Is Martha in the kitchen?

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Julie Nelson writes:

At the recent “Sustainable Diets” event in Keswick (see earlier blog posts) we were told about dietary guidelines that had been drawn up in Brazil in 2014. These included familiar and obvious recommendations to use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation, limit consumption of ready to eat food and drinks, eat at regular mealtimes, and eat with other people whenever possible. But the one that really caught my attention was:

“Develop, practise, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.”

It’s only in the last couple of years, I’ve begun to enjoy cooking again. For the previous 11 years, full-time ministry in the Church left me little time for messing around in the kitchen, and I was more than happy to leave shopping and cooking to my very supportive husband. Prior to that, as a full-time Mum who was also trying to lead a ‘worthwhile’ life (studying for a Masters then a PhD, earning a small additional income from freelance editing, volunteering at a toy library then a playgroup then at the kids’ school…), cooking for the family was a burdensome chore rather than a pleasure.

But now, happily retired, liberated from the demands of paid work (well, a church stipend in my case), and with only myself and my husband to cater for, the kitchen has become again a place of relaxation, interest and enjoyment. Or potentially so.

As I look at the Brazilian dietary guidelines quoted above, I realise how much I still resent the time spent preparing and cooking food. But why? Why do I accord this activity much less value than reading, writing, organising events, attending meetings, volunteering, answering emails, reading the online news, watching TV, going to the cinema, singing in a choir, walking the fells, and all the other activities that have started to fill (to overflowing) the ‘leisurely’ days of retirement?

I can lay some of the blame at the feet of my upbringing, especially my time at an all-girls grammar school in the 1960s, where the brightest girls (that included me) spent only a few months in the first year learning cookery – after that we were expected to focus on academic subjects and on future careers as teachers, doctors, civil servants or whatever. I could also blame aspects of the modern food system which encourage us to find short cuts and go for the easy option – a pre-packaged ready-cooked meal for two with side dishes, a pudding and a cheap bottle of wine thrown in for good measure. And I could blame my feminist convictions, including the argument that a woman’s place is in the House of Bishops (or the House of Commons) rather than the kitchen.

But food is essential to health and well-being – and what and how we eat is increasingly relevant to the health of the planet and the well-being of billions of people and creatures both near and far away. I ought to take food and cooking more seriously. Indeed, I have begun to do so, as I learn more about climate change and environmental degradation and realise what impact our current food systems are having on the Earth. It matters what we eat and how we eat it.

But if I’m really going to make a successful shift to a ‘Sustainable Diet’, then I need to let go of resentment and simply enjoy the time I spend in the kitchen. Because I suspect that eating ‘sustainably’ will demand more time and personal energy.

I’ve been looking for a biblical and theological angle to this. I ought to be able to find a story in the Bible to help me in my journey towards ‘enjoying cooking’. Maybe someone can suggest one? I know that Jesus enjoyed eating and saw eating together as a sign of God’s Kingdom. The ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’ is a great story about sharing food and about abundance, but not much preparation seems to have been involved. And while Jesus was always being accused by his enemies of eating with ‘sinners’, we don’t hear anything about him spending time with Martha in the kitchen. So I’m in need of some help here.

But I’m going to continue trying to ‘develop, practise, share and enjoy’ my skills in food preparation and cooking, regarding that time in the kitchen (and on the allotment) as ‘sacred’ time that is potentially open to the presence, peace and grace of God.

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