I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. My mother was a lovely cook, but what we ate was most definitely influenced by the times. We ate for breakfast what 'the Astronauts ate!' which is to say, Space Sticks (aka large Tootsie Rolls), Tang (I can still see the sugar crystals fall to the bottom of the glass and the orange powdery stuff float to the top) and Pop Tarts. Thank goodness Apollo 11's journey was only 8 days, otherwise the astronauts would have returned with a wicked case of Type II diabetes. A delightful lunch in the Midwest might include Campbell's Tomato Soup, Fritos and carrot sticks...and this was supposed to make a person feel better.
And while my mom created relatively healthy dinners, it was in vogue at that time to alter everything with weird chemical concoctions, like store bought Kraft Catalina salad dressing, or those funky dried fried onion thingys, 'packets of flavor', cans of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, and of course the omnipresent 1970s staple, Hamburger Helper. If you could find a reason to crush Lays potato chips and sprinkle them on some sort of creamy egg casserole dish, well, that was simply considered clever and a make sense use of potato chips!
Wash all of the above down with a Tab, Orange Crush or a Fanta, and we'll just call that a block party.
I am not a foodie nor am I fanatical about always eating healthy. I do not obsess about the repercussions of gluten, or caffeine, or sugar. (I'm eating and drinking all three as I write this.) However, as I get older I find God in the craziest places, and I'm here to tell you I did find the existence of God one day...in a simple bowl of 'bruschetta'. I didn't set out to find God in that humble, battered wooden bowl, but that is most certainly where I did.
One sunny late summer Saturday, my daughter and I unexpectedly had a lot of time on our hands. I was done teaching yoga, she was done with soccer, which is to say, we were out of our minds hungry. We are lucky enough to have a small, family-owned market in our neighborhood. If you live within a 2-mile radius, you can just walk or ride your bike to Andy's Market from your house in San Rafael. It's all little residential side streets to get there.
At Andy's we found ourselves standing in front of a basket of brilliant red Roma tomatoes as well as little containers of crimson grape tomatoes. I said to Claire, "Let's make bruschetta!" Bruschetta being one of my favorite things to order in an Italian restaurant.
In addition to the tomatoes, we picked out some fresh cloves of garlic, a little bouquet of fragrant green onion stalks, a fistful of basil as well as a bottle of olive oil. I talked Claire into getting real olive oil. This was not the innocuous, clear, pale flavorless kind. This olive oil was the thick, dusky green stuff, the kind of olive oil that has a spicy kick that lands in the back of your throat and makes you cough when you first eat it. We walked over to the basket of baguettes and Claire reached in a grabbed one.
"MOM! IT"S WARM!"
"Yes, the bread is warm! Can I have a bite?"
"ONE bite." I said. (God being a mom is such a buzz kill...for everyone involved including me. Who am I now?)
Claire tore off a hunk of bread and ate it right there. (Okay I begged her to give me a bite of her hunk of bread too!)
After we paid we RAN home. In our little kitchen, we got down to the business of making the bruschetta while listening to old Motown songs on whatever music service I had signed up for but didn't really understand how to use.
I sharpened a knife and handed it to Claire. She appreciated that I was actually going to trust her with a knife. We chatted about how we each thought the best method was to cut the tomatoes into little squares. We marveled and how red and sweet the tomatoes were. We marveled that the grape tomatoes were an even deeper ruby red than the Roma tomatoes. As the tomatoes filled up half of the old salad bowl, we turned our attention to the garlic. We peeled the papery outerlayers away and there were the snow white cloves, which made our entire kitchen smell like heaven. Of course, I didn't have a garlic press (I mean that would require being prepared and probably cost $8), so we chopped up the fresh garlic as finely as we could and threw the little white bits in with the tomatoes. We then chopped up the bright green basil and the green onions and mixed that in with the tomatoes. We drizzled in some olive oil and sprinkled in pink Himalayan sea salt. We gently mixed everything together and set the bowl aside.
We then sliced up the baguette and poured olive oil and salt into a bowl. We fired up the oven to about 425 degrees, and then dipped the baguette slices into the olive oil and salt mixture on both sides and laid them on a cookie sheet covered in shiny tinfoil. It was too much for Claire. She took a slice of bread, dunked it into the olive oil and closed her eyes and ate it, with oil running down her chin and hands.
With bread toasting and the tomatoes, garlic, basil, onion and olive oil marinating, our whole house smelled so warm and toasty and garlicky. When the bread was done, and I mean so crispy that no oil or tomato would make it mushy, I laid four slices of the toast on each of our plates. I then spooned the tomato mixture on each slice of bread. We sat down, lit a few candles and voila! Bruschetta dinner!
As I looked at our plates, brimming with all this goodness, I could not get my mind wrapped around the sheer insanity of being able to find all of this food, growing naturally on the planet. Biting into that sweet, crunchy, salty, rich, fresh mixture was so insanely... fortunate. That we are lucky enough to have so many flavors to enjoy growing straight from the ground. How could this be? How could we be so lucky? If you take this same line of thinking to all fresh food, it is sheer magic. God, right there, in the bowl, on your plate, not only delighting you, but also keeping you and your loved ones alive. Do we need more proof of God?
And it wasn't just the food that was so much fun, it was the conversation as we were making the bruschetta. "Did you know that tomatoes are actually a fruit?" "Hey I think basil is actually in the mint family!" "Can dogs eat garlic?" "No! Like onion it's very bad for them." "Let's look up why!" "I think it does something to their blood cells like breaks them down." Just chit chatting away amazed that we could create something so tasty with so little.
As I write this, I am painfully aware of the abundance of where I live and the easy access we have to great food. I'm aware of the 'food deserts' around the US and even California that make a fresh persimmon something that is as out of reach as being able to plunge your face into a stream and drink clean, healthful water.
I'm also aware of how removed I've been from food in the past. Think about the above experience and compare that to pulling up to a fast food place, being handed a bag of two grey mushy slices of white flour bun with a hot, tough, mean little disc of grainy meat in between the cheap bread, limp lettuce, packets of sugary red ketchup, a huge container of greasy fries and a brown Coke. You slug it down, throw the remnants away. And in your car you feel weirdly full and still weirdly hungry at the same time.
But what if we all took the time to create meals with loved ones with the same reverence as attending Christmas Mass or the High Holy Days...on most days? Actually thinking about our food, talking about it, walking to the garden or store for it, having some consciousness that what lands on our plates took tons of fresh water, sunshine, dirt and effort. Giving that plate the reverence it deserves? I wonder if we would eat less of it or say more prayers over it, especially if some creature no longer gets to roam around on the planet anymore because they are now our lunch. (I guarantee, being someone's meal, no matter how far down the evolutionary spectrum a creature might be, is not anyone's choice...ever.)
I'm grateful for that religious bowl of bruschetta. We now try and create an experience like that at least once a week, and I know we are on to something. Because at least once a week, we eat better, feel closer, laugh harder and commune. In other words, we find God.
PS: On this Giving Tuesday, if you are looking for a way to alleviate 'food deserts' you can find a few start-ups that have created produce delivery busses that deliver fresh produce to places where there is very little access. I'm sure they would appreciate a donation. http://www.discoverytriangle.org/fresh-express/