It is said that food tastes better when shared with loved ones. People share sustenance, conversation, and time. They share themselves. This is one reason why I love to visit my older children at school during their noon meal. They attend Mount Hope Lutheran School, a small classical Lutheran gem here in Casper. In their twenty-minute lunch time, we chat a little, squeeze in hugs, smile at each other and their school mates, and eat. I get to visit briefly with their truly amazing, conscientious teachers and other parents. It’s short but special–one of those everyday but priceless experiences that I never regret making the time to do.
Last November, a friend and fellow mom brought up the idea of making an Advent dinner for the students and teachers. Our school is not part of any school lunch program, so the only times our kids get a hot meal at noon are at pizza lunches, bi-weekly events where Little Caesar’s reigns in the kitchen. The kids love it, and we moms like the break from all the brown bagging, but it’s not exactly five-star cuisine.
Lunch ladies–and gentlemen, though they are few and far between–hold a warm place in my heart. My maternal grandmother worked for years as a school cook. She was born and raised on a farm, and fed and nourished five children, as well as family and friends on a regular basis, so preparing food for crowds was a natural love language for her. “What can I get you to eat? You must be hungry,” she’d say to us at any possible opportunity, pulling out food–ham, potatoes, all kinds of dessert–at midnight when we’d arrive at her house after the long road trip to visit.
And it wasn’t just my grandma. At one small public elementary school I attended in Kentucky, the two or three lunch ladies were beloved–they made either giant homemade cinnamon rolls or yeast rolls every Wednesday, and they were gentle and friendly, just like Grandma. One gentleman at a former congregation, Tony, was a long time school cook, an amazing chef, and one of the genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met. Another dear lady at yet another congregation, Lydia, was also a legendary school cook. She nearly single-handedly ran the large old-fashioned supper the church hosted as a fundraiser every year, with baked ham, raw apple cake and apple butter, and Lydia’s famous Schnitzel Beans always making an appearance. She never shared the bean recipe with anyone, not even my mother who asked for it several times, until she met my husband Jon. In Lydia’s bridal shower card to me, she inserted several hand-written recipes, and one of them was for her beans.
All this is to say that I thought my friend Athena’s idea was a great one. Athena is a warm and enthusiastic lady, and like my grandmother, one of her love languages is to cook delicious food for large groups. She offered to make turkey and gravy and chicken nuggets–because let’s face it, she understands kid food proclivities–and a giant pan of her homemade macaroni and cheese. Another dear friend, Lisa, offered to provide chocolate milk–always a treat–and oodles of cut-up carrots and cucumbers. I offered to make chocolate-chip cookies (from premade dough), homemade yeast rolls, a small batch of mashed potatoes, and Lydia’s beans. The bread recipe was one my mother shared with me years ago that I grew up eating at Thanksgiving and other holidays, so it just seemed fitting. The potatoes were for the small number of kids who didn’t like mac and cheese, and the beans–well, they have bacon, an obvious plus, and Lydia would be tickled to know they were served to Lutheran school kids.
On the day of the Advent dinner, we met up at school in the gym, which doubles as a lunchroom, with our haul. Athena had thought to bring festive tablecloths and napkins, and our younger kids and another mom helped set the tables. We’d timed all the baking down to the minute, prayed with Athena that the turkey would be cooked through but not dry, set aside the few rolls that fell off the tray into asphalt when I opened the van door, and lined all the food along the counter in a sequence we thought would be best. We were excited and a little bit nervous–would everything go smoothly?
The teachers and students came in silently, as usual, and when all the classes had arrived, we all prayed together. Then the kids lined up at the window, and we learned fast why lots of hands are useful. The kids had options–turkey, dark or white, or nuggets or both? Gravy? Macaroni and cheese? Veggies? We quickly moved to one person placing bread and some veggies on each plate, with two of us filling plates for individual students per their requests, instead of each of us asking the same kid different questions. The students were overwhelmed with the choices, most of them quietly delighted with the food. The nuggets and mac were highly popular, as were the rolls. But the beans started going and were gone before I knew it–the potatoes, too. Lydia and my Grandma would have been delighted.
Just when we thought we wouldn’t be able to keep up, the line was finished. Several teachers and volunteers, including two pastors and the headmistress, came through. We filled our own plates and sat in the lunchroom with our children, sopping up messes with our paper napkins, relaxing in the happy din of a shared meal.
People in our culture are often overwhelmed by the thought of hosting a party or preparing large quantities of food for others. And yet homes built for “entertaining,” lavish television shows and ubiquitous media dedicated to food and sharing it surround us. We all want a shared table and are so often afraid to try to make one. In those times and places I have felt most loved around a table, the material evidences of such love are simple: hot food, offered frequently, with loved ones. That’s it. Well-chosen decorations are icing on the cake. The real value lies in the sharing itself.
While we tried to give the teachers and students something special, there was nothing particularly fantastic about our meal. Rather, we wanted to give them those simple ingredients of what we have so loved about eating with friends at school and other places: hot food and togetherness. My favorite part of our Advent dinner was seeing the kids’ faces at the window. It was visceral–my hands covered in plastic gloves, placing beans dripping from a spoon or gooey macaroni on their plates, their hands taking their plates, splooshing ketchup next to their nuggets.
There are countless reasons why I love Mount Hope, and I will blog about more of them in the future, but a big one is that it is a family. Teachers give abundantly of themselves to our whole family and to the other students and their families, and vice versa. We share laughter and tears, countless planning and learning and striving. We share services in the Chapel, partaking of our Lord together, and we share meals in the gym. It is more precious than I can express.
During Christmas and now Epiphany, we remember Christ’s incarnation, His coming to us in the flesh as a little child. During Epiphany, we will hear of the Kings who came to honor him, the Gentiles who were the forerunners of others who would come to know Him out of the great, wide world, who knew that He was the One who would reconcile them, the outsiders, to God. They touched him, knowing that He would open His hand to them, and He fed them, just as He feeds us. What a great and awesome wonder is this.