When I had a baby someone brought me a loaf of banana bread. It was really good. A kind gesture, reflecting pretty darn impressive time-management skills of the baker, herself a mother of an infant a little older than mine. And a totally unremarkable incident, common and small, repeated countless times in countless places.
In my life that day, though, and likely due to my weak, post-hemorrhage, anemic, and low-blood-pressure fainting Victorian state, I found this gift to be nearly worthy of tears of joy. For on top of my unceasing dizziness and weakness I was insatiably hungry, an effect of nursing that, like so much else about the complicated messy process of giving birth, no one ever told me about. “I could eat a horse” didn’t even begin to apply. Seven or eight horses a day, more like.
This banana bread—I cherished it. With every slice I thought fondly, thankfully, of the impossibly considerate woman who made it for me. With her own hands! In her own kitchen! It was too much to contemplate.
Thus was my afternoon with that loaf of banana bread passed, in a pleasant but brief haze of satiety and embraced by the goodness of humanity.
Ever since that loaf I have baked similar ones for new mothers. I hope that even one of them experiences something of that happy epiphany I felt over my post-natal banana bread: baked goods sustain life itself.
No, wait. That wasn’t it, not completely. It was the feeling of connectedness and being cared for, having my needs understood and met, unasked, a mercy and a kindness.
My list of reasons for being on the receiving end of a loaf of bread has expanded over the years, and our recipe is for pumpkin with chocolate chips, not banana. Break a bone? A pumpkin bread. Knee replacement? Yup. Chemotherapy? Heck yeah. A bad break-up, lost your job, got a promotion, just moved in? Here, have this. When my neighbor told me her aged ailing mother had finally died, what could I do but run in the house, grab that highly unusual, already-baked pumpkin bread from the freezer, and thrust it into her arms like a log for a fire, or a bat to smack away worries, or fears. “I’m so sorry,” I said with a quick, hard hug. “Here, this is all I have.”
Three years ago, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with leukemia. The treatment was horrific. After each round of chemotherapy new things were learned about her particular type of leukemia, which turned out to be stubborn, rare, and malicious. She was in the hospital for most of nine months. Her parents stayed at her house taking care of the two children, and her husband stayed with her in other cities where she was treated. And all of her friends wanted to help, in any way they could.
Well in a situation like this there was really only one thing to do. Bring food.
When a dear friend faces a struggle over which she has no control, bringing food is one way for us to exert a little control of our own. We can nourish, we can comfort, we can for however brief a moment take care of that meal prep, take care of that one mundane task. We can bring a sweet treat that might not taste like gravel in the mouth. We can enlist a casserole as a short-lived soldier in the fight. We do take part in the fight on behalf of our struggling friend. We use that frozen bat of pumpkin bread to smack down anxiety, discomfort, known worries and nameless terrors. It may be a false sense of control. But maybe, just maybe, it isn’t.
Maybe, just maybe, gifts of food to the sick, the injured, the struggling, the sad—maybe they do have real calming, healing powers. Maybe, like chicken soup that science tells us is actually beneficial, actually sanitive when you are sick, maybe a gift of food is more than a thoughtful incidental.
My friend tells the story of a Shabbat dinner complete with homemade challah that she brought to a friend in deep distress and depression. Over the pot roast, they talked (for the recipient insisted she stay to share the meal). And a strange kind of magic ensued. This meal marked indeed a kind of turning point, a point in the road where that grip of darkness seemed to relinquish its hold and her anchor in the safe harbor of human community seemed to stabilize her once more. Was it the food? The love in the hands that prepared it? The shared company?
Well if casseroles could cure cancer I’m telling you my sister-in-law would've been home free. Her friends, in an electronic and urban manner, and before these sorts of things were commonly available, created a website to organize and schedule all the meal deliveries. My sister-in-law’s family was fed whether she was there or not. For six months. Apparently it was easier to get a reservation at the most exclusive restaurant in the city than it was to get on this list, this meal-delivery list, so great was the demand to help. After a short hiatus the list reopened, and it was a matter of hours before the next two months were filled.
We’re talking about a tsunami of dinners here.
From hundreds of miles away I watched, and what I saw was a squadron of people determined that their combined effort can, should, will, must bring healing to their dear one. From afar I was heartened that she was the recipient of so many casseroles. It’s all we have.
And perhaps it isn’t such a small thing after all, to bring food. We bring sustenance, we bring ourselves, our souls, the force of our hope, with set jaws and steely determination. We bring all this bravery and goodness because a well-cooked roast gives us the strength. A warm loaf of bread gives us the moxie. And all those things come in the door with us when we bring our offerings, and our presence in the doorway blocks out the worry and the wolf, for a moment.
When Jesus wanted to tell his listeners something about his centrality in the cosmos and in their lives—when he wanted to say something about how critically important, how necessary his very person was to them—when he wanted to explain by a simple accessible picture what he really was to them—what did he say, but that he was the very bread of life. Something they’d need for survival, something that would nourish them and strengthen them, something they could somehow actually eat and in some practically magical way never hunger again. The divine as daily sustenance, as something to chew and swallow. By the use of such an image Jesus did more than give a clear if mystical picture of his role as the very center of human existence. He also did a lot to boost the image of bread, of sustenance, of chewing, of swallowing.
Do we know in our heart of hearts, we dinner-bringers, we bread bakers, that we aren’t just dropping off a meal? Are we bringing something much better, much more than just that? It has to do with the force of hope, with reckless bravery, with love, and healing. There are times when a pumpkin bread is not just a pumpkin bread. A challah is more than a challah. And a group of friends coordinating meals for a family staring staring down a tragedy is so, so much more.
It’s the bread of life.
Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chips
This recipe is not what you would call especially healthful. Sometimes healthy isn't the main goal. This recipe is for those times. It makes two loaves, one for someone else and one for you, so all that sugar and all those eggs are divided in two.
1 c oil
3 c sugar
1 can pumpkin
1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
1 1/2 t salt
2/3 c water
3 c flour
1 t baking soda
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the oil, sugar, eggs, pumpkin, spices, salt, and water. I use a KitchenAid and try not to stir it up too much, or it gets chewy and tough, as quick breads do when handled too much. Add in the flour and soda, mixing until main lumps disappear but again, don't overdo it. Finally, stir in the chocolate chips--I guess about a half cup, but then, if you're a big fan of them, the bread can withstand a whole lot more. It depends on your recipient and whether they like a little pumpkin bread with their chocolate, or the other way around--or maybe none at all. Pour the batter into two bread pans and bake for an hour. Test it first--your toothpick or bamboo skewer should come out really clean. Cool completely before you wrap it up for a friend.
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