• Too Blessed to Complain

    We receive more than fifty letters a week from readers. Many are predictable-- questions about cooking or purchasing cookware-- while others speak in a more personal voice. Georgie Johnson from La Conner, Washington, writes, "I love your continued belief in the simplicity of food, its inherent way of revealing us to ourselves and community at each meal, the act of faith called forth when one lives and breathes with the seasons." Kathy Bungard from Ione, Washington, has written to say that Cook's Illustrated has "given me wings" despite a chronic illness that leaves her with little energy and much pain. Wiley and Nancy McCall from Fort Pierce, Florida, look to Cook's Illustrated as an old friend and invite us down to Florida to share a meal: "Ya'll are welcome anytime."

    But, I was most touched by a letter I just received from Sharlene Spina of Baldwinsville, New York, who won first place at the New York State Fair using our Hazelnut Butter Cookie Dough from the November/December 1993 issue. The letter is really about winning a different sort of prize. She writes, "Most important was the news of my winning to my grandmother whom, God bless her, we buried on this beautiful fall day today. If only you could have seen the smile on her face (when I told her at the nursing home); she was so happy. Although she never said it, I believe her thoughts were that the baton had been passed and the tradition of baking and Christmas cookies would go on for future generations. Thank you so much for what you may think of as just another research article completed-- but, due to your staff, I was able to have yet another moment with my grandmother that I will always cherish."

    A few months ago, our family attended a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the South End of Boston, a short walk from our home. When I first stepped out of the brisk, mid-November wind into the warm, Gothic sanctuary, it reminded me of my first foray into a kitchen. It was all very foreign-- the male ushers dressed in black suits, white gloves, and bow ties; women in starched white dresses; others in hats, some squat and black, some wild, soaring with architectural abandon-- but it was welcoming and stirring. You haven't lived until you've heard two fired-up choirs get hold of "Have a Little Talk with Jesus" and pump it full of raw faith and harmony.

    In his sermon, the Reverend Kirk Jones spoke about a stranger he had met the other day in front of the church. He had asked her how she was, and she replied, "I'm too blessed to complain." As I thought about her words, I realized that home cooks are also blessed with the power to give something special to others. Food and religion are intimately entwined for a reason. Both kitchens and churches are filled with common purpose, with the repetition of the familiar, which, through time and experience, transcends the commonplace. Making soup, baking biscuits, or even preparing oatmeal for the kids is not an act of faith but is a simple act of kindness, of service, of community.

    When compared to the art of the gourmet cook, home cooking may seem a bit commonplace, even threadbare, but this is the essence of its appeal. Putting good food on the table every day is a service performed for others; making elaborate dishes for a dinner party is more for the glory of the cook. Whereas gourmet cooking is about the art of cooking somebody else's food, home cooking is about nourishing family and friends. As a minister once told me, "Preaching isn't about the preacher, it's about the congregation."

    As the service continued, I held our sleeping ten-month-old son in my arms and watched the lazy sunlight come and go through the soft green and yellow stained glass windows, heard the strong, clear voices of witnesses testifying to their faith, noticed an impeccably dressed man with salt-and-pepper hair weeping softly in the pew ahead of me, and looked on as the red- and yellow-robed choir waved white paper fans donated by the nearby Davis Funeral Home. And then, my five-year-old daughter tugged on my sleeve and said, "Daddy, I think we're supposed to hold hands now." She was right-- the congregation was holding hands, praying for the health of a sick member-- and as I gripped her perfect, small fingers, I suddenly realized that both cooking and praying are best when done collectively. Baking cookies for a state fair can connect one generation to the next. A woman in pain can find strength through shared recipes. A congregation singing "We Gather Together" can refresh and bind the souls of strangers. We all experience these moments of lucid stillness when the turbulence of modern times washes clear, and we peek beneath the surface to see that we are, all of us together, too blessed to complain. 

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