroy you or make you, he says, and to simply ignore it is not only poor business, it is plain stupid pride. Well said, yet Boulud’s own testimony underlines just how hard it is to put into practice.

10. KEEP A JOURNAL: For Boulud, keeping an accurate and detailed journal has been an important resource in sustaining his professional life for the long haul. It’s not only a journal of recipes, ideas and suggestions. It’s a reflective practice that disciplines the writer to remember, to think and to envision. What wisdom there is here for those who are ‘called’ to remember, reflect and envision.

So there you have it–wisdom from stove to pulpit.  And all in ten easy steps! : )

Barbecue: Heaven in the South

I’ve confessed already, I’m a lover of meat.  Given my natural preference for the finer things, it’s a crass confession.  But there it is.

One of my enduring memories of Texas, the home state of my beloved, is of the great Southern tradition of barbecue.  Not the backyard variety of charred sausages, sauce and bad coleslaw that we Aussies know and love.  No, this is barbecue you go out for.

Known in the South by its single letter code name, Q, it’s barbecue at the pit. No chains, no illuminated highway signs, and no fancy cookie-cutter buildings. Good Q joints are never franchised; excellent barbecue takes time, one thing a McDonalds drive-thru can’t do.  For the most part the pit looks like a dive. If you don’t know what you’re looking at as you drive by, you may well wonder just what goes on inside. But there’s nothing suspect here; all Southern cheer and good ol’ boys slappin’ ya’ll on the shoulder as they amble past.

Enter ‘the pit’ and you’ll come directly to the inner sanctum; semi-outdoors with a grubby floor, fly screens and gigantic barbecue drums lined up along the wall: smoking vats fired by hot coals and filled to the brim with the most enormous slabs—every cut of beef and pork imaginable—and a bunch of whole chickens thrown in ‘fur the little ladies.’ It’s an ancient art form, a religious rite: part grilling, part smoking. The aroma is intoxicating. You take a look in and choose the cut you want. The attendant lifts it out and expertly slices off the desired amount. You pay by the pound.

Once you’re plated up, you carry your tray inside for the fixins: beans, corn, mashed potatoes, potato salad, cheese potatoes, and coleslaw. There are large slices of bread too—white or wheat—to soak up the juice. And a vat full of deep red-brown mesquite barbecue sauce to slather over the lot.

The women who serve indoors all remind you of the old aunt who made the lamingtons for the family get-togethers. They call you darlin’ with the most genuine affection. Once you’re loaded and paid up, you wander through to the tables: large planks with bench seats or those mismatched chairs from granny’s house; wonky pictures on the walls and scratchy country music in the air. The place is all down-home charm.

Q pits are good! Mind you, they’re no place for the faint-hearted. This is meat territory, and a male domain. Full to the brim with old-fashioned prejudices and stereotypical images of rural masculinity. It’s not obnoxious, far from it.  It’s just the way it is. Barbecue is like that. Like the backyard barbie here in Oz, this pit-mastery is a man thing. Whether at home or in the local Q joint, there’s not a sign of the women folk ‘til you move indoors for the salads and sides. But that said, there’s something authentic about the Q. It’s real.

I came across a delightful memoir of cooking in the South by Michael Lee West: Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life. It’s one of those smile-as-you-read kind of books.  According to West, born and raised in Louisiana, barbecue is the taste of the South: ‘It’s a noun, a verb, an entire religion served in a bun.’ Certainly, these Southerners are meat eaters like I’ve never seen before, and about their meat they can be, as West says, ‘downright evangelical.’

In places like central Texas, the rural heartland of the state and my beloved’s ‘home’, the Q pit fits, smoky tradition and history in every bite. It’s not exactly haute cuisine, but it’s as good to eat as it is to watch. It drags you in, pulls out your seat and makes you feel right at home. You gotta’ love it!