A Chapter of a Rule of Life on Food and Drink
My mother was an amazing woman. She was not a great mother. A borderline personality disorder and a tiny collection of addictions kept her life rocking on the rails but never quite off them. But she was a great domestic executive, a deeply committed Christian, and a fine cook. She fed me well.
British and bored, she made cooking her hobby, gobbling down every episode of Julia Childs and Joyce Chen she could manage to find. She loved Chinese and french cooking and her old, deep, long British roots meant that breakfast was always hot, always involved heavy cream and usually involved three courses. As a newspaper delivery boy in Montreal winters, I was glad to come home to the smells of a hot, English Breakfast. It usually began with a fruit-in-heavy-cream-course, then bread and mushroom fried in bacon fat, eggs and ham. It could end with more toast and jam along with a blue-and-white china bowl of tea as big as my head. and it could vary to corned beef hash, home-made scrapple, salmon cakes, bread pudding, spoon bread – it was always creative and never-ending. I will always be grateful for those breakfasts. They began my days. They still do. As I write this, in front of the fire in snowy early morning darkness, an old, stale croissant is soaking in egg, heavy cream, nutmeg and a splash of cointreau. I will not be able to taste it but it’s the principal of the thing.
At her side, I learned the basics: sauces, roasts, Chinese spices, herbs, reductions and the use of butter and heavy cream and how to manipulate people – a trait I have had to unlearn over many years. That, with a good education, an ability to navigate insanity and a willingness to try new things – and I was set for the life I now have in the Church.
Food is wonderful and so are friends. I associate them. Dinners at my home tend to have many courses of small plates. It extends the time, makes space for conversation and delights the eyes under soft candle-light. drinks with cheese crisps, a creamed vegetable soup, a roast with all the trimmings and a desert (not my forte) usually of Almond Butter Toffee along with coffee and a choice from Scotch and four after dinner drinks in decanters passed along to me by my mother, passed along to her by hers, etc.
Al that said, I am also formed by years living in Haiti in which I saw starvation close up. On Mondays, the children in my class whose hair had turned red the previous week from the final staged of malnutrition would not answer when I called out their names at the start of class. They had tried to blacken their red hair with show polish but the black streaks on their foreheads and on the papers they handed in for grading betrayed their secrets. When they did not answer, we all just looked at each other and let the silence hang as tribute to courage.
And then there was the monastery. I was both sacristan and cellarer – often these jobs are combined in monasticism because the person who set up the church was aware of what level of feasting and fasting would take place that day in the Eucharist – and so, why not have that same person also cooking meals so that the meals in the refectory reflected the levels of feasts or fasts in the sanctuary? Feria, lesser feast, feast, solemnity, fast, greater fast? Each had implication both for the altar and the dinner table. One of the many things I loved about the monastic life was the way meals and liturgies were linked. A solemnity like Easter and Christmas, Pentecost and a patronal day meant three vegetables, a desert, even beer and wine. On those days, the salad bar 9always available) was hardly ever approached…
So here, without further remembrances, is a chapter on food and drink for a Rule of Life:
A Rule of Life
The Reverend Canon Charles LaFond
Chapter Four: Food and Drink
“Take. Eat. Take. Drink.”
These words have been the refrain of my life, in church and in the dining room, and so I remember my mother and the ways she taught me to listen, to cook and to host. They have made me the priest I am today. My father made me the writer I am today – material for other rule chapters on Study, Creativity and The Word.
My longing for my life is for a right-relationship with food and drink. I have been known to distort my relationship with food by over-eating, recreational eating and binge eating when lonely. When I do this, I am aware that I am trying to fill a void better-filled with God and loving people. Having struggled with a weight problem all my life, I am aware that the fat on my body has been a kind of buffer, protecting me from “the world” and its vulnerabilities. My hope and longing is to reduce that buffer and to engage that world.
So choices are important with food. Portions need to acknowledge that my stomach can comfortably hold the amount of food represented in one fist, clenched, and that feasts can manage little more than two fists clenched, as a volume of what my body can manage. This means making choices with the awareness that my body is a temple and that its is also a machine which needs to be fed the fiber of whole grains, vegetables, protein and water. Everything else must be in moderation (except when it is not – in which healthy guilt is employed to get back on track!)
There are seasons in which I need to fast, feeling real, aching hunger so that I can connect with some fragment of the reality of our planet’s population. I will be aware that the food I eat and the materials I use are absolutely connected to the starvation of other real, human beings with names and mothers.
Fasting also tunes my soul to listen better and to feel times of denial and celebration in their seasons. Feasting is also valuable. I will try to maintain a dining room table fully extended, good candles lit and napkins washed and ready for friends – meals and long conversations which enrich and form my inner life. Without two of my five senses (having lost the ability to take and smell) I will be much more careful whom I invite to my table, since now my feasting is limited to the people around me and not the food before me.
Making financial contributions to agencies which feed the financially poor must be the other side of the coin when I shop for groceries. It will give integrity to the food and drink in my life to give money away to agencies which feed and which drill wells in equal measure to my grocery bills. Budgeting will be part of my Rule of Life around food.
When I eat alone, I will only eat. The monastic rule of never doing two things at the same time is one I have drawn into this exclaustration. When I listen to music, I will only listen to music. When I eat. I will only eat. Mozart or jazz and a plump shrimp in garlic butter will never compete. And I will limit my restaurant use due to the ridiculous portions and related prices which they tend to involve. That is simply not how I want to live on this planet. I will make an exception for dim sum and Asian food because, well, I am neither a terrorist nor an idiot!
Drink will be something with which I will always struggle. I do not drink enough water for the needs of my flesh, so I will attend to the color of my urine and notice when I am dehydrated. My body aches when I am dehydrated, and there is really no need for unnecessary aches in middle age. Alcohol will only be consumed with friends except for one glass of wine or beer at the end of a long day. And that, again, in silence – enjoyed without television or books to distract from the delight of the ritual.
And I will try to be grateful for the food and drink I enjoy. I will say a silent prayer, not blessing the food (what a ridiculous notion that the beauty of a strawberry or a scallop needs a blessing other than God’s making of it!) but rather simply acknowledging that what I have is gift. Always. Only.
The are the longings and reminders of my Rule of Life around food and drink. May God, my conscience, and the heavenly host, assist me.