A Time of Abundance
As the last of the brilliant leaves blow from the branches of the trees in our yard I am reminded of one of my favorite Bible verses:
Ecclesiastes 3:1 – To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
In my experience it applies to everything.
With food as with life there is a time to be steeped in tradition. There is a time when it is comforting and meaningful to draw sustenance from our roots, to remember where we come from through our senses of taste and smell.
While traditions have their season, there is also a time to reach out and open ourselves to our environment as we sample the new and interesting things we find there. Through exploration we find things to stimulate our thinking and delight our senses anew. We discover new connections that enrich our life and our table. They add new significance to the story our traditions tell.
These discoveries are like seeds that we bring back and mix into to our existing traditions. It’s not a matter of plowing up and overturning everything so that something new can supplant it. It’s more like bringing back the fragrant spices of another land to enrich the flavor of those traditions of old, helping them to remain interesting and palatable. Through the delight of discovery we allow what has been handed down to us to breathe with new life.
In the west we are blessed by abundance. We have land in abundance and natural resources. We are wealthy by the world’s standards and can afford to be generous. We tend to aspire to live large on that abundance.
Not that abundance is a bad thing. Ask anyone who has gone without and they will firmly assure you that having plenty is better. My aunts and my dad grew up during the Great Depression and knew the difference. They kept everything I tried to discard in my youth, saying I might need it for something later. “Waste Not, Want Not” was the motto they lived by and they kept old styrofoam meat trays washed and neatly stacked, old wire coat hangers that were bent beyond recognition and clothing they had not worn, or fit into, in decades.
During the Depression they lived on a farm so they never went hungry but they did know what it meant to do without and to wish for the things they had enjoyed in a more prosperous time. Discarding what did not seem useful at the moment was hard for them. They would rather live with a stockpile of items not yet repurposed than to live with the regret of letting go of something they might later find that they could use.
Japanese history is also no stranger to depravation. An exhibit at the Portland Japanese Garden called "Mottainai: The Fabric of Life, Lessons in Frugality from Traditional Japan" is on display through November 27th. As the publicity explains "the exhibition demonstrates the remarkable ability of the Japanese to not only make do with the very little they had, but to make art with it."
Japanese tradition implores its people to find the beauty in simplicity and controlled quantities. This tradition values the iconic truth suggested by the detail of a singular treasure. A Japanese convention of décor is to remove all ornamentation from a setting except for those adornments on which they wish to focus the attention of their guests.
Meals are similar. Western food culture seems driven by the image of a horn of plenty, that Thanksgiving dinner motif of the overflowing cornucopia. Americans delight in all you can eat buffets, bountiful potlucks and sideboards overflowing with foods of every kind. Just watch an episode of “Paula’s Home Cooking” featuring celebrity chef Paula Deen. Her “Southern Thanksgiving Special” is a celebration of excess. A turkey is not enough but is better stuffed with a duck and a hen. Even a meal featuring this elaborate creation, not to mention sides, beverage and dessert, is not enough; mini cheeseburgers the size of my palm along with bacon wrapped pretzels are offered as appetizers.
To tell the truth, my table is not all that different. I may cringe at the thought of that Turducken served with Cheeseburger appetizers but my family celebrates Thanksgiving with huge abundance as well. We serve turkey with dressing, four vegetable dishes, cranberry relish, bread and a variety of pies, served a la mode if you like. It is the tradition I grew up with, and it wasn’t limited to Thanksgiving. If my aunt had guests at dinner any night of the week and even a single dish of the many she laid out on her table was emptied during the meal she would dither over it for hours. “What if they wanted a little more?” she’d say to herself. “Why didn’t I add a little extra?”
Japanese customs, as I understand them, are different. Many meals focus on a simple aesthetic. They offer moderate portions featuring fresh natural ingredients served with rice. These meals are built around the unique attributes of the featured ingredient and its reflection of the season. Presentation is as important as taste as the meal seeks to engage all of the senses. Cooking is an art; from intricate bento boxes to elaborate kaiseki meals, featuring multiple courses of small carefully prepared dishes made with the freshest seasonal ingredients.
Stopping for matcha tea on a Spring afternoon in Himeji we were served tea in a traditional tea bowl along with a single sweet carefully constructed and arranged on a black laquer dish. Both hungry and thirsty when we arrived it was a revelation to experience the great satisfaction this small exquisitely prepared intermezzo provided. After a short break in the quiet contemplative atmosphere of the spare tea house, tasting tea and a small sweet, I felt utterly refreshed and ready to return to our itinerary.
Of course it isn’t only an eastern aesthetic that values careful reflection on preparation and moderation. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Kate and Leopold suggests the value placed on these virtues in the west some time ago. Leopold is a time traveler from the year 1876. Appalled by the quality of his meal, a frozen dinner heated and served in one course, he remarks, "Where I come from the meal is the result of reflection and study... It is said, without the culinary arts the crudeness of reality would be unbearable."
Charlie, brother to the hostess, in good humor offers, "We had a saying in the McKay house: You shake and shake the ketchup bottle; None will come and then a lot'll."
In a way, that quote describes the issue well. Perhaps it is all about the early 20th century and the toll taken on our collective psyche during those years of depravation. During the Great Depression none came, or very little. That era was followed by one of sacrifice to fuel a world war. What followed was a flood of unrivalled prosperity where "a lot" became common and "reflection and study" of those blessing became all too rare as a people once deprived eagerly indulged in that prosperity.
Once again, Thanksgiving is nearly here. As often happens around the holidays, I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Excitement builds over the family gathering and a celebration of our abundant blessings. I dive into the preparation with joy. There are moments, however, when I begin to feel like I am drowning.
On holidays it can be hard to find that balance between celebration and excess. How do we capture the joy and prevent this abundance from becoming a meaningless millstone around our necks? For my part I want to temper my traditions with reflection on moderation, generosity and a belief that, in all truth, less really can be more. It is a blessing to let go, to share, to travel light. We can move so much more freely when we release some of the burdens we tend to heap upon ourselves.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes speaks to that as well:
Ecclesiastes 3:6 - A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
Maybe this year we will scale back our traditional celebration just a little, trimming away the excess that has lost its meaning and focusing on what we treasure most. I would love to step away from some of the quantity of our feast in favor of focusing on the depth and quality of the celebration.
What if we were to practice a time of casting away to make room for things that are truly most worthy of our attention? Think of what meals might be like if we adorned smaller plates with choice recipes that were more often the result of “reflection and study.” Focusing on an aesthetic of simplicity we might bring a new sense of joy and thankfulness to the table as we dwell on the essence of what we consume and the handprint of God’s careful provision in each mouthful we are blessed to enjoy.