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Stories of friendship, feasting, and faith

21 December 2018

A new recipe book encourages faith through communal feasting. Terence Handley MacMath reports

The Feast is a Birmingham charity promoting dialogue between young people of different faiths. Its guidelines for dialogue, included in Simply Eat, include: listen to what everyone has to say; speak positively about your own faith rather than negatively about other people’s; respect other people, even when disagreeing; not treat others as spokespersons for their faith or culture; acknowledge similarities and differences between faiths and beliefs; not just the people present by what some people of their faith or community do; make every effort to get along with everyone

The Feast is a Birmingham charity promoting dialogue between young people of different faiths. Its guidelines for dialogue, included in Simply Eat, in...

ONE Christmas, a lonely woman was dreading being with her miserable family. Equally miserable in her own company, she was self-harming, and drinking too much.

An invitation arrived. A couple asked her to have cake and mince pies with them, and then to accompany them to midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

The woman, Helen, says that to her the service was then an unknown quantity; but the cake was a big draw. So she “sheepishly followed them to church. . . I didn’t know who the baby in the manger was, or why he grew up to be a man who died on a tree; but it seemed to me that he was key.

“Life didn’t change overnight. Many more conversations in the couple’s home had to happen first. But that simple invitation to cake and a communion service was a turning-point in my life; from there, the real journey from addiction to follower of the King began.”

Simply Eat: Everyday stories of friendship, food and faith is a collection of many tales, colourful photographs, and a few recipes. Some are stories about individuals, such as Helen; some are about churches and organisations.

Lynne Bradley recalls her childhood seders from the perspective of her Christian adulthood, and offers her recipe for chicken soup.

Rahil Patel, for 20 years a Hindu priest, fondly explores the culture of food-sharing in India, and his training for priesthood there, where they were told: “Your smart and intelligent sermons must never replace the importance of sitting with each other, or members of the congregation, amid an abundance of food.”

Patel continues: “This may sound very unspiritual to the religious mind, but I’ll dare to say the opposite. This type of party or feast was very spiritual, and had a profound impact that reached way beyond the stomach.

“There’s something very special about feasting, sitting amid abundance; and now, as a Christian, I can celebrate that any feast we have here is just a small foretaste of the great heavenly banquet that God will provide for us.”

While the common theme of all these stories is the sacramental importance of sharing food with others — especially strangers — there is an agreeable variety of voices, from those for whom the ethical and healthy choice of food, or the skill and time in preparation, is part of the sacrament’s grace, to those who maintain that it is the sharing of whatever limited resources one has that is the important thing, whether it is a bag of crisps or sweets with a teenager, or Rethy Meatloaf, from a reluctant mission-partner’s wife, made for innumerable visitors in Zaire.

Usha Reifsnider remembers the formidable-sounding Mrs McHugh, of Slater Street, Tipton, in the West Midlands, who would come and show the recently arrived family from Gujarat how to cook a Christmas turkey properly (bringing gifts for the whole family, too).

Marijke Hoek cooks lentil bake for two Kurdish asylum-seekers whom she lodges in her own home for three weeks while the Home Office sorts itself out, and invites them to church. “They loved it. The kindness of people who were strangers to them spoke louder than words. A good thing, too, as language was still a barrier.”

Being an immigrant herself, Ms Hoek could imagine their disorientation, but noted that Christians were helping them in all kinds of ways: teaching them English, running a foodbank, and praying for justice. And she quotes the royal-wedding sermon given by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Revd Michael Curry: “When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.”

Many of the stories come from groups and churches that have founded themselves on the ideal of sharing food together, or have realised its central importance to spiritual life and growth. The whole book came from the vision of its publisher, Manoj Raithatha, who was brought up a Hindu, and attributes his faith in Jesus to the hospitality of Christian friends who prayed for his sick son, and invited him and his family to eat with them.

“It was around food that genuine friendship and trust had been built, enabling us to go deeper in our conversations about faith. I distinctly recall one particular meal together after my son was healed, where the conversation focused on the historical evidence for Jesus Christ. It was not long after that discussion that I found myself in church giving my life to him.”

Dutch lentil bake (Serves 4) 

istockistock350g (10 oz) green lentils
3 eggs
1 small tub double cream
150g (5 oz) grated cheese
1 finely cut onion
1 small tin sweetcorn
100g (3½ oz) cashew nuts
salt, pepper, nutmeg
salad ingredients of your choice

Cook green lentils in a pan with water for about 30 minutes until the lentils are soft. Drain the water and put lentils in a bowl. Add the eggs, double cream, grated cheese, finely cut onion, sweetcorn and cashew nuts to the lentils. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Place in an oven dish at 200°C/400°F/Gas 6 for 20 minutes. Serve with salad.

Valeria Landrum is not complimentary about British cooking, but she has won many converts to her Brazilian-American hot sauce, which, she points out, has no sugar, salt, or any other additive. From her English village to New York, she uses it as a blessing, a gift, and a talking-point — and thinks of it as a work of art: “It adds flavour, and brings food to life. . . It’s a great marinade for chicken, fish, or steak, brings life to salad dressings, and is awesome in soups. It’s even great to spread on sandwiches. . .

“The precise quantities of the ingredients are subject to the maker’s taste,” she says.

istockistock4 heads peeled garlic
10 chopped onions
5 spring onions
big bunch fresh parsley
bag various hot chillies
bottle pickled chillies
1 cup apple vinegar
juice 10 lemons or limes
1 litre extra virgin olive oil

Chop and blend fresh garlic, onions, spring onions, and parsley. Remove from blender and blend together fresh hot chillies and pickled chillies with apple vinegar, lemon, or lime juice, and olive oil. Blend it all together into a paste, adding more olive oil to get a thick consistency. Shake before use.

Eve Balshaw’s Everyone’s welcome sweet potatoes is carefully thought out so as to feed a comfortable crowd that includes vegetarians and vegans (leave out the ricotta), and to exclude some of the commonest allergens.

istockistocksweet potatoes (2 per person)
coconut oil
red onions
mixed herbs
baby tomatoes
bell peppers
salad leaves

Set the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Wash the sweet potatoes, prick them with a fork several times, then cover them in coconut oil and sprinkle with salt. Place them in a roasting tray, and, when the oven is up to temperature, put them to cook for an hour. As the sweet potatoes start to get soft and oozy, chop up the onions and pop them in a pan, on low heat, with a couple of teaspoons of coconut oil. Season with salt and mixed herbs.

Wash the tomatoes and, once the onions are soft, throw in the tomatoes. When they start to cook, they will soften, so you can squash them with a wooden spoon to create a juicy sauce.

For the salad, simply quarter the radishes, dice the peppers, and toss them in with the leaves. The pepperiness of the radishes and rocket works well with the sweetness of the potatoes and the sharp creaminess of the sauce. When the sweet potatoes are just about ready, throw the olives into the sauce — as many or as few as you like; they seem to split the crowd, but I love them. At the last moment before you serve, stir in the ricotta.

All that is left is to check that the potatoes are crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, then take them out and open them up. Place them on the plate, heap the sauce on top, and allow everyone to pile on some salad before they dig in.

With so many natural, unprocessed ingredients, this recipe is cheap, easy, and allows for guilt-free second portions. You can experiment with it by keeping the onion and tomato base, but adding mushrooms, chickpeas, or extra cheese, or a favourite sauce.

Simply Eat is published by Instant Apostle, £15; (CT Bookshop £13.50)

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