From communion to countertop

Maybe it’s because one of the first paying jobs I had was a dishwasher in my father’s kitchen at a business club in London, Ontario. Or maybe it was a childhood fascination with the way my mother put together the ingredients for an Indonesian rijstafel – which was not strictly Indonesian, but more of the way the Dutch East Indies settlers appropriated the table and recipes of the locals and South East Asia’s cooking in general. 

That being said, it was phenomenally good, spicy, varied, and a biweekly Sunday evening treat. My sister claims we got our taste for hot foods in utero. I would agree.

I was always comfortable in the kitchen at home. It was a place of discovery, experimentation, and occasional success. Rice, vegetables, potatoes, different kinds of ways to prepare meats. Watching my father work in his restaurant was a masterclass in efficiency, obstinacy, perfectionism, and amazing smells of things like Steak and Kidney Pie, Cream Poached Salmon, OMG fresh kitchen made dinner rolls, and the annual preparation of tomato chili sauce.

I learned to cook. I eventually, much later, learned to cook well.

So why did I not open my own restaurant? some friends would ask after a good dinner.

Because I saw first hand the intense pressure of the life both inside and outside the kitchen. Family life was never that which people perceived: “Oh, you must have had some wonderful meals at home your father made!”

No, because he was never home at mealtimes, and when he did come home he was exhausted, and really did not feel like preparing another meal for yet another group of hungry ones. He was often frustrated and angry, never being able to rise above the debt repayments of past mistakes, coming home to a spouse who rarely understood him. Understandable. Cooking would not be my career choice. I had a few jobs working in the food service busing tables and that served until it didn’t anymore.

I followed another calling in the United Church of Canada. There was another table I officiated with the simple menu of bread and Welch’s grape juice, (because of the historic association of the old Methodists with the Temperance movement). A story here:

I was told of an elderly woman in her nineties who was a great supporter of a congregation I served near the St Lawrence river, but due to her frailty could not attend Sunday services. I paid her a visit one afternoon.

As soon as I entered her apartment in an Edwardian brownstone duplex, she greeted me warmly, and I was overcome with the wonderful aroma of baking bread. I felt surrounded with the magic of rising and caramelizing yeast and gluten. I remarked on it, of course. She said that she bakes every week for her children and grandchildren. From scratch. No breadmaking machine for her.

“I tried it once. Didn’t like it.”

She shared slices with jam and tea. I was in love – appropriately, of course.

I suggested that since she couldn’t come to church Sundays, would she consider baking a loaf for our monthly communion? She said she would be honoured.

No ma’am. The honour was all ours. So I made sure the congregation knew that at those communion celebrations we were partaking of a special offering of bread. She may not have been present in body, but the fruit of her labour certainly was.

Now Protestant that I was, I was never privy to the mysteries of transubstantiation. The bread and “wine” never turned into the body and blood of Jesus, either in my mind or in anyone else’s in the congregations I served. There was, however, something mystical happening here, a connection made to a story long before my time, indeed long before the Loyal Orange Lodge No.1 set up shop, or the surveyors drew the town lines, or trade routes established between the settlers and Indigenous, or the 1812 conflicts just down the river.

Even before a Palestinian rabbi gathered some friends for dinner and gave it a new and special meaning.

It was a Jewish family meal celebrated to remember an escape from exile, from hardship, and slavery. The seder. A meal where each element was imbued, drenched with meaning and memory. A meal where children asked questions about “why we are doing this? on this night?” Food prepared carefully glowing with memory and hope, and with one chair empty for the arrival of an unexpected guest.

A steaming kitchen. Recipes handed down from one generation to the next. Laughter and solemnity. And all the family politics and gossip in between.

The high ritual that the Christian church appropriated from this bears little resemblance to any steaming kitchen, anywhere.

It is here where the mystery lies.

And now for me, what now? The stories are stories. God and the church are concepts and congregations I no longer adhere to.

But. But.

I have a kitchen counter. Wherever I have lived there was always a kitchen counter. If I could make space I could clear enough room to knead bread, arrange vegetables in a baking dish, cut up a leg of lamb for stew, and boil the bones for stock, I would follow a recipe to the letter, or experiment with principles, or reverse engineer an eggroll.

The altar of the church, the communion table, the place of the eucharist, of thanksgiving, has been replaced with the altar of the countertop where I make the next meal for myself, my roommate, or for company. I see simple ingredients transformed by heat, by time, by the arrangement of fish and vegetables on a plate. It’s not doctrine or some religious magical mystery tour – it is chemistry, science, creativity, imagination come to life and taste. It is the true word made flesh and dwelling among us at the dinner table. The congregation I serve is now whoever sits at table with me, and for that matter, at whose table I am honoured to be a guest. The visible storytellers sharing food and wine and memories are now become the communion of saints.

It’s still a mystery and one in which I would gladly and forever drown.



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