When I was growing up in school and youth group, it seemed like the big question we faced was, “What sort of influence will you have over your friends, family, chosen career, classmates, country?” Walking humbly before God or loving one’s neighbor required incredible and sold-out service to the Gospel. One needed to do big, important things for one’s life to matter for God’s Kingdom. To fulfill the Great Commission, God needed radical, on-fire followers who were willing to give up everything to follow Him and be fishers of men. My peers and I were encouraged to leave our homelands and work for God in foreign countries; that was where the darkness needed to be pushed back.
I left many spiritual emphasis weeks and missions conferences wondering if I was missing something. I kept coming back to the needs of my own sphere that seemed big and impossible to ignore. Friends were lonely, struggling with how to make their ideals and dreams meet the reality of life. We took personality tests and career assessments to find our strengths and weaknesses, and mine aligned with ordinary and boring things like administrative processes and details. Being in front of people or breaking new ground was terrifying, and seemed to contradict the way God had formed my personality. My imagination didn’t soar when considering what God might call me to do; it took root where I was and grew deep. I imagined building a home that was a safe haven from the chaos and confusion I saw in the world. As friends and I shared meals around our humble tables, or met together in the everyday moments of our lives, I felt strengthened to live out the tasks God put before me—doing the work of loving and praying for my neighbor.
As I worked through these things, I also witnessed the closing of two women’s lives, insignificant to the world beyond their own communities, but immeasurably important to mine.
My Mammaw and Grandma Jane passed away within four months of each other, and as my family and I started sifting through their possessions and our memories, I noticed themes from their lives. Both were remembered for their smiles and happing greetings – especially my Grandma Jane who brightened every party she attended and left each person she interacted with feeling they were valued. Mammaw remembered tiny details, like your favorite kind of pie or soda or pizza, and delighted in seeing you enjoy these simple things.
Like all good matriarchs, they both were known for certain foods that they served when we visited. Mammaw we associated with fried taters, cornbread with a crusty exterior perfect for crumbling in Luck’s pinto beans, and German chocolate pie. Grandma Jane we associated with waffles topped with strawberries and whipped cream, fruit salad, hot dogs, and large cookie trays. These foods connected us to each other, and still remind us of their influence in our lives; to eat them is to remember the legacy they gave us. In remembering their lives, I have found myself drawn to certain recipes we shared, and now as I have started a new chapter of my life where my husband and I are setting up our life together, I can’t escape how much of my life still bears the influence of their food and the family culture surrounding it.
Gathering for meals in the homes of Mammaw and Grandma was an important point of growing up. We learned table etiquette, and how to converse over a meal. We heard stories of Mammaw’s and Pappaw’s life in the mountains with the two little boys who would become my dad and uncle. We heard about Grandma Jane’s life as a little girl during the Great Depression. I remember Grandma telling me about how special it was for her to have graham crackers and milk at school; she couldn’t afford to pay for such goodies, but would get to enjoy them when wealthier classmates (who had paid for them) were out sick. The family table launched us on these journeys; and every time we gathered we explored where we came from and where we might go all bound together by God’s faithfulness throughout the generations.
As I’ve pondered these lessons and recipes, I’ve learned that it is not the big, bold things that make up God’s Kingdom, but the ordinary moments when we shape what is beautiful and true in the mundane tasks of our lives. In the book The Life-Giving Home, Sarah Clarkson argues that just as God’s plan for bringing his kingdom to the Earth was in sending His Son as a baby to live among us, bringing His Kingdom into our lives “doesn’t happen on some cosmic scale; the whole point is that it invades the physical at the humblest level” (17). As she concludes, making a home in this fallen world around us “is to craft out a space of human flesh and existence in which eternity rises up in time, in which the Kingdom comes, in which we may taste and see the goodness of God” (18). While one can make a home in a foreign country where few know the love of Christ, this can also happen right in the middle of a bourgeois suburb, city apartment, or idyllic farmhouse. Something as “mundane” as sharing food with others can become a holy time of shaping and molding lives for the glory of God’s kingdom.
When we gather as a family, or a group of friends, we can create traditions by serving certain foods and use that as a means of reflecting on how God has blessed and worked in our lives since the previous time we had these dishes. Ask grandparents about how to make a special family recipe, and when it is your turn to make Mammaw’s stack cake, or Grandma’s JELLO cookies, know that your actions extend the love and lives of this great cloud of witnesses to the next generation.
It is said sometimes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But I think that is also true for most women. We are influenced by the things that give us pleasure: good food, and good moments. And one way to do the work of God’s kingdom is to invite others to a table and share a meal together. This is what God serves to us at the communion table, and in making us His children, He gives us the same opportunity.
I may never be a cultural force on an international or national scale, and I don’t really want to be. But I can make a meal and gather around it with my family, serving and tasting God’s daily goodness.
At Mammaw’s funeral, her pastor shared the testimony that she wrote shortly before her death. In it, she said that her legacy was her family – her sons and grandchildren who would be the testimony of God’s faithfulness. That seemed like a lot to live up to at the time, but as we gather together around her recipes we remember and share God’s faithfulness. As we make the cookies Grandma Jane made, we remember God’s goodness through simple combinations of sugar, butter, and flour. Their food has influenced my generation, and I’m hoping to continue that in mine.