Saturday, December 08, 2012

book review: Keeping the Feast

Dinner at 40 Westt, Montreal
I just finished savouring Milton Brasher-Cunnningham's tasty book, Keeping the Feast.  In the preface, he identifies his "hunger to be connected" as a driving force in his life, and this does indeed seem to be the glue (or should I say, gravy) that holds the book together.  Milton connects food to fostering community and relates both of these elements to celebrating the "Meal That Matters Most," the Lord's Supper.  And he manages to do it with a light touch, making this an easy read but one that will stick with you for some time. 

Milton is a multi-talented man (chef, teacher, minister, writer, small urban farmer, and musician) and his writing reflects his varied experiences and skills.  He manages to combine a lot of good elements in this slim volume.  Like a well-crafted meal, each chapter begins with an appetizing poem, then he spends some time serving up meaty thoughts cut into bite-size stories and sprinkled with thought-provoking observations, and he finishes with a mouth-watering favourite recipe which relates to the topic at hand.  The only thing I would have added to each chapter is a picture of food, perhaps the recipe in question, something that would allow me to linger on the metaphor a bit longer.

There are nine chapters which each take one food metaphor and unpack its spiritual implications.  For instance, in the chapter titled "Signature Dish," Milton indicates that the food he most loves to cook is comfort food.  He writes: "I want to make food that makes you want to come eat with me.  I want to make the kind of food that will make you remember our being together.  The signature - the distinguishing mark - of a great meal is in the memory it creates" (10).  He also writes a lot about the ritual or meaningful repetition of eating together as something that binds us to each other.

One of the most intriguing metaphors for me is his comparison of the soup kitchen line to the line of people waiting to receive communion in church, calling the latter the "sacred soup line."  In both we find people in need, people struggling with pain, people with scars and heartaches, all "walking wounded, all waiting to be welcomed and fed, needing something to sustain us beyond our fears, failures, words, and hunger" (67).  Having worked both at a soup kitchen and at fine restaurants, Milton maintains that feeding others is not really about food: "We are not serving meals, we are serving people,"(66) and this is a very important distinction, one that reveals his pastoral compassion and concern.

The book includes many stories:  there are sports stories, neighbourhood stories, cooking stories, family stories, movie stories, memorable meal stories, and a good dollop of references to a variety of sources including authors such as C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann, and Jean Vanier.  The recipes at the end of each chapter are not complicated and pretty easy to follow.  However, I did notice that the recipe for "Open-Faced Chicken Pot Pie" neglects to include instructions for how to incorporate the buttermilk (54-55).  I'm pretty sure an experienced cook could figure it out, but a novice might be puzzled.  The recipe at the top of my "to try" list is the one he calls "Uncle Milty's Guinness and Chocolate Chili."  One of Milton's colleagues speculates that this chili is the reason that Milton's wife, Ginger, married him.  You can find the recipe here on his website.

The book meanders a fair bit, but I didn't mind.  It is not meant to be a theological treatise on the Eucharist, but a book that calls us to the table.  Reading it almost made me feel that I had pulled up a chair in Milton's kitchen and he was chatting about random things while cooking a meal for us to share.  Milton very much succeeds at conveying his love for food and his commitment to community and communion with Jesus and others.

"...Jesus sat with his disciples around the table and, as he served them bread, he said, 'Every time you do this, remember me.' What if we could hear those words as an invitation to communion and community in every meal, in every cup of coffee, in every beer at the pub: every time you eat and drink look each other in the eye and remember me, remember the love that binds you and do whatever you have to do to forget the lies you have learned that tear you apart" (117).

Bon appetit! 

 



Milton Brasher-Cunningham.  Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2012.  122 pages.

Check out his website:  Don't Eat Alone.

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