During one of the seasons of life when I was a youth intern under Kurt Cooper at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the evening worship sermon series was titled “Meals With Jesus”. From what I understand, some of the ideas flowed from a book by author Tim Chester (whom I thoroughly enjoy) called “A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission around the Table”. Chester is a great author who brings out something that we should see: Jesus loves to share a meal with people.
There are some things that happen around the dinner table that are special. There is an intimacy and a warmth that is often very difficult to duplicate in other situations. The senses of smelling and seeing along with tasting and texture surrounded by a company of friends brings about rich experiences. Often times, meals are a good place for strangers to gather together and get to know each other beyond the greetings. There are few things that match what smoked brisket, spicy gumbo, or a perfect broccoli casserole can do to a gathered group. Stories emerge, laughter is shared, and hospitality is valued when a meal is served.
Sure, we all know of those awkward dinners with family, friends, co-workers, or strangers that we have had but if we examine it as a whole I think we would see some of our friendships were made over a meal. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is one of the reasons Jesus valued gathering in someone’s home over a meal. It’s the place where Jesus brought together His closest friends on the night before He was betrayed. It’s the place where He taught some of His most rich truths. It’s also the place where His enemies seemed least hostile. For these reasons, I think we should also raise the value that we place on sharing a meal with others.
This brings me to my own story of getting into cooking. I’ll put it simply. I played a lot of football. I ate a lot to play a lot of football. I like food. I don’t just like food but I love good food. There are certain dishes that readily come to mind when I think about good food and good memories:
My dad’s greens on New Years and freshly caught and grilled Red Snapper with a crawfish sauce on top (My father is a talented veterinarian but he might be even more talented as a cook.)
My mother’s homemade bread and chocolate chip cookies (We didn’t eat slices of bread but we ate loaves of bread.)
My first tasting of New Orleans homemade jambalaya and a teammate’s home
Souffle fries at Arnuad’s in New Orleans
Tender brisket that’s been smoked for hours in Belton, Texas (where Grace is from)
Gumbo and Turtle Soup at Commander’s Palace
Corey Olivier’s honey butter rolls and jambalaya at our weekly Large Group at the BCM house at Tulane (Corey was our campus minister and team chaplain at Tulane. Teammates came running over when they heard he was cooking.)
Lobster mac n’ cheese from the New England Patriots’ cafeteria
Rabbit and dumblings at Cochon in New Orleans with my wife (a place we visit almost every time we go to New Orleans)
Pulled Pork BBQ in Troy, Alabama where you can smell the smoke for about a mile down the road
Conecuh County sausage (The 8th wonder of the world in a grocery store near you)
We all have those foods that come to mind that bring back good memories. These were some of mine especially before I started cooking a lot. When football ended in the winter of 2014, I was living with my parents in Montgomery, Alabama while preparing for marriage with Grace later the next summer and interning at Trinity Presbyterian Church. Grace and I both went to Tulane University where we ate a lot of good food. We weren’t cooks; we were eaters. Then we got engaged in the Spring of 2015. Pre-marital counseling didn’t cover the topic of “Who is going to cook tonight’s dinner?” To be honest, we took it for granted at first but then my dad gave us a wedding gift that kept on giving. It wasn’t expected by when we came back from our honeymoon, we received a cookbook from my dad by Donald Link (owner and chef of Cochon and several other restaurants in New Orleans). The title of the book was very appealing when we read, “Real Cajun”. We gave it a try and after strict following of simple instructions out came a giant savory slab of Pork Roast. Please, no knife is needed for this. You would only insult the dish if you had to use anything other than a fork to tenderly pull off the chunks of pork that had simmered slowly in a dark roux with sauteed onions, fresh thyme, and rosemary. It was the type of dish that made me passionately utter, “Aww man! Come on now!” Grace now makes fun of me for doing this so much.
This was the start of realizing that cooking was not a chore but something to be cherished. Let’s be honest, there have been bad meals made (including messing up that same Pork Roast dish!) but there have been few activities in life like cooking. For Grace and I, it was fun to plan something for the weekend. Few things were more comforting than cooking Grits and Grillades from one of John Currence’s cookbooks for some friends when there was heavy snow outside while we were at Gordon-Conwell for a year.
Meals in Boston, Montgomery, and Ridgeland have been shared with many friends and strangers. There have been good ones and ones where someone still graciously compliments you even though you know it was a failure. Every time, God has graciously allowed us to even have food and friends and the opportunity for both of those to come together. Some of you have even dared coming into our home with two barking dogs in order to have a meal. These are good times and isn’t that why we, as a church body, have placed value on something such as Family Night Supper? It seems that I am probably on preaching to the choir on this topic.
This leads me to the next part. Jan Duran and I have had many talks about cookbooks recently whenever I go up to check the mailbox by her office. She has given me so many ideas and revealed lots of helpful resources. Just for the sake of sharing life with you, I thought it might be fun to give a list of some of the cookbooks that Grace and I have found enjoyable to use. Our standards have been the following:
Easy to follow instructions
Enough for leftovers (the only thing better than good chicken and rice soup is leftover chicken and rice soup)
Easy recipes for quick week night meals
Good recipes for weekend meals
We like to say that we are not good at cooking but we’re decent at following instructions. We’re also not trying to break the bank gathering the ingredients but working within a budget. For whatever it’s worth, here is a rough list of some of our favorite cookbooