I heard my favorite author, Shauna Niequist, speak live for the second time last fall at my church’s women’s retreat. In person, she was just like her books:witty, wise, authentic, charming. She was utterly approachable, to the point that I actually considered approaching her to tell her I enjoy her writing and what an inspiration she is to me and could I please, please be her new best friend? Instead, I wisely kept my distance, limiting my interaction with her to uncomfortably long stares during breaks and an accidental near-collision while entering the ladies’ room.
At that retreat Shauna read excerpts from her two books, Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet, as well as from her upcoming April release Bread & Wine. I’ve been looking forward to reading Bread & Wine ever since, simply because it is by Shauna Niequist. I love her writing style–the way her stories weave humor and honesty, pinpointing the holy amid the humdrum. As much as I love Shauna Niequist, though, I was a little nervous about reading Bread & Wine. Subtitled “A love letter to life around the table, with recipes,” I had a sinking suspicion that Bread & Wine would only serve to confirm the surprising truth that I had come to learn about myself in recent years: I can’t cook.
I say this is a surprising truth, because I really used to think I could cook. I knew how to mix ingredients into a Pyrex dish to make all manner of cream soup-based casseroles. And I knew how to bake, which I didn’t really comprehend as being any different from cooking. It wasn’t until I met my friend Christian about 9 years ago that I began to get a sneaking suspicion that I was fooling myself in the cooking department. I learned that Christian routinely made things that didn’t require cream soup, and instead of cooking them in the oven in a Pyrex dish she made them in sauté pans on her stovetop, and she didn’t strictly adhere to a recipe—in fact, she preferred not to. I began to try to branch out a little beyond my casseroles, and discovered that I was terrible at it. Cooking something as basic as chicken breast became a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and heaped on top of my failure was the guilt that so many innocent yard birds had given their lives to end up as the dessicated, puck-like filets on our dinner table.
Around this same season of desperately searching YouTube for chicken-cooking tutorial videos, I came to another sad realization—I don’t know how to entertain. This one was not such a huge surprise, because I had always felt awkward and ill equipped when having friends over for dinner. Growing up in a heavily sheltered and weirdly religious environment, the traditional dinner party was a completely foreign concept to me, as was the consumption of alcohol. My cheeks flush red as I think back to a time early in our marriage when some sweet friends brought a bottle of wine to dinner at our home. Lacking both a corkscrew and a basic understanding of social niceties, I murmured thanks, set it aside, served iced tea with our casserole, and then handed the unopened bottle back to them as they left. I’m not even kidding. I imagine at that moment even Jesus was covering his eyes and shaking his head in dismay.
So now you have a slightly clearer understanding of why I was a little unsure how I’d enjoy Bread & Wine. I opened the book with the same mindset I might adopt if I were to read a travel guide of the moon’s surface; curiosity tempered with the understanding that I would never—could never—actually go there. But what I found in Bread & Wine is a book about so much more than cooking and entertaining. Through her stories, Shauna inspires the reader to live a life of brave, everyday adventure. Want to learn to cook? Take a week-long culinary boot camp. Want to experience life in another country? Buy a plane ticket. Want to run a marathon? Sign up, and then lace up. Want to experience deep friendship? Open your door and invite people in, no matter how imperfect your home or your entertaining skills.
This is where the beauty of Bread & Wine speaks loudest to me, as Shauna describes scenes from her own life around the table of community–imperfect, in process, chaotic and messy at times, but lived boldly and intentionally and honestly, and therefore, courageously. “The heart of hospitality,” she notes, “is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.” You mean it’s not about Martha Stewart perfection? No, she says, “. . . it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life—the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love—if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door.”
And while I have long used the excuse that I just don’t have the gift of hospitality, I must now admit that just as the shame of my social ineptitude and the many imperfections of my surroundings have long kept me from inviting people into my home, it is the shame of my deeply-buried childhood weirdness and the many imperfections of my self which have long kept me from inviting people into my life. It is therefore pure grace that I have a little village of women who have invited themselves in and who have miraculously stuck around, even though at times I know it seems I am trying my level best to starve them out.
So much more than a book about entertaining, Bread & Wine connects the dots of cooking and community, inviting even the most timid and the least qualified into the kitchen with Shauna. Favorite recipes are shared with a breezy, “just try it out and make it your own” tone that, while slightly terrifying to this non-chef, is also so encouraging that I can’t help but believe that with a little practice even I could pull off something like “Steak au Poivre with Cognac Pan Sauce.” Through Bread & Wine, Shauna invites all of us to discover the joy of gathering the people we love around the table and providing nourishment for them, knowing in the process it is far more than our bellies that will be filled.