It all started because I unwittingly scheduled my vacation during Fat Tuesday, thus depriving my congregation of fasnachts.
Let me explain: Fat Tuesday is the last day before the season of Lent begins; Lent being a time for Christians to practice abstention, moderation and fasting. Fat Tuesday, (Mardi Gras in French) is the chance for one last fling before entering six weeks of temperance. I have always treated my congregation to fasnachts every Fat Tuesday, a potato donut fried in lard. But this year, I was on the road on Fat Tuesday, thus leaving the members of Geneseo Grace in a lean lurch.
To compensate for my miscalculation, I announced that I would make everyone fasnachts as soon as Lent was over. In fact, in the spirit of Mardi Gras, I went overboard, promising seven Fat Days, one feast for each week of the 2022 Easter Season. Since I’m not in Geneseo on Tuesdays, generally, I decided we would make it Fat Wednesdays instead. I would buy all the food, cook it in the church kitchen, and serve it to anyone who showed up. Each week would be a different theme, a unique feast. The plan was to have macaroni and cheese night, Greek night, Soul Food night, Spanish night, Asian night… The only thing I asked of my diners was to either 1) help me fix the food beforehand, 2) help do the dishes afterward, or 3) bring something else to put on the potluck table.
At this point you might wonder if am crazy. After all, what else can you call a man who proposes to take over an exclusive female sanctum: the church kitchen? What else do you call a guy to tries to get dozens of people to try dishes they have never eaten before? Who but a man losing his marbles would invite people to eat recipes he's never even tried to fix before? If that doesn't convince you, let me confess that I also announced with audacity that I would be teaching people in the church how to make this food.
The first week, only Clarke and Gail Barnes signed up. So the three of us just went out to a restaurant and ate salads and sandwiches. But the next week, 30 signed up, and the macaroni and cheese buffet was on. Over a dozen people showed up to help me make six different kinds of macaroni and cheese casserole, huge pans of it. We had blue cheese mac and cheese, shepherd’s pie mac and cheese, trailer park mac and cheese… It was a mad house in the kitchen: getting the sauce just right, tweaking the ingredients, cooking the pasta al dente, browning the panka topping. The first six people who showed up to help got handed a recipe and promoted to “supervisor” of that particular casserole. I believe it was the world’s first official church macaroni buffet. People were bumping into each other in the crowded kitchen, trying to keep the gas stove lit, and shouting questions across the room to me. A fun time was had by all. And by the end of the evening, all the macaroni had either been eaten or taken home.
The next week I declared “Chinese Night.” You may think that because I’m married to a Chinese woman that I might know a great deal about Chinese cooking. But that would be the same as assuming I am qualified to give my wife a haircut and perm just because I look at her head a lot. In our house, Jie does all the Chinese cooking and I cook the rest of the world.
But this did not deter me from fixing nine different Chinese dishes for my congregation that week. After all, Jie wasn’t there to notice my mistakes. As for everyone else, I just told them that there is a difference between authentic Chinese food and the kind of food Chinese restaurants serve Americans… and that we would be having authentic food that night. I knew that I could cover up any mistakes by saying that Americans just don't have a taste for real Chinese food. And so we made coconut-squash soup, carrot and shrimp stir fry, bok-choy, stir fried green beans, chicken and broccoli, fish tofu, stir-fried rice, etc. I was so busy being an authority on everything that I didn’t have time to taste test the dishes before we set them out. But for the second week in a row, they either ate everything or took it home to eat the next day.
Last Wednesday I decided we would make Spanish paella. This was something I’d never even heard of until our vacation last February in Tampa. The people at the next table ordered it, and we asked the waiter what it was. A couple nights later we went back and ordered it ourselves. It is a one dish meal: vegetables, meats, and seafoods, secretly seasoned, fixed in a shallow pan over an open flame, with rice that caramelizes at the bottom of the pan. I thought the restaurant made it was so-so, even though I’d never had it before.
I do this a lot when I eat at restaurants: declare that it is okay… but I could do better. And so I impulsively announced to the whole congregation that we would make and serve paella on the fourth week of Easter.
Many preachers, before they preach, offer this little prayer: “May the words of my mouth be acceptable unto thee, O Lord.” Let it be noted that I did NOT have the presence of mind to utter that supplication right before I declared that I would lead everyone in cooking paella. I did, however, have the presence of mind to borrow a book on paella… and a paella pan from our friend Minerva. I also watched numerous YouTube videos on fixing the dish.
A key feature in the paella cookbook that Minerva loaned me is rabbit, with a special focus on hare livers. I nixed that right away. But in my desire to remain authentic, I did go overboard and get everything else I could. We fixed four different paellas: seafood, chicken, vegetarian, and ribs with turnips. We didn’t use just any ordinary store-bought rice. I bought 12 pounds of special short grain rice imported from Spain. I bought snails, mussels, raw shrimp, and clams. I bought tomatoes and beans artichokes for the sofrito. I bought almonds and parsley and garlic for the picada. I bought smoked paprika. And I bought saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, at about $5000-10,000 per pound. (I only bought $20 worth.) I also had to buy an additional steel pan to make enough for the crowd that showed up.
The thing that makes this recipe so iffy is that once you add the rice to the boiling liquid and sofrito, you cannot stir it. You cannot touch it. You just let it sink and cook: for 10 minutes on a high flame and 8 minutes on a low flame. If it turns out right, it will be caramelized on the bottom of the paella pan. If it doesn’t turn out right… well… there are hundreds of possibilities, few of which are edible.
The kitchen that night was extra chaotic. Extra people showed up to help cook. I found a job for everyone, from ages 10 to 80+. None of us knew what we were doing. But when the paellas were triumphantly removed from the gas flames and paraded into the fellowship hall for their consumption, we all felt extra pride and excitement. Our lay leader offered an earnest prayer, in case the paellas turned out to be a disaster. It was the first time snails had ever been served at a church dinner in Grace Church. People made videos of the snail eating. Very few people reported getting sick later than night. No one had to go to the hospital.
We still have two dinners to go (Greek and Soul Food) but some evaluations are already forming. Even though I have no idea what I am doing with fish tofu, paella, or moussaka, I do have a strategy in leading Grace Church.
My task is to help the congregation change its story. And we are doing that by recovering several biblical descriptions of community: eating together, making new friends, releasing joy and laughter, breaking as many Pharisaical rules as we can, working together as one body… and swimming in grace.
These meals are reminding us that there is a perfection in graceful imperfection. It is the perfection of people not afraid to experiment, people practicing patience, people treasuring new stories being made. Jesus calls us to be “perfect” as our father in heaven is “perfect.” But it is not the perfection of a TV chef, it is the perfection of grace abounding among ourselves. I have no idea how the next meal will turn out… but I’m getting a pretty good idea how the story of this congregation is emerging.