With today’s post, we welcome Nathaniel Mason to our Exile Project writers’ team! Nate is an LLP serving Booneville and Maple Grove United Methodist Churches on the west edge of the Des Moines metro. You might remember Nate from his time as the Leadership Development Minister for Young Adult and Generational Ministries (2013-2015) for the Iowa Annual Conference. When not engaged in ministry, Nate is busy pursuing his other callings of cooking and being a fun dad to his two young children. Welcome, Nate!
By: Nate Mason?
Like many “Elder Millennials,” I picked up a baking hobby during the pandemic. I was always a good cook. I tell everyone I learned how to cook in self-defense. My mother was an awful cook! She had her go-to meal was cream of mushroom soup, way too much dried parsley, plus whatever protein we had on hand (usually canned tuna), poured over noodles. Her signature dish was broccoli pizza. She would make a doughy crust out of a Bisquick knock-off, use condensed tomato soup for a sauce, that super melty oil-based not quite cheese product, and then of course broccoli. Whenever my sister and I would tease our mother about her culinary skills Mom would always shoot back “I used to make great pies. Do you remember those pies I baked while we were at the girls' home?” My parents ran a troubled girls’ home in Illinois back in the late 1970s. I was born in 1981, so no, I cannot testify to the quality of my mother’s pies. As soon as I was old enough, I assumed cooking responsibilities. In all of that, I never really learned how to bake though, so now I had the time, I figured it was time to develop my kitchen skills.
I picked up the Tartine Bread[i] by Chad Robertson when I saw him on The Chef Show on Netflix. Mr. Robertson seemed hardcore and was evangelical about the benefits of natural leaven (that’s what baking snobs call sourdough). Since yeast was impossible to find at that point it seemed perfect. After my book arrived I approached my new hobby like a faithful Methodist: with discipline in hopes of attaining perfection. And I baked. A lot. Loaf after loaf I would tweak the recipe here and there. I wanted something with a complex savory flavor, so I used a mix of rye and whole wheat in my bread flour. I wanted a tender open crumb so the bread would look like a slice of Swiss cheese. I would get the flavor I wanted but the crumb would be too dense, or I would get the open airy crumb, but the flavor would be more mild than I wanted. So I baked some more. In this time I made a lot of friends by sharing my experiments! Even less than perfect homemade bread is still great. Finally, I found the perfect combination of flours, hydration, rising time, and technique. I called it my Sanctified Loaf. From the beginning of my adventure to the time I finalized my recipe was about four months. The trick to getting good at cooking, or anything really, is spending the time to get good.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in his book The Food Lab[ii] asks “What do McDonald’s and the most expensive steak house in New York have in Common? Answer: They’re both fast-food restaurants” Kenji (as those who pretend that they’re friends with him call him) makes the argument that the true liberation of the home cook is that we can adapt our schedules to truly bring out the best flavors in a meal. My copy of The Food Lab is well-loved, covered in spatters and stains with binding held together by duct tape. I testify that Kenji knows his stuff. Take the first American contribution to the culinary arts: barbeque. Food historians tell the story of how the Southern sharecroppers could not afford the prime cuts of meat, so they bought what they could afford. They got the B grade cuts, the cuts that no person of means would ever eat. Through patience and necessity, these financially poor people became rich in soul food. Suddenly the brisket that was rejected for its rubbery texture and penny-like flavor has become the cornerstone of a Sunday feast! Given time, anything can be good, but rarely do we have time during a crisis.
Moses served some bad bread. God tells their people in the Passover story (Exodus 12) to be ready. There was no time to bake good bread, natural leaven must rise overnight before it is ever added to the dough. The people had to be ready because Pharaoh would strike back fast and hard. Jesus served some bad bread. In all four Gospels, Jesus shares one last meal with his Disciples during the festival of the Passover. This bread would have been unleavened. It would have been the same Styrofoam tasting wafer that many of us have been using for communion during the pandemic. Jesus had just finished his last and most controversial of ministries and was preparing for his crucifixion. There wasn’t time to make the good bread at that moment, so like Moses before him, Jesus served the bad bread because that’s all he could do at that moment.
I was in my early thirties before I realized that my mom didn’t have the privilege of having enough time to be a good cook. Mom was a single mom and often worked multiple jobs to support my sister and me. The broccoli pizza and the cream of mushroom mishmash were my family’s unleavened bread. Those were the meals that my mother could afford and they were the meals that my mother could make with the time given to her. Once I realized this, I could see how the anxiety of food insecurity affected the way I lived and viewed the world. I deeply wish that our churches could see the reality of food insecurity, and let that reality change the way we do ministry. Rather than offering a free meal to families, we should be working to provide those struggling mothers with the time and resources to make a wonderful meal at home. One thing we often fail to realize is that young families are not looking for another program or activity to attend. They lack the time for what is already on their plate, the church shouldn’t be competing for that scarce resource. All we are doing is shifting the burden from food preparation to logistics.
My visceral reaction to food insecurity ministries and my obsessive baking hobby are small-scale examples of what is called “transgenerational trauma.[iii]” In essence, I was impacted by something in the past, developed a coping mechanism to help me deal with that event, and now I am likely to pass on that coping mechanism to my children. Transgenerational Trauma research mostly focuses on large-scale traumatic events, such as the Holocaust or the genocide of the First American people. In various generation-spanning studies, researchers have identified a significant increase in depression, anxiety, and PTSD rates in children even three generations out from the traumatic event. This research becomes a lot scarier when we realize that we’ve all been living through a large-scale traumatic event for the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic radically changed the way we lived, and now that it is on the decline we need to be honest and prayerful about the long-term, possibly transgenerational, impacts.
So how do we cope with transgenerational trauma? There’s a bit of wisdom in the bad bread of Passover. There is a beautiful Passover tradition where the youngest child present at the Seder asks four questions:
The adults present respond to each question with traditional Hebrew responses. This is a beautiful teaching moment where families can talk to their children about their history, the history of their people, and, most importantly, how God has been active and present within our history. The Seder is an institutionalized way of sharing a family narrative[iv]. When children understand their family’s story, where they came from, what they’ve overcome, and hear how everyone who came before them has worked to support the child in that moment, children become more resilient and emotionally stable. Take my family narrative for example. My mother shared with us how she used to make pies. Sure, I tease her about the pies happening before I was ever born, but sharing that story helps me understand that my mother wanted to be a good cook. The love of cooking is part of who my family is, even if the circumstances do not allow for the time to do it well, we still want to support each other in that way. This has helped me feel connected to and loved by my family.
We need to start sharing our pandemic stories with our families. By families, I mean our whole families not just our children. Our parents who might have been neglected due to safety concerns need to hear how we’ve coped. Our grandparents need to hear the story about how their grandkids passed the time in isolation. If the research on transgenerational trauma is to be believed, the task of family narrative storytelling is crucial to preventing a pandemic of mental health issues.
I have to recognize that I am extremely privileged. I get to share the story of why I love baking bread so much with my children. I get to share how my mother worked so hard to provide what she could; I get to share how their mother works so hard to support my baking hobby and my ministry habit. This family narrative is so much more important than any meal I will ever cook. Especially since my four-year-old daughter doesn’t eat any of it anyway. She flat out rejects my traditional pork ragu along with my slow-smoked brisket that took 3 days to prepare. All she eats is bread. When Jesus said “Man cannot live by bread alone,” my daughter voiced her inner Eowyn and said, “Good thing I am no man!” But at least she will eat very good bread.