I am not a foodie or a cook. I am also not at all adventurous with my eating. So, I’m not exactly sure why I decided to review Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine. But I’m glad I did.
This book is fantastic. It’s fun and inspiring, with many moments of profound insight. The book revolves around the themes of hospitality, food, friends, family, infertility, love, and shame. It asks us to look into the truth of who we are created to be, to see the Spirit of God in the present moment in either fast and feast. It’s about recognizing the spiritual moments that happen when we share life together.
“The most sacred moments, the ones in which I feel God’s presence most profoundly, when I feel the goodness of the world most arrestingly, take place at the table,” Niequist writes. “It happens when we enter the joy and the sorrow of the people we love, and we join together at the table to feed one another and be fed, and while it’s not strictly about the food, it doesn’t happen without it. Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another.”
“Food is the language of care,” she writes – which, as a pastor in a small Mennonite church, I can assure you is 150 percent true. Food is central to just about everything we do in our church life; no one can imagine an event without it.
It’s is crucial to our relationships with each other. In Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor, he recounts his wife’s advice to families: if they want to strengthen relationships with and help their kids, they need to eat together. I think this is true for most relationships.
For me, the chapter “Open the Door” is worth the price of the book. In a society obsessed with making Pinterest boards, taking pictures of our food, and watching HGTV, we can be shamed into keeping our doors closed. We don’t invite people into our homes because we think our spaces are not quite what they should be. However, in my experience, I’m usually the one who experiences the shame: other people don’t even notice the things I’m trying to hide. But “what people are craving isn’t perfection,” Niequist writes. “People aren’t longing to be impressed; they are longing to feel like they’re home.
“You’ll miss the richest moments in life – the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love – if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door,” she writes.
I was inspired as I read this book. I was reminded that cooking – like discipleship – is about practice. Cooking is action and doing, not just reading or watching the cooking network. I may have watched a lot of “Iron Chef,” but as last night’s potatoes prove, I have no idea how to dice or chop. Likewise, in our Christian faith, we can read about Jesus and study theology, but nothing takes the place of action, of putting one foot in front of the other and seeking to act like Scripture asks us to.
There is no substitute for surrendering your life to Christ. If I want to cook, I need to turn off the TV and pick up a knife. If I want to experience the joy of deep friendships, I need to open the door and invite people to my table. If I want to walk with God, I need to surrender my life. All of it requires practice.
I have three critiques of the book, and the first isn’t even really a critic.
Who does the dishes?! The book paints a glamorous picture of dinner parties and meals with multiple courses, and though Niequist is honest about the failures of some of her parties, it still sounds pretty fantastic to me. But what about the dirty mess of mixing bowls, measuring cups, and the flour that finds its way into every crevice of the kitchen? Hospitality results in mess. If we find the presence of God around the table, fellowshipping with loved ones, we must also learn to carry that awareness with us into the more tedious moments like scrubbing that ring of burnt crispy stuff off the casserole dish.
Can we learn to foster a spirit that has the awareness, joy, and presence of God in the clean up and in the fellowship? Can we learn to say, like the 17th-century monk, Brother Lawrence, that “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
Secondly, for those who are introverted, Niequist will seem like a storm ripping at your sails. An extrovert’s extrovert, she appears almost effortless in her love of noise and people and doing. She fails to help more introverted readers think about how to practise table fellowship and hospitality in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. Being at peace with your gifts and limitations will allow you to be inspired to share your life and table in ways that are doable for you – without guilt or shame for what is not.
Finally, she often talks about sharing the table with the people you love; however, what makes Jesus’ table fellowship so troubling is the way he offered love and acceptance to those on the margins. Jesus constantly pushed the circle bigger by including new people at his table who had never before been invited.
In the church I’m a part of, we’ve been talking a lot about the great danger of developing a tight-knit missional group that never looks beyond its own circle. I imagine Niequist would agree that Jesus-like hospitality means extending the table beyond our friends; however, it would have been good to mention in the book.
At the end of most chapters, there is a recipe, usually tied to a story from the chapter. Many of these recipes are either gluten-free, or designed to be easily adaptable in a world where food intolerances increasingly affect health and quality of life. “The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment,” writes Niequist. “Part of that, then, is honouring the way God made our bodies, and feeding them in the ways they need to be fed.”
When my aunt and cousin were first diagnosed with celiac disease, my grandma jumped feet-first into the world of gluten-free cooking. She was the one who discovered how to make the traditional birthday cake without flour, and how to cook so no one was excluded when we celebrated as a family. That sort of caring for the body and spirit comes from a truly hospitable heart.
In the introduction, Niequist prays readers will be lured from their couches to the kitchen as they read, breaking the spine and staining pages with vinegar and wine. “And more than anything, I pray that when you put this book down, you’ll gather the people you love around your table to eat, and drink, to tell stories, to be heard and fed and nourished on every level.”
This is exactly what I plan on doing – as soon as I get the book back, because I’ve already loaned it out.
—Nathan McCorkindale is pastor of discipleship at Philadelphia MB Church, Watrous, Sask. A version of this review first appeared on Amazon.ca.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255