Food is central in scripture, community and restoration
Smack dab in the middle of a stretch of road with no other eateries, in inner-city Hamilton, Ont., sits 541 Eatery & Exchange. It’s a remarkable ministry based in a renovated 1907 bank building on not-always-lovely Barton Street.
Today while I wait in line after my volunteer shift is over, I take a fresh look around the café – gathered around the long harvest tables are scruffy 20-somethings hunched over their coffee; young moms breaking off bits of muffin for their wee ones; skinny, scantily clad, bleary-eyed hard-to-tell-their-age women conversing over a plate of eggs; and hipsters with their laptops and lattes.
541 is a café created both for the community in which it sits, and where community is found and created. Delicious, wholesome food is served at affordable prices. Those who still don’t have enough can take a button from the button jar (donated by other customers – one button = $1) to help pay for it.
It’s a magical place that brings people together to eat who nor-mally would not sit side by side. It is a place to meet. To talk. And to break bread together.
There is such a mystery around food, and when you have the experience with other people, it connects you in a way that wouldn’t happen if food wasn’t there," says Jenn Arnold, one of 541’s founders. "We are more human when we share a meal. We all have a need to be satisfied – it’s vulnerable. That vulnerability is the very thing that connects us as humans. We’re not God. We do have needs."
GIDEON STRAUSS is a philosophy professor with a rich background in theology and social justice work. He teaches at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto.
"Our most basic and our very first experience of life is of being fed," says Strauss. "Our most intimate experience as a child is mediated by our dependency on our mother for food. There’s the magic right there. Whether it’s being breastfed or our first solid meal, it’s done within the care of a parent. It forges relationship. It’s how we know we are loved. And we know we are dependent on another person.
"The magic is experiential."
541 offers a variety of initiatives, the newest being a community kitchen which will build on the idea of coming together through food. The kitchen will offer sixweek sessions where people from the often transient and troubled community will gather weekly to learn how to cook healthy meals and then store them in their freezers, all while building relationships with their neighbours.
"If it’s a night when no one is around, you don’t always feel like cooking a meal," says Arnold. "So here people can find community in cooking a meal together. No one wants to cook by themselves!"
We are more human when we share a meal.
THIS IDEA settled itself inside me when my husband moved out last May. Thirteen years down the drain. During the worst of the aftermath, my love of food – something that has always been a passion – disappeared. In the months after the horrible decision was made, I often went days of eating not much more than a piece of toast. With such an important person gone from my life, I struggled to find any enjoyment in eating. Physical sustenance seemed unnecessary. Time instead was spent panicking, second-guessing, begging, weeping.
I found myself focusing on all I had lost. The "us" things that helped define who we were as a couple, now never to be enjoyed again. And, because this is me we’re talking about, many of those memories centred around food – the "Spanish suppers" he and I enjoyed (late night meals after kids were in bed); the tacos with homemade salsa (a big deal for my noncooking husband) that he made on our first night in our new apartment; the simple grilled cheese and soup he made on our first date; the wine and decadent cheeses we often had for dinner on date nights; our morning coffee which he always made. All beautiful memories, and suddenly I had to force myself to take a bite of an apple.
I was alone. There was often no one to share my meals with. No community. No connection to others. And where was the joy in that?
I figure Jesus knew all this when He chose a meal as His last act of community on Earth – His preferred way to spend His final hours with His friends. He broke bread, shared wine, blessed their time together. More than that, He used food to tell stories and teach lessons, and His favourite place to hang out was in someone’s home eating dinner with both friends and strangers.
Author Sara Miles understands this. In her wonderful book Take This Bread (Ballantine, 2007), she tells her personal story of not only walking into a church on a whim one day and soon after experiencing her conversion, but about how this conversion was and is wholly linked to food.
"Food has the potential to be a miracle; it always involves that sort of reciprocal exchange which is what the nature of God is," writes Miles. "It involves our hunger and our ability to feed others. So there’s always this energy that moves through you; this connectedness when you’re feeding or being fed. I think it’s not odd that God would choose food as the sign of God’s presence, because it is so universal and it is so miraculous."
KRISTINE O’BRIEN is a good friend of mine. She makes the most delicious pies which she sells at her church’s fundraisers. I have been the lucky recipient of several of these beauties – homemade food personally delivered to help lift my spirits.
O’Brien knows the power of sharing food, and as such spends much of her time in food ministry. As the minister at Trafalgar Presbyterian in Oakville, Ont., O’Brien is involved in numerous initiatives that feed people. For her, food starts as an issue of justice.
"Once you know people, and know them by name, especially people on the margins, things change," says O’Brien.
"It’s not the food that’s magic. It’s when it’s shared within community." That’s why the Halton Food for Life program (in Halton, Ont.) where O’Brien helps out is held in a restaurant with tables and coffee and muffins. People from a nearby low-income housing community come in and pick up fresh fruit, vegetables and bread – items often nonexistent at traditional food banks.
"Yes, they need food, but it’s more than that," says O’Brien. "We want people to sit and talk and get to know each other – both the people within the community, and us getting to know them."
