Celtic Clues to Feeding Body and Soul
“What’s for dinner?” It might be the most dreaded daily question an adult can be asked. If only there was a simple answer that did not hinge on a barrage of underlying questions: Who’s making dinner? What time are we eating? How many for dinner? Will there be any dislikes or allergies represented at the table? What’s in the cupboard? Is the shopping done? What will be done with leftovers? What’s quick and easy to make? How long since we had that meal? Should we do take-out? And after all the responses are in and the meal is hopefully declared a success, the questions are all relevant again the next day and the next and the next. Menu planning, shopping and meal prep require a tenacity that can try even the most creative and skilled among us.
Enter the meal delivery kit or boxed meal services. Begun in Sweden in 2008, companies such as Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Purple Carrot don’t just answer the age-old question but deliver fresh ingredients and detailed recipes to the subscriber’s kitchen door each week. All that is needed is dinner preparation, or as one company calls itself, Just Add Cooking. Designed for working couples and their households, food industry consultants predict this booming market has the potential to become a five billion dollar business before the decade’s end.
What’s the attraction? I asked a few friends who are subscribers, “why go with the meal service and not just do take-out?” Their answers were revealing. Beyond the simplicity of having the decision made about menus and the convenience of having everything delivered with no worries about how to use leftover exotic ingredients is the fun, enjoyment and satisfaction gained from preparing and eating a home-cooked meal. Though often tired at the end of a long work day, people reported that they found satisfaction in sharpening – and in several cases, learning – culinary skills in order to make the labeled and pre-measured ingredients become a tasty, nutritious meal for the whole family. And even though food prep could sometimes be longer than if they made a standby from their normal rotation of meals, they found the preparation and cooking to be valuable time spent with their spouse and families. What had been a thankless job was something they now found enjoyable thanks to their meal delivery service.
But can satisfaction with menu-planning and food preparation only be found through a meal delivery service? Of course not. Though for many families already subject to the demands of extended work hours, exhausting commutes and the conflicting competing schedules of all the various family members, the idea of cooking together, let alone sitting down to eat as a family is more likely to be a well-intentioned thought than an actual lived event.
I doubt the medieval Celtic woman found daily meal preparation to be a complete joy that she eagerly looked forward to either. But for her, and yes, I am being gender-specific per the time period, food preparation constituted much of her regular work. Bread and butter weren’t staples she conveniently picked up at the market, but laborious, time consuming tasks that required her regular attention if she was going to provide the basics for her family. Baking the bread not only required kneading and proofing the dough for each individual loaf, but also keeping the starter from going rancid to provide the family with a regular supply of bread. Churning the butter meant an hour or two of physical labor that had been preceded by carefully skimming the cream off the milk which sat for a day or two previously in order to separate. She had to be as strategic as any of her contemporary equivalents are today—just at very different tasks, ones we often consider to be old-fashioned and obsolete as a result of technological advances.
But how did she do it without losing her religion?
By understanding her chores as part of the wholeness and fabric of life. Specifically, by inviting God to be a part of her daily work. She understood her efforts provided the essential food and nourishment on which her family depended and she asked God’s blessing upon it. The sign of the cross was slashed into the top of bread loaves and a traditional prayer that accompanied her butter churning chore actually sought its success so she might help sustain those less fortunate, as represented by St Peter in the following refrain:
Come butter come
Come butter come
Peter stands at the gate
Waiting for a buttered cake
The plea and blessing she sought from God wasn’t just hers alone. Guests and visitors who arrived to a home in which the daily chores were being tended greeted their hosts with the Gaelic blessing Bail o Dhia which translates to, ‘God’s blessing on the work!’ The declaration of such a blessing expressed the implicit knowledge that the monotonous backbreaking work was not simply the laborer’s alone but a joint effort blessed by God upon which all of society depended. Daily food preparation was streamlined into the weekly chores that made up everyday life.
Inviting God into her work wasn’t some magical incantation that made the work any less onerous, mundane or exhausting. But inviting God’s blessing and receiving the encouragement of others kept her tasks in perspective – it was done for the glory of God, as an act of love for God that showed God’s love to others. How many of us have that kind of awareness today when we face the daily task of dinner preparation? Or are we blinded from seeing how we participate in the greater good for all, simply because we are confounded and frustrated in figuring out what to serve our own families for dinner?
Despite the fact that most of contemporary society is freed from the backbreaking daily chores of food growth, harvest, storage and food preparation, there is a deep disconnection we have from our food and the source that provides it. Food is an easily accessible resource, stocked on shelves in grocery stores with plenty of reserves in warehouses ready to re-fill the shelves even before they are fully emptied. We take food for granted and our frustration with daily dinner prep might stem from the fact that we have too much choice. We want things made simple—but not so simple we must give up the conveniences of modern life.
Ultimately, I believe, we yearn for the connection experienced by early Celtic Christians: to their food, to its sources and to God who is the source of all food and nourishment—physical and spiritual.
So is it necessary to subscribe to a meal kit delivery system to understand the many connections and the community that goes into preparing our meals? No – though for some families, it is a step towards simplicity and in coming to a greater awareness that the meal they are able to make and enjoy with their family is because someone has helped them prep the meal. Regardless of whether your meal is made from scratch or assembled with some pre-made ingredients, it can be an eye-opening exercise for the whole family to consider the preparation that has gone into making the food on the dinner plate.
Being mindful our of meal and its greater purpose is just one initial step to recapturing the spirit of Celtic Christianity in our cooking and dining. Retrieving the practice of saying grace before each meal is a simple and concrete way of understanding the many ways in which we are nourished at mealtime. One advantage to keeping a prayer book with short simple graces handy at the table is that it allows anyone, even a guest, to choose a grace to say before the meal. Thanking God for the hands that have helped make the meal and to bless those who receive it, we begin to practice our awareness of just how far our dinner table extends. And as a recent video celebrating the 150 years of confederation of Canada suggests, overcoming the challenges of eating dinner in our insular homes might be worth it as we begin to know our neighbors and enjoy the community with which God has surrounded us.
Dinnertime dilemmas will not likely go away anytime soon, but practicing an awareness of how God has blessed us and intends us to bless others might be one way in helping make a thankless job something for which we are truly thankful.
A Traditional Celtic Grace
Bless, O Lord, this food we are about to eat; and we pray you, O God, that it may be good for our body and soul; and if there is any poor creature hungry or thirsty walking the road, may God send them in to us so that we can share the food with them, just as Christ shares His gifts with all of us. Amen.
Resources for Saying Grace:
Blease, Kathleen. Mealtime Blessings: Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations for Saying Grace. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012.
Kelly, Marcia M and Jack Kelly. 100 Graces: Mealtime Blessings Harmony Publishing, 1997.
McElwain, Sarah. Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table. Chronicle Books, 2003.
Faith and Worship http://www.faithandworship.com/Celtic_Blessings_and_Prayers.htm
Daily Prayer Ministries http://dailyprayer.us/before_meals_prayer.php
Featured image courtesy Vicky Ng on Unsplash.