Because I took a step out of my comfort zone for about thirty seconds a year or so ago, I am learning to cook Kenyan style. And I am learning something about God in the process.
I noticed a man standing off to the side of the crowd at a fundraiser for Catholic Charities. I never—repeat, never—talk to strangers, and I’m, not all that good at talking with those I already know most of the time. Small talk makes me uncomfortable. But I took my heart in my hands and went over an introduced myself. The rest is, as they say, culinary history.
I am a Southerner, born and bred, which is in itself remarkable as my parents were not. Yankees displaced to Alabama, their raising of me ought to have made me a tweener—someone neither fish nor fowl, not comfortable either in her place of birth or her place of origin. Instead, it made me, with God’s grace, nimble. Not really belonging to any particular place or culture, I find it comfortable (though not always easy) to adjust to my surroundings of place.
The easiest entry to culture is, of course, through food. My affection for Kenyan food, if not actually planned from the dawn of time, was at least destiny. I might be adrift in culture, but I love Southern cooking. Give me grits and greens and I am a happy woman. Give me grits and greens on steroids—ugali and sukumu wiki, the traditional dishes my friend has taught me to make, and I am in hog heaven.
Last evening, we gathered in the kitchen to make a feast, my husband and daughter, a bonus baby, and two friends, including my Kenyan brother. The evening was filled with chopping and laughing as dinner took shape in leisurely fashion amid the conversation, all of us gathered around the stove --quite a difference from my upbringing. At my mother’s house, if dinner was set for six, it was on the table at six, and woe be to him who came late!
But lesson number one of Kenyan cooking is to love time. Maybe it’s looking down the long barrel of my seventh decade, a case of too soon old, too late smart, but it has dawned on me that the present moment is all I have, and it’s best to savor it, not rush through it. I’ve always loved cooking, but when it becomes a joy in itself, and not just for its end, when it becomes a prayer and not just a promise, it is so much better.
The girls wanted to learn to make the dishes, too, so our friend took pains to show them how to prepare it all. Just so much onion, so much pepper, so much tomato, chopped small, Kenyan style, and greens, and magic spice. So much water, so much corn meal, stirred and thickened, lumps pressed out until the resulting porridge is stiff and satiny and like all good things, stands on its own.
Over the stove he told stories, how a Kenyan man will come to dinner with his prospective bride and she cooks ugali, corn meal porridge, for him. The better the ugali, he teased, the better the dowry, the bride price. In Kenya, they have two words for dowry—one for the price paid to the parents of the bride, the other the price to the groom. Inspecting the finished product, produced after much laughter and amazement at how hard it is to push the lumps out of stiff porridge, he pronounced them worthy of a good price, ten cows at least.
Later in the meal, in a moment of seriousness, he explained that the dowry given is not just a price for the bride, it is a way of reminding families that they are connected through the generations. The price is never paid all at once; something always held in reserve for later, for harder times or celebrations when a cow or a goat or a lamb makes all the difference in the world.
My groom and I are approaching our anniversary, 37 years, far longer married than not. The conversation at table reminded me that Americans are losing sight of what marriage is, is meant to be. Too often, it’s just a convenient social contract between two people who, for the moment, are attracted to each other, and in another moment, will decide they are not and will fall apart.
But the reality is that marriage, like the bride-price, connects families through the generations, whether we know it or not. Thirty-seven years into it, I realize I married not just my husband but his whole family, past and present and future. That two-become-one thing—it’s real, whether we realize it or not. As I am part of my husband, and he of me, so his family is mine and mine his, connected as surely as if we were bound by cords of iron. I am blessed; by grace, those cords are a joy, an anchor in my life. And it is real for those who do not understand what marriage is or have fallen apart—the bonds are still there. Ask any ex-spouse dealing with a custody arrangement and a new wife or husband.
It occurred to me as I rid the dishes after the guests had left and the girls had retired to the upstairs and reflected with quiet joy on the evening, that I learned something that evening about my Christian journey. I am increasingly captivated by the nuptial language in scripture. Christ as Bridegroom and us—the Church—as His bride. After thirty seven years, I now know something about marriage, and after last night, I know something more.
For in the crucifixion there has been a dear bride-price indeed paid for our marriage to Christ through His church. It binds us all together as family across space and through time and sees us through both feast and famine. Just as it connects us to Christ, it connects us to each other, family in the same connected way that Americans seem to have lost and Kenyans understand in their very bones. It is a large family indeed and my obligations to it and in it are neither passing or insignificant nor subject to my whim and will. As I prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation this Advent, it is a good thing that a casual dinner reminded me what I am preparing for and what arrives for me come Christmas Day. The Bridegroom who has given all for His bride.
Perhaps I should spend the rest of Advent preparing, so that I may give, in great joy, my dowry to the Father of the Groom