Thursday, June 9, 2016

"You Can't Hide In Your Kitchen"

Easter Sunday afternoon is a favorite time for me. All of my Holy Week and Easter Sunday duties are complete and I can relax and enjoy the holiday with my family. Last year we went for Easter brunch at a local golf club with my parents. Loaves of bread, decorated eggs, and more were nestled between the dishes of traditional brunch fare. One loaf in particular caught my eye: a beautiful round braided loaf with a red hard-boiled egg peeking out of one side. The Executive Chef, Anca, came out of her kitchen to check on the buffet and I asked her about the loaf. A bright smile bloomed on her face as she told me it was a traditional Easter bread from her homeland of Romania. As soon as we got home that afternoon I made a note to contact Anca this year, hoping she would allow me in her kitchen as she prepared for Easter brunch.
Anne, a member of our church, works with Anca, and this February I asked her for Chef Anca’s email address. My simple hope was to be in the commercial kitchen at the golf club while Anca prepared for this year’s big feast. I did not want to be intrusive or a burden during a busy season for her. I expected an invitation with a day and time to show up as an observer only from the corner of her work kitchen.
The invitation I received was so much more.
“When can you come to my house?” she wrote.
“I don’t want to put you out. I’m happy to come the day you cook for the club.” I didn’t want to interrupt her busy schedule and didn’t want her to think a home visit was what I had expected.
“No! I want you in my home! When can you come?” She was insistent and gracious in her invitation.
I couldn’t believe she would make time out of her busy schedule to host me in her own home! We looked at our calendars and found a Tuesday morning five weeks from then. That put our visit in the middle of Lent for me but I was happy to take a day off from my Lenten discipline to spend the morning baking Easter bread with Anca.
The morning arrived and she greeted me at her door with her same bright smile. Anne joined us mid-morning and over the next two hours we listened to Anca’s story while she baked three delicious breads.
Anca is from Romania and came to America to provide her daughter with a better future. She arrived in New York as a single mother with little to count on but her willingness to work hard and a passion for her daughter’s welfare. These were enough to gain her employment with a woman who became her benefactor and paid for her earliest training as a chef.
Anne and I snacked on fresh vegetables and homemade baba ganoush while Anca showed us how to mix the dough for two of the loaves baking in the oven. She spoke of her life in New York and shared with us about Romanian food. She pulled out one of her prized possessions: a cookbook that was her mother’s. Notes filled the margins in her mother’s handwriting.
I shared with Anca about my Prayerful Kitchen project and its genesis. I told her I loved to be in people’s kitchens to hear their stories, especially how cooking for them was a form of prayer and meditation. The cookbook from her mother was an example of the many blessings I have enjoyed on these visits. She smiled knowingly, recognizing the magical nature of this space and said, “You can’t hide in your kitchen.”
She spoke of her religious observances: she is Greek Orthodox. She showed us her church calendar with information about days of feasting and fasting as well as the stamps she uses on the bread she bakes for communion. We talked about the differences between the Anglican liturgical calendar and that of the Orthodox church. Orthodox Christians observe a strict Lent of fasting, including abstinence from eggs, dairy, meat, oil, and wine. Their commitment is much heartier than that of a typical Episcopalian and our meeting was only the second day of Anca’s Lenten season.
That’s when I realized the full significance of our timing and the depth of her generous hospitality. Lent was half finished for me, a time when most Episcopalians have relinquished with guilt any Lenten discipline they adopted. But for Anca it had only begun the day before I came to be in her kitchen.
She knew this when we set the date and it did not give her a moment’s hesitation. She welcomed me into her home to bake breads she could not eat, breads filled with eggs, milk, cheese, and sugar. The aromas rising from the oven were divine and irresistible. She prepared the doughs, breaking the eggs and measuring the butter, waited for them to rise; all the while knowing she wouldn’t eat a bite. She did all of it to share with and tell us about these traditions. She did it to welcome us into her world, her story, her kitchen where we could not hide. She did it out of love and pride.
When the time was right she pulled three beautiful loaves out of the oven. One was an onion bread traditionally eaten during Lent. The other two were different versions of Pascha, or Easter bread. The first was the gorgeous round loaf hiding the red egg in its folds. I asked her if any other color could be used and she explained that tradition holds that the women laid a basket of eggs at the foot of the cross. The blood of Christ dripped on the eggs and stained them red, thus red eggs always are used. The second shared roots with Russian breads, a bread baked in a casserole dish, filled with sweetened cream cheese, and adorned with a cross made of dough. Anca pulled each from the oven in turn and sliced it, offering Anne and me a taste. The onion bread she ate with us but the other two she gave only to us. As we tried the Easter breads, warm and full of yeast and steam, she beamed from across her kitchen counter.
I marveled at her generosity and welcome. I asked her what she would do with the rest of the Easter loaves since she and her husband wouldn’t be eating them. She said she didn’t know then offered for me to take them home. I remembered I was teaching the children’s class the next night at church and took the loaves with joy to give to the children. It was a blessing to share with them the gift given to me the day before and to teach them about Anca’s traditions and some of her story.
Anca’s words continue to ring in my mind as I work on my project: “You can’t hide in your kitchen.” This truth is at the heart of my work. Someone who loves to cook is most at home in a kitchen. It is a place where we relax and ease out of every skin we wear until our barest bones are visible. It is where I breath most deeply and allow my mind to clear, then wander. “You can’t hide in your kitchen.”
There are places for each of us where we know we are most vulnerable, places where we are the most known. It takes trust to invite someone into this space. For me it is the kitchen, a place both utilitarian and sacred. It is the place I most want to be and join others so that I might see them and know them. I am keenly aware of the trust extended with every invitation and the honor given me by being allowed in that space.
“You can’t hide in your kitchen”.
May we all find those spaces of safety and holiness. And may we all be granted the strength to invite others, welcoming and trusting them in a place where we might be fully known, fully exposed, and fully loved.




Fresh baba ganoush and veggies for snacks!



Anca's family heirloom cookbook with precious notes in the margin.


A few finishing touches before baking.

Stamps used for baking communion bread.


Cutting the lenten onion bread.


The onion bread was delicious with the other snacks.



The finished Pascha loaf with Russian influences, both fresh out of the oven and freshly served.


The loaf that started the conversation!



A smile that blooms!




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