Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bread & Wine

One day in February, when the wind was whipping and the snow was falling and I felt nothing but a vague dread that winter was never, ever going to end, an advance copy of Shauna Niequist's new book, Bread & Wine, landed on my front step. Ripping it out of its envelope, I knew even before I peeked inside that I would love it. First of all, I'd loved both of her previous books (Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet), and I read her blog avidly. But I also feel a small kinship with Niequist because of the many similarities we share: I live in Grand Rapids, where she once lived; she summers in South Haven, where I once lived; we both have one brother, husbands who love music, and two little kids; we've both run the Chicago Marathon; we both take plenty of Instagram photos of food, love summer, and read constantly. So it's no surprise that I loved Bread & Wine, too. The question is, will you love it?

I think you will. Bread & Wine is a collection of essays about a variety of topics, but I'd say it's mostly about relationships, community, travel, growth, God, courage, authenticity, and food. Niequist is especially interested in the way that food brings people together and nourishes them both physically and spiritually, so she's included a recipe at the end of almost every chapter. Think of a mash-up of Ina Garten, Molly Wizenberg, Anne Lamott, and Ruth Reichl, and you're getting an idea of the book. And though her writing is not as darkly funny as Lamott's and her foodie credentials are not as stellar as Garten's or Reichl's, what Shauna does have is the honest, encouraging voice of a neighbor or sister, whispering gently in your ear, Go ahead, just give this gather at the table thing a try.

I packed up Bread & Wine in my red suitcase and brought it to Jamaica, where I let its words wash over me when I woke up every morning to drink coffee on the balcony before the girls woke up. It was easy to breeze through each chapter, folding down the corners on the pages that spoke to me. A few of my favorite passages:

On travel and adventure: "We travel because I want my kids to learn, as I learned, that there are a million ways to live, a million ways to eat, a million ways to dress and speak and view the world. I want them to know that "our way" isn't the right way, but just one way, that children all over the world, no matter how different they seem, are just like the children in our neighborhood - they love to play, to discover, to learn."

On perfection: "What people are craving isn't perfection. People aren't longing to be impressed; they're longing to feel like they're home. If you create a space full of love and character and creativity and soul, they'll take off their shoes and curl up with gratitude and rest, no matter how small, no matter how undone, no matter how odd."

On taking a stand against Christmas madness: "The irony, of course, must not be lost on us: a season that is, at its heart, a love story - a story about faith and fragility, angels, a baby, a star - that sweet, simply beautiful story gets lost so easily in a jarring, toxic tangle of sugar and shopping bags and rushing and parking lots and expectations." This chapter, in particular resonated with me so much and reminded me of an old blog post I wrote called This is My Introverted Christmas Wish, though Shauna does a wonderful job of advising readers just how to let go of those expectations and live in the present moment more simply.

It's one thing, of course, to read encouraging words about food and community, nourishment and courage when you're on a balmy balcony in Jamaica to celebrate your brother's wedding. It's quite another to put those principles into practice when you return, it's March in Michigan, and it's still snowing and blowing. But Bread & Wine made me want to do just that.

In the weeks after I read it, I found myself returning to it again and again - this time for the recipes. In short order, I made Real Simple Cassoulet and Annette's Enchiladas, both of which are perfect for weeknight family dinners, and both of which were delicious and comforting. They've won spots in our usual rotation, for sure.

Next, my eight-year-old daughter wanted to celebrate her half-birthday. It fell on a busy school night, but, encouraged by Shauna's reminders to mark occasions big and small, I decided we could make the Simplest Dark Chocolate Mousse. It was indeed simple enough for my daughter to make with almost no help from me, resulting in a dense, rich dessert that reminded me more of my favorite pudding at Marie Catrib's here in Grand Rapids than any other dessert I've tried. No matter what you call it - mousse, pudding - it brightened up a certain March day for our family.

Then last week, I had the chance to really practice the gospel Shauna's preaching. It was our street's annual progressive dinner, and I was paired up with a neighbor I don't know very well for the soup and salad course. We've lived on this little block of older houses squished pretty close together for over six years now, and our winter progressive dinner is a tradition I cherish. It's a chance for us to gather during the darkest, coldest days of the year, when otherwise we're running as quickly as possible from our cars to our houses. I reached out to Emily: would she be interested in making a soup from Bread & Wine if I made a salad? She was. So last Saturday, I made the Green Well Harvest Salad and brought it down to Emily's house just before 6:00 p.m. Though we've watched our kids run through sprinklers together in my front yard in the summer and I often see her walking her dog, Olive, as I head out for my run, I'd never been inside her house. We talked about the story behind the beautiful painting in her dining room, about our children's hand washing techniques, about the way the soup tasted great but looked just the tiniest bit like vomit, and we made a hasty plan to ladle it into bowls and garnish it ourselves before serving it to the guests. (It worked: topped with bits of prosciutto, chives, Parmesan, and balsamic, it just looked like Winter White Bean Soup, not vomit-y at all.) Both soup and salad, I should add, were delicious, and our group of eighteen neighbors devoured both recipes completely.

Last Saturday reminded me that there's something irreplaceable about gathering in our homes to eat the food we enjoy with the people we enjoy. Shauna's gift is in making her readers feel simultaneously more vulnerable and more confident about doing just that. She reminds us that there is magic in opening our doors to let the world see our messy kitchen, that there is just as much connection to be found eating pizza on the floor as there is in candlelit dinner parties. She makes you want to be more generous with your invitations, more inclined to break out the champagne flutes for a friend's good news. She  gives you permission to feel less anxious about the dust bunnies in the corner, less worried about making everything perfect.

"This is what I want you to do: I want you to tell someone you love them, and dinner's at six. I want you to throw open your front door and welcome the people you love into the inevitable mess with hugs and laughter. I want you to light a burner on the stove, to chop and stir and season with love and abandon. Begin with an onion and a drizzle of olive oil, and go from there, any one of a million different places, any one of a million different meals.

Gather the people you love around your table and feed them with love and honesty and creativity. Feed them with your hands and the flavors and smells that remind you of home and beauty and the best stories you've ever heard, the best stories you've ever lived."

This book, Bread & Wine, will make you want to be a person who throws open the front door, who shares a meal with a neighbor, who pours wine and stays up too late talking around the kitchen table. It will make you remember what's important. It will make you hungry.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this post made my day--thank you! And I adore Marie's chocolate pudding, so that's just about the greatest compliment ever. Your photography and writing are both just beautiful. Thank you! XO, Shauna