My brother and I were raised to be good Presbyterians. We went to church every Sunday where my brother and I would draw on the back of the pamphlet for that day's sermon and generally cause a fuss for 60 minutes as our parents attempted to shush us into quiet obedience. Eventually, frustrated at the lack of any sort of child-related religious education (read:babysitting), my parents picked us up and moved us to a nearby Luthern church that had a well-dispositioned Sunday school and preteen and teen programs. From then on we were raised to be good Lutherans.
Lutheranism is the Diet Coke of Catholicism: Same great flavor. None of the guilt. What I mean is that we used the same general catechism, the book of rules on how to be a good Christian. Young kids have to memorize it, take classes, and learn to be good people in the eyes of Jesus.
In Lutheranism there are no Saints to pray to, which I liked because from the outside it seemed there were too many of them. I never understood why Mary got respect but Joseph didn't, so for a long time I assumed the Catholic church was sexist against men. (Silly me.) Actually, the Vatican is still a mystery to me in many respects. As a child I interpreted it as a miserly old man with too much money telling people to be miserable for this would make God happy. (Ever since Martin Luther decided to graffiti a church door, Lutherans have always been against suffering and self-inflicted angst.)
Lutherans are generally a very laid back lot. Where as Catholicism might encourage you to say five Hail Mary's on Easter Sunday, we're more likely to drink five Bloody Mary's on any given Sunday. This is probably what influenced the waned sense of piety and religion that I possess today.
Much of this attitude was influenced by my pastor at the time of my youth, Pastor Kim. Our Senior Pastor, Pastor Tim, a disgruntled man in his forties who had the disposition of a codger in his eighties, was a miserable guy. For a Lutheran he was very fire and brimstone, and seemed to have a deep rooted hatred for Buddhists who he insisted were "Dead inside for praying to a stone statue of a man," which made many of the parishioners cock their heads in question as he said this in front of a three story tall, polished wooden cross. Considering all this, you might be able to see why it was odd that of all people he hired to be his Assistant Pastor, he hired Pastor Kim.
Kim was blond, sweeter than a Sundae, and sickeningly perky. She was that girl you knew in high school who was prom queen, track star, and got a perfect SAT score. Part of you wanted to hate her, but she was so damn nice to you and everyone else that you couldn't help but give her the utmost admiration.
I recall when I was talking to her one day when I was still struggling with the whole sexuality issue. I was worried that what I might be doing (i.e., liking boys) was sinful. I poured out my heart while trying to hold back the tears, wondering why a God who made me like this wouldn't like me the way I am.
She looked at me thoughtfully, then got up and walked over to the TV that she kept in her office and turned it on. She then bent over and opened the cabinet of the television stand to reveal a Nintendo 64 gaming system.
"You're stressing too much about this. You're fine," she said as she began to unravel the cords from around the controllers and set the system up.
"Really?" I sniffed.
She turned and sighed, "Yes. Look, do you want to do good in the world?"
"Do you feel like you've actually done anything wrong?"
"Okay, then just try to be a good person. If you do do something bad then ask for forgiveness from God in a spirit of contrition and you'll get it. After that you go do more good in the world. That's the way to live a holy life. That'll make you happy. That'll make God happy. That'll make others happy. Who you take home to meet mom doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things."
"Now, let's play some GoldenEye 007." Then for the next hour she proceeded to whoop my ass at video games, trash talking me the entire time. (E.g., "Maybe you should pray to Jesus not to suck so much!")
This sort of attitude reflected that of the entire youth congregation, which I was an active part of all until I left my hometown for college. Indeed, on my last day there when I told all my friends in the Youth Group, people I had known now for over 10 years that I was gay, the general response was, "No duh." A few actually had someone they wanted to set me up with. One person did actually water balloon me in the face, but then again she was water ballooning everyone that summer day.
These days, I'm bad Lutheran. I don't pray that much. I go to the occasional Church service, but my belief is that standing in a church makes you a Christian as much as standing in a garage makes you a car. To me, faith is a personal thing and best practiced alone in your own way.
For me, I guess, cooking is now my Sunday morning routine. The methodical process requires thought, practice, and action. It's the combination and transformation of things. Cooking becomes appreciation of life and what it has to offer.
My kitchen is my church. Here, I feel close to God, my family, and my friends. I attend regularly. The wine is way better than the stuff Pastor Tim used to serve and I generally prefer cookies to communion wafers.
Even more so, the kitchen defines what faith is. In the kitchen there is only so much you can control. At times, you simply have to have faith that your oven won't run too hot or that the fruit you picked up won't be too bitter. Jam requires skill, yes, but it requires faith and knowledge of your ingredients. Coax your jam all you want, but any seasoned jammer will tell you the same thing: the fruit will do as it sees fit. You simply have to accept the outcome and make the best of it.
I've learned some of the best life lessons in a kitchen. In fact, I feel that I've learned them better in the kitchen that in the pews listening to someone preach from the book of Psalms. I learned patience waiting for a cake to rise. Humility when it didn't. Respect in the presence of great teachers. Affability in the presence of eager novices. Thankfulness for bounty, and temperance when gifted with it.
Jam teaches you a lot of these lessons that we learn hovering above a pot with a wooden spoon in hand. And, so, I think God, in a way, is in the food we cook.
God tastes delicious in this jam, by the way. The cherries and rhubarb create a brooding, sweet and sour jam that just rings loud in your mouth and that echoes through you. I encourage you not to skimp on the vanilla as it lends the jam a creamy flavor.
It may not make the most sense or be the most expected way to practice one's faith, but it works for me. Personal religion is just that: personal. We all have to find the way it works best for us. In the end, I feel if you're trying your best to be a good person then you're doing all right in The Universe's eyes. Making food and feeding people is just one of many ways to go about that.
It is certainly the most flavorful.
Makes 5 8-ounce jars
2 1/2 lbs cherries, pitted
1 1/2 cups chopped rhubarb
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon butter
1/2 vanilla bean, seeded and scraped
1. Place all the ingredients in a stainless steel or copper pot, or an enamel-lined dutch oven (not an aluminum pot). Let macerate for about 10 minutes. Place a small plate in the freezer as this will be used for testing later.
2. Turn heat to medium-high. The mixture will bubble and froth vigorously. Skim the foam off the top and discard (or save it and put it on cheese or yogurt; super tasty). The boil will subside to larger bubbles, but still bubble vigorously. Be sure to begin gently stirring the jam frequently to prevent it from sticking and burning to the bottom.
3. After about 20 minutes begin testing the jam by placing a small amount on the cold plate. Allow 30 seconds to pass and then run your finger through it to see what the cooled consistency will be. Boil for a few minutes longer if desired for a thicker jam.
4. Ladle into hot, sterilized canning jars and seal leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe the rims of the jars clean before applying the lids. Screw on the rings to finger-tight. Work quickly. Process in a water bath to ensure a good seal. If you want you can skip the water bath and just screw the lids on tight where the heating-cooling process will create a vacuum seal, but the water bath is a surefire method for a secure seal.
*To sterilize the jars, rinse out clean mason jars, dry them, and place them, without lids, upright in a 200°F oven for 10 minutes. To sterilize the lids put them in a shallow bowl and pour boiling water over them.