Post Author: Mariclair Partee
“I was going to take this class called Cooking For One but the instructor killed himself.” Liz Lemon, 30 Rock
I really like to cook. I will spend days looking through cookbooks to find the perfect recipes, shopping for ingredients, and hours preparing a meal for a dinner party that will entertain those I love for an evening. Gathering around a table with friends and family, sharing stories over fresh bread, decent wine, and thoughtfully prepared dishes is a lot like church to me- a Eucharist of braised Brussels sprouts glazed with aged balsamic, locally made goat cheese, or a chicken roasted to the perfect crispness with a few potatoes. I went to seminary in Manhattan, and despite living in the restaurant capitol of the east for three years, the most memorable meals I had were shared around a table bought off of Craigslist and carried back to my apartment by the same classmates who brought their own chairs and sometimes plates so that we could argue about liturgy or the filioque until long after the bowls had been scraped and the bones picked clean, nourishing our selves, our souls, and our bodies.
A few years into my life as a Single Rev, I realized that I had stopped cooking. After seminary my friends and I were spread far and wide, and first calls meant not only new towns, but new schedules, and a little less free time. I saved my hand-prepared meals for vacations or holiday celebrations shared with others. Living alone in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, my pots and pans became decorative. I got to know the counter staff at the local pizza place a little too well, and my refrigerator looked like something you would see on a sitcom about working singles- freezer stuffed to the gills with frozen meals in plastic trays, main compartment barren, a Sahara containing a pickle jar, three kinds of hot sauce, and some questionable yogurt. Additionally, what a priest friend charitably calls “the parochial spread” set in- between breakfasts grabbed on the run at coffee hour, fast food eaten in the car driving between hospitals, and my friends at the pizzeria, plus my new schedule that left little time to convince myself to exercise when I could collapse on the sofa instead, my clericals were starting to get a little snug, and my energy level was falling in direct relation to my ability to button my pants.
I took a new call in a larger town, but found that the bad habits had already taken hold. I hit my culinary bottom around 8PM on a Tuesday in my second year there, when I ran into a parishioner at a grocery store and noticed her eyes widen briefly at my cart full of no less than 20 frozen dinners, and a case of Diet Coke. I looked like a crazy person, and I felt sluggish, grumpy, and disconnected from God. Things had to change.
Numerous studies have shown that compared to the general population, clergy are exponentially more likely to be obese, have lifestyle impacted diagnoses such as hypertension or Type II diabetes, and to develop addiction issues. We experience a significant amount of stress in our professional lives, and often the things that keep us most centered, such as personal prayer or meditation, are the first to fall to the side when there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to do all that we need to in our churches. Some denominations have recognized the impact physical and emotional stress have on clergy health- and burnout- and have developed programs to nourish their ministers and teach them skills for coping and creating healthy habits. In the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches, we have Credo, a series of week long conferences for clergy and lay church workers that provide coaching on wellness in the areas of physical, financial, spiritual, and vocational health, all in the atmosphere of a retreat with peers. It was after I returned from my first ever Credo conference that I felt truly able to match my desire to change how I was living with behaviors that would make that change both possible and lasting. For me, a good deal of this came down to food: what I ate, how I bought it, how I prepared it. Intentionality around food had become a stand in for my relationship with God- simply getting by on whatever I could consume quickly and with the least amount of planning was no longer an option.
This is not the point in the story where I detail the raw, organic diet that has changed my life, and the marathons I have since run.
Basically, I decided to cook. Just for me. My life is changing, and it continues to do so subtly, slowly, but mostly that change is noticeable in my refrigerator- the ratio of frozen to fresh has turned upside down. The dust has been rinsed off the pots; I own small plastic storage containers and a few new cookbooks. The biggest hill to surmount was the emotional one- I had to learn that a meal cooked for one can be just as nourishing to the soul and the body as one prepared for twelve, and that the time it takes to plan and cook is time invested in my wellbeing. My kitchen has become a much needed space for creative endeavor, as well, as I have had to learn how to cook simply and in small quantities.
After my initial re-conversion to the kitchen, I bought armfuls of fresh produce, only to throw it out as it liquefied over weeks in the crisper drawer. My heart burned with the desire to join a Community Supported Agriculture program in my area, only to have a wiser pastor friend, one with three children and a husband, point out that even in her larger household, the summer saw a slaughter of the innocents as the CSA baskets of produce piled up only to go straight to the garbage. So I learned the schedules of the local farmers markets instead. During the late spring and summer, on my day off, I go through the beloved ritual of gathering my shopping bags, walking through the stands of local farmers, asking about this beet or that chard, feeling the sun’s warmth and God’s love in the creation of all things as I brush the dirt off what will be Tuesday’s dinner or Thursday’s lunch, buying just enough for the week to ensure that I can come back in six days and do the whole thing again. Sometimes I buy a lot, and take it home to make big pots of soup or sauce, portioning it out into little plastic lidded saucers and imagining how happy I will be in the winter, after a late-running Christmas pageant rehearsal or vestry meeting, to find these surprises waiting in the freezer for me and my microwave.
One single clergywoman I know spends part of her day off cooking meals for the entire week to come, storing them in the refrigerator. Except for the occasional soup or pasta sauce, I am still battling my psychological aversion to eating leftovers, and so I haven’t been able to go this far, but I have invested in a crockpot, which I see as a gateway appliance to bulk cooking. I have found some good standby recipes and halved them for two chicken breasts, or a couple of portions of fish, and found secondary uses for the remaining protein. Tacos are my new best friend- you can wrap anything in a whole wheat tortilla with some shredded cabbage or lettuce, squeeze a lime on top, and have a meal that feels like something fresh and interesting. I still keep an emergency cache of frozen dinners, but have found that eating fresh food more frequently has left me with an aversion to the super processed ingredients they contain, so will be more creative with the time and ingredients I have on hand before resorting to the black plastic trays. I still drink my Diet Cokes, but even those have taken on a different, more chemical taste as my palate has shifted from the factory created to actual, identifiable food. I still have my favorite pizza place saved in my cell phone, I just call it less often.
Ultimately, I guess my breakthrough is that even in my busiest day, there is time available for me. Whether I spend that time watching an episode of 30 Rock for the tenth time while having cheez-its out of the box for lunch/dinner, or taking a walk with a friend, or worrying about a parishioner as the rice cooker clanks in the background, it is all time well spent, if done in moderation, and with an eye toward balance. There have been unexpected benefits to my kitchen adventures. My clothes fit a little better, I have a little more money at the end of the month to give away and to invest for retirement, I don’t get tired or short tempered as easily. I take time to talk with God as I chop or stir, and I check in with myself, and find that when I cook I feel better, in every sense.
Photo by Eric C. Bryan