In my spice cabinet, there resides a simple tin shaker emblazoned with a big red “C” (Nail polish color: Fire Engine Red). The container is filled with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, and I use it to occasionally add a dash of sweetness to my children’s apple slices, applesauce, oatmeal, or buttery toast.
The shaker is just like the one my grandfather – known as Papa – used to have in his kitchen. And so every time I see it stashed in my cabinet packed in with the clear cylinders of dried basil, crushed ginger, and cumin, I’m reminded of my papa, a man who believed food and serving it to others was the chief nourishment of life itself.
Growing up, my family made the trek up to my grandparents’ home in Illinois from Georgia each year. There we celebrated with family, fun, Mass, and food. Lots of it. From the moment you slipped out of bed you were well-fed. Papa, in the fashion of a professional short-order cook, would whip up breakfast for a gaggle of hungry kids and their parents. We’d all gather around a long picnic table covered with a vinyl red and white checkered tablecloth. Here, we laughed and waited for Papa to feed us mouths poised like a bunch of hungry, helpless baby birds. Then we’d eat, and it was love at first bite. We’d applaud his culinary brilliance and often ask for seconds. He’d happily oblige.
Papa was a dutiful chef who took personal orders – especially at the breakfast table. My mom might request a poached egg. Dad might order white rice swimming in butter and dusted with cinnamon-sugar from the very tin I modeled my own after. But the grandkids – we all wanted Papa’s famous cinnamon toast. Papa somehow always managed to toast the bread to perfection. I’ve never had much luck with toasters – the bread always comes out brittle or not toasted at all. But Papa’s bread turned a slight golden brown, and he spread butter evenly across its warm, crispy surface. Then he sprinkled the perfect amount of cinnamon-sugar mixture over the bread so that you tasted the creamed sweetness with each bite but never encountered any sugary clumps. I’d chomp into it and taste his genius and wonder how a man who was legally blind – Papa suffered from macular degeneration – could possibly know how to add just the right amount of butter and cinnamon-sugar to make the best cinnamon toast my taste buds had ever encountered. In between bites, I’d take swigs of cold milk. It was a sublime breakfast.
My grandparents eventually left Illinois and joined the flocks of snowbirds and moved to Florida. We no longer had the big table to gather at, but food remained the highlight of our visits.
When my firstborn was only a few months old, my husband, our baby, and I went to visit my grandparents. When I woke up in the early morning to the sound of the surf dancing across the sand below, I crept into the kitchen. Papa, also an early riser, was there to greet me – and to serve me as well.
“What would you like for breakfast?” he asked.
I wasn’t really hungry yet but to turn him down felt like rejecting his love.
Before I could answer, he asked his grown granddaughter if she wanted some eggs. Almost shyly, I asked if he could instead make his cinnamon toast. He grinned, clapped his hands, and said, “You bet!” Then he pulled out his token sugar-cinnamon tin can.
My papa had always been big (he loved to make and eat food), but old age was taking its toll on him. This larger-than-life man was shrinking before my eyes and as I watched veined, wrinkled hands at work in the kitchen, I knew there might not be too many more breakfasts of Papa’s cinnamon toast to savor.
I’m not always so prescient, but that was the last time I tasted Papa’s cinnamon toast. His body would shut down and he would die not long after.
But Papa left a legacy behind. An aunt of mine compiled his favorite recipes – handwritten in his writing in big letters his weak eyes could decipher – and made copies for all of us. Today Papa’s love lives on in drops of his signature orange sauce, the deep flavor of his vichyssoise, and in the simplicity of old standbys like cinnamon toast and buttery white rice served every Christmas morning.
With America’s obesity epidemic and the myriad health problems an excess of eating brings, to say that food is love has become somewhat taboo. But my papa taught me that food is indeed more than just something you make or eat. It’s an act of love to both graciously receive well-prepared food as well as to make it. There is something sacrificial in dishes prepared by our hands, dough kneaded, risotto stirred to the perfect consistency, and homemade chocolate chip cookies gooey hot out of the oven served with a side of love to a hungry child or spouse.
Papa nourished the ones he loved with meals. He understood that we are meant to break bread together. For Papa, the art of celebrating food and family was more than tradition – it was a way of life. Just like the Eucharist is to the Church family. We feast, and we receive the love that is God in our hearts. We are nourished. We want for nothing. Food is most definitely sometimes love. It goes down so easily.
In my own kitchen, when preparing a meal starts to feel more like a burden than a labor of love, when chopping my toddler’s food into minuscule, choke-proof chunks is tedium rather than an adventure in the culinary craft, I think of my papa who trained me well in the art of serving food and love on one platter. Like holy relics, the cinnamon-sugar shaker or the notebook of his favorite recipes scrawled on paper as jaundiced and thin as pages of parchment come out of their hiding places. And as I stir, chop, and taste test, I’m reminded that in this kitchen, I’m don’t only fill stomachs, I fill hearts – just as my papa showed his love for all of us as we gathered around his kitchen table. Just as Christ offers us the Bread of Life, in serving my family meal after meal, in gathering them together, in preparing and sharing an extra meal for a friend who has just had a baby or is just having a hard time, I am nourishing souls and offering the taste of God’s goodness in the gift of wholesome and delicious love.