Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table (With Recipes), by Shauna Niequist


A defense of messy hospitality--of honest friendship, transparent love, and lots and lots of delicious food.

At the back of this book, author Shauna Niequist lists some of her favorite writers, including bestselling author Anne Lamott and author, former New York Times restaurant critic, former Gourmet editor, and reality TV show judge (!!!) Ruth Reichl. I'm not surprised. Their influence is clear. If Ruth Reichl and Anne Lamott had a less-talented baby, and that baby wrote a book, this could be that book. That's not a dig, either--Lamott and Reichl are incredibly skilled writers; to be described as less talented than these ladies is no insult. Niequist does not rise to their level, it's true, but she writes in that tradition, and as she has a pleasant--and occasionally charming--style, the book is, by and large, an enjoyable read.

When you write a book in the Reichl-Lamott vein, you must face up to a very important fact: with a memoir like this, you (the author) are the book. Your personality and your writing become so conflated as to be all but inseparable. A likable author results in a likable book. An obnoxious author ... well, you get the idea. In order to really like a book like this, you absolutely must like the author (or at least, the author as presented in the book). Sometimes, I really liked Niequist. She has a messy house! She stresses over people seeing the mess! She has lazy days and sometimes doesn't shower or change out of her pajamas! She thinks in food! She's like me! (Really, this is usually what it comes down to--a relatable author is a likable author, and the more she is like me, the more she will be liked by me. Narcissism at its finest.)

However, if you're anything like me (which apparently is my criteria for determining your relative awesomeness), you may also find yourself hating Niequist. Ok, ok. Not hating exactly--not in the 'a pox upon your house' kind of way. But when she starts talking about her many, many trips overseas (did you know they have amazing food in Spain? or France/Italy/Germany/the UK/Israel/Kenya/Australia/etc.?) and the merits of exposing kids to international travel at an early age; her Le Creuset collection; the week-long 'culinary boot camp' she attended in Chicago; or that time she ran a marathon, well ... the Green Eyed Monster in me can't help resenting her. It turns out that Niequist is the daughter of one Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Church. So of course she's been everywhere. And she's an author married to a musician, which means that she doesn't have to deal with the costs (or, to be fair, the benefits) of a 9-to-5 job outside the home. So of course she can take a week-long cooking course. Not that it's all tea and cookies--while she works out of the home a lot of the time, she also has to deal with the crazy time demands of looming deadlines, as well as the exhausting book-promotion travel that comes with being a successful published author. So, I mean, I get it. Her life isn't perfect. But it does include some blessings that the average wife and mother may not enjoy. Which is probably (at least in part) why she got a book deal--'average harried housewife' doesn't make for an enthralling book jacket blurb.

All of which is not to say that Niequist is a bad person, or even a bad writer. I just think her writing might resonate more if she played up the 'everywoman' aspects and kept the 'awesome life experiences that you, the reader, will likely never enjoy, bwa ha ha ha ha' to a minimum. (Ok, ok. She didn't gloat about it. I told you: envy.) She's a good writer, especially when relating her weaker moments, so it's a shame to see her alienating her readers (well, this reader, anyway), even if only occasionally.

As for the substance of the book ... there's not a lot, honestly. What substance there is, I quite like. As someone who struggles quite a bit with the sins of perfectionism and fear of man (compounded by a tendency toward introversion), I can easily talk myself out of opening my home to others, arguing that it's too messy, I'm waiting until I have time to honor my guests with the appropriate amount of preparation, I need to bless them with really amazing food, etc. Niequist reminds me that welcoming people into my life--in all its mess--is itself an act of love that blesses others. I don't have to wait until I can entertain perfectly--until I have the perfect house, the perfect kitchen, the perfect menu. I can (and should) throw open my doors and break bread (and drink wine) with friends now. Even if the bread is a frozen pizza, and the wine comes out of a box (because let's face it, I know nothing about wine).

One other 'complaint'--well, more of an observation, really. Niequist self-identifies as a Christian. She and her husband have served in ministry roles at several churches (including Rob Bell's Mars Hill and Bill Hybels' Willow Creek), and she talks openly about meeting up with former small group members. The title itself is a reference to Communion--the sharing of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ's death on the cross in our place, to pay the debt for our sins so that we might enjoy eternal life with God. Unfortunately, this symbolism is mentioned only briefly in the opening pages and the closing chapter. The symbolic meaning itself is alluded to, but the Gospel is not clearly presented. And the rest of the book is such that any compassionate theist would likely not disagree. The community Niequist describes is beautiful and appealing, but she and her friends seem bonded by their love for one another; any deeper bond as a result of their kinship in Christ and their shared inheritance in the Gospel as those purchased by the blood ... well, I didn't see it. Not that I expect Niequist to clobber her readers over the head with the Gospel on every page. But I would have liked to see a more uniquely Christian take on community and hospitality.

A minor nitpick: Niequist clearly favors stories with happy endings--there are tales of heartache here, of miscarriages, illness, frustrated desires, etc., but they end with recovery, health, long-awaited children, and satisfaction. Undoubtedly, these stories sell better, and are much easier to tell. But God isn't just the God who gets us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death to the joy on the other side; sometimes, we have to camp in the Valley for what seems like forever. Sometimes, we don't see the other side until we're, well, on the Other Side. Those kinds of stories are harder to tell--stories of barrenness that do not end with a giggling baby, stories of illness leading to death, stories of deep desires continually frustrated. But God is in these stories, too. He remains sovereign. He remains good. So I wish Niequist had included a few 'unhappy endings' among her many stories of joy and victory. A Christian's response to thwarted desires and hope denied is one of the strongest testimonies to the Gospel--it sets us apart from a world that sees religion as a means to an end. For Christians, Christ and His glory--and not our desires--are the end, and we continue to praise Him even when He denies us our deepest desire. Because our greatest need has already been met. He has satisfied us with Himself, and has given us a greater Gift than we could ever ask or imagine. It is this knowledge that enables us to remain faithful in the face of hard times.

Bottom line: This is an enjoyable book that encourages readers to be more hospitable and to bless their friends and neighbors with food, even if they (the readers) are not Martha Stewart. It's not a terribly theologically dense book, but not every book needs to be a theological treatise. Niequist doesn't set out to write The Theology of Food and Hospitality--she simply encourages us to be transparent in our hospitality and to enjoy the community of shared meals and shared lives. On those terms, this book is a success.

Also, practically speaking, she totally inspired me to bring Bacon-Wrapped Dates (p.171) to an Easter lunch (though I used a different recipe, on account of needing something dairy free), and I fully intend to start my own Cooking Club, because that sounds awesome.

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for this review.

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