Like many before and after me, I spent my JV year trying to act justly, love mercy, walk humbly, and — everyone’s favorite forgotten verse from Micah — cook adequately.
At orientation, our JV community agreed to break bread together at least four times a week and to rotate responsibilities for cooking. Believe it or not, we held ourselves to this for the entire year. We had a mix of novice and expert chefs in our community of seven. Okay, there was one expert, a good Italian boy who occasionally spoiled us with homemade pasta.
But it wasn’t all homemade gnocchi and eggplant parmesan. We also had several culinary mishaps, which don’t need recounting. But we did our best and learned a lot about cooking, baking, and experimenting in the kitchen. At the end of the year, we took a vote, naming our favorite meal that each of us had prepared. We each cooked that dish when it was our final turn to cook for the community. As a parting gift, I made a community cookbook with those recipes and other favorites for each of us. I still have that keepsake, a snapshot of community dinners and culinary celebrations.
Fast forward almost 15 years later and cooking has become an important way that I live out my values. I’m not talking about agonizing over where to shop or whether or not to buy organic, although I try to mindful of such things. Rather, cooking has become a way that my wife Heather and I build community, practice hospitality, and care for ourselves and others.
In our circle of friends, we regularly play the role of hosts. I delight in setting the table, Heather enjoys selecting a menu that will meet everyone’s needs and stretch people’s imaginations, and we embrace the joys of creating community over a shared meal. Over the ten years that we’ve been together, Heather and I have established a variety of traditions that bring people together around the dining room table. During Lent, we host Simple Suppers on Friday evenings, cooking up a big pot of vegetarian soup and opening our home to friends and strangers alike. Every December, we have a wildly competitive Cookie Bake-Off, which includes prizes and awards. These traditions and others help us to live out our values of community and hospitality.
Our food-related traditions have also sustained us through challenging times. A few years ago, when the LGBTQ+ community was essentially forced out of our Catholic parish, Heather and I didn’t know where to turn, other than our dining room table. The following Sunday at 10 a.m., instead of heading across town to St. Mary’s, we gathered a small group of friends for brunch. After the 2016 presidential election, we extended Simple Suppers beyond the Lenten season, gathering friends for soup and solidarity from late January through Easter.
Recently, I’ve added bread baking to my cooking repertoire. Yeasted breads had been something of an intimidating mystery, but after scrolling through many a food bloggers’ perfectly baked and styled loaves, I ordered myself a one-pound bag of active yeast. If you know yeast, you know it typically comes in packets of approximately 2 teaspoons, so a pound is, ummm, a lot! I dove in head first and quickly found a new hobby and some further reflections on community, hospitality, and care. I humbly offer three lessons, three questions, and one recipe to take with you:
Bread, like a community, is greater than the sum of its parts.
Bread only requires a few simple ingredients: flour, salt, water, yeast, and sometimes sugar. When mixed together, attended to with care and patience, and baked in a warm oven, the end result is greater than those humble ingredients. This is true in communities, as well. My JV community was comprised of seven very different and gifted individuals. At the same time, when we came together as a community, we were more than just a collection of individuals — we had greater potential and capacity as a whole. Where else might we leverage the whole — rather than the parts — in our lives?
Always make a double batch.
Most of the bread recipes that I’ve experimented with make two loaves. If you’re going to spend a few hours watching your dough rise and baking bread from scratch, you may as well spread the love. Share a loaf with neighbors, coworkers, or bring it to the Ronald McDonald House or another nonprofit that accepts food donations (but ask first). Who else in our lives might benefit from our care and attention?
We need food to survive, but we need community to thrive.
When we break bread together, we have the potential to be fed physically, but also spiritually, emotionally, and communally. A friend recently told us that she considers Simple Supper an important spiritual practice in her life. Heather and I were deeply moved by this, particularly because after ten years, we had started to wonder if Simple Supper had run its course. What needs nourishment within us, in order to build and sustain ourselves and our communities?
Finally, the recipe. To become a bread-baking wizard, try Alexandra Stafford’s Peasant Bread recipe, which does not require special equipment, follows a simple no-knead process, includes a short list of ingredients, and takes about three hours start to finish, with plenty of “hands off” time. Enjoy!
Featured image by Meg Griffiths