Strauss explains that relational aspect well in his lovely South African accent. "The eating and sharing of food is as ordinary as it gets. It’s messy, it’s ordinary, it’s sometimes tedious, but it’s an unavoidable part of being human. It’s not something you can go without.
"But it’s also as sacred as it gets. For everyone, eating is among our most meaningful and memorable experiences. We don’t need to theorize it. We know it in our gut."
I’ve been hanging on Strauss’ every word, nodding my agreement on the other end of the phone. I realized I was feeling bolstered by his explanation of a fuzzy-to-me idea that had been slowly revealing itself over the last few years.
"And it’s right there in the poetry. Right in the beginning of the first story in the Bible. God extends hospitality to humans. God invites us to a garden, and God invites us to enjoy the food there. It’s an experience of place, but it’s also an experience of food. And the sacredness of food is deeply connected to the hospitality of God. That was there, right at the beginning."
Strauss notes the abundance of food imagery and stories in the Bible, and Jesus likening Himself to bread and wine "is a persistent declaration of the goodness of creation and of the material world.
"And God chooses to make it the central experience for Christians to know God – bread and wine and the Eucharist…. God’s creation is saved and blessed and born again alongside food."
REBECCA SHERBINO’s passion for people living on the margins led to the creation of The Raw Carrot. Along with business partner Colleen Graham, Sherbino runs the soup-making venture out of Paris Presbyterian Church, in a town of 12,000 about an hour west of Halton and Hamilton.
They employ local people with various challenges who find it difficult to get steady employment elsewhere. Their model has been so successful that since starting three years ago, they are now training other churches who wish to start a Raw Carrot of their own.
I visited The Raw Carrot kitchen and was in awe of what was happening there.
"There is a humbleness around cooking simple food. It’s a daily ritual that can be very simple and yet rich and satisfying," says Sherbino. "Everyone takes part and the combined result is a lovely aroma – both tangible and intangible."
"And the ordinary experience of trust and vulnerability and receiving vulnerability is mediated well through food," says Strauss. "Sitting down to a meal makes everything possible."
Strauss says he now only teaches with food present. "I bring a bottle of wine and the students bring their dinner. It changes the tone of the learning entirely…. It completely changed the relationship of the students. People were more vulnerable."
BACK IN Hamilton, I meet with Carolyn Vaughan, the executive chef at 541. Her culinary career began in high-end restaurants where food was often stressful.
"People who ate there will spend any amount of money on food," says Vaughan. "It was no longer about the food, but the show. I wanted to get back to it being about food – food you would feed your family."
Jaded for a time by this aspect of the culinary world, she gave up cooking.
And then she found 541.
"Our focus is on getting people together," she says, mentioning that special mix of people who sit at the big wooden tables in the middle of the restaurant. "The food is simple and accessible, but great quality for everybody who walks in."
"People come here and say, ‘You’re doing something special.’ I’m invigorated by that every day."
The motivation for 541’s new community kitchen was to start something that would give the community’s transient population and those in subsidized housing "access to all the things they’re missing" when it comes to preparing and eating a decent meal.
The vision stems directly from the holistic, relationship-driven approach to outreach shared by 541 founders like Jenn Arnold as well as staff and volunteers.
"One of my favourite things," says Arnold, "is when someone from the neighbourhood is here who knows the drill, and someone new comes in and is noticeably well off, and the person from the neigh-bourhood does the welcoming. It becomes very unclear who is the giver and who is the receiver.
"It’s messy because the worlds do mash up and collide," she continues, "and often in involuntary ways. But it’s a beautiful thing."
541 was a place where I could once again find community through food. I volunteered in the kitchen, baking beautiful goodies for others to enjoy. Unbelievably fudgey chocolate chunk brownies, seemingly endless amounts of perfect chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, muffins, scones, and the best darn granola bars you’ll ever have.
The methodical work was relaxing. Chatting with other cooks while mixing and measuring helped me to laugh again. There were still days when I desperately held back tears – and some days I failed. I recall prepping four loaves of grilled cheese sandwiches when the loneliness was just too much – my eyes welling up and over as I spread the butter, distributed the cheese. Even in my happy place, a bustling and busy café and surrounded by food, I could not escape my loss.
But as I told more and more people my story, and let myself receive their grace – their encouraging and truth-filled words, their invitations to dinner – my appetite slowly returned. I began to remember who I was, and who I wanted to be in the new life I now find myself in.
Today when I’m in the 541 kitchen, I might be popping just-baked ginger molasses cookies into my mouth while I sift and stir and whisk, and sneaking bits of chocolate chip cookie dough from the bottom of the bowl. My stomach rumbles and I can’t wait for my lunch break.
I’ll head to the front of the café and place my order – likely for the breakfast sandwich topped with a house-made tomato jam I want to eat by the spoonful.
"Food is such a human experience," says Arnold. "It’s equalizing because we all have to eat to survive. It goes beyond physical capacity and economic background.
"It changes people to be here."