Building a Parish Culture: Cooking Together

During Christ’s time on earth, the New Testament cites how He spent much of His life sharing meals with locals, even tax collectors and sinners, and most memorably, with His closest followers, His disciples. Perhaps the most memorable image of Christ sharing bread and wine was at the Last Supper. With that meal and with all others, He taught humanity about the connection between food and faith—and that sharing a meal with others makes a step towards evangelizing and getting closer to God.

Until the pandemic hit, numerous Catholic churches opened their kitchen doors to host parish suppers, dinners, and even some breakfasts. These gatherings let parishioners cook and eat together, to meet others, and have possible time to chat with their pastor. Now with the pandemic waning, many churches have resumed these mealtime get-togethers. For example, a scroll through the internet turns up numerous parish meal events, with offerings from chicken, pork steaks, hamburgers, mashed potatoes and other vegetables, fish fries, breakfast spreads, beef dishes, and even picnics or an Irish dinner. And that’s just a few examples.

Perhaps one of the busiest parish events—the Middle Eastern Food Festival— takes place at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia. Dated for the first weekend in September, the event draws in hundreds of visitors from all over the Washington, DC metro area. Besides the music and dancing, the church tours, artifact vendors, and games, the biggest draw is the vast food offerings, from kibbeh, and falafel, to hummus and stuffed grape leaves. And to wrap up all meals, a table lined with Arabic pastries.

Parishioner Lani Kanakry, who has been involved with baking for the food festival and the Christmas sweet sale, has found that volunteers baking together has become a ministry for bringing people together. “The women who work have developed a strong bond with each other,” she said. “Coming together, working for the church, making something that sells, that fiber and strength created by women working together is the act for working together with love.”

In Memphis, Tennessee, St. Michael Catholic Church offers parishioners opportunities to participate in cooking and making meals, said parish administrator, Tera Simmons.  “We have many opportunities for people to participate in cooking and making meals together,” she said. “For one is the class Bread Alone that we do once a month. A small group gets together to cook something. Last month it was cake decoration…It is a way to get together, to learn some recipes, and a chance for a one-on-one relationship. And the pastor teaches us when we are cooking about food, and anything related to faith … and once we are done, we sit down at the table with wine and what we have made.”

The pastor, Father Ben Bradshaw, happens also to be a professional chef with various culinary degrees and who also hosts a show called Soul Food on Facebook and on the parish website. As Tera noted, he uses much from his background so when he teaches about Christ to live a lay person’s life, he brings that wisdom to people in our church.

“And his ability to target cooking and food and to carry that through in these ministries is a natural thing,” she said, “and people love it. He makes other people love cooking, too…  a useful skill and fellowship.”

As Father Bradshaw noted, he has led this cooking class, Bread Alone, based around baking pastry. “Bread Alone is what Jesus said, and one of my favorite cookbooks is called Bread Alone. … Most of the couples who come know almost nothing about how to do it and afterwards we share wine and sit down and have a meal together. We have done this often and now enough people are booked out 6 to 8 months as volunteers.”

“I do a lot of cooking,” he added, “but my main job is being pastor. When I have time to do cooking, it is to involve the parish when possible, with different groups in the parish and the staff and for fundraisers. When I can with my podcast, it is a teaching moment as well. It is not just cooking but about teaching for food and faith together.”

Clearly, parishioners cooking and eating together offer both temporal and spiritual benefits towards building a community. As Father James Searby, Parochial Vicar, St. Timothy Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, summarized, “There is something marvelous and magical about people gathered at a table. Whether it is the family in their home or the parish family, when we gather together to cook and to receive the gift of the food, we enter upon a stage,” he said. “The table is that privileged place where the drama of life unfolds. And just like in a theater where there is a communion between the actor and the audience, so there is a communion between the cook and those who are dining. It perfectly prepares us to receive the ultimate gift at the table of the Lord, where he prepares the meal of His own love and presents it to us elegantly as we receive it profoundly.”

St. Mike’s Brownies

Father Ben Bradshaw’s treats!
Yield: half a sheet pan

One pound, 8 ounces chocolate chips, melted
One pound, 6 ounces, butter, melted
3 to 4 large eggs
6 cups sugar (2 pounds, 10 ounces)
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
12 tablespoons cocoa powder (6 ounces)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 ½ pounds walnuts, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a sheet pan. Combine the melted chocolate chips and the melted butter in a mixing bowl, and using a paddle mixer, beat the combination on medium speed. Add the eggs, sugar, flour, cocoa powder, and vanilla. Mix on medium-high speed for 5 to 7 minutes. Fold in the walnuts, if using. Pour the mixture into the sheet pan, spreading it out with water-moistened fingers, if needed.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until set. Remove from the oven, and cool.

Photo by LAUREN GRAY on Unsplash

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A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world — from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith. Her latest work is Cooking with the Saints.

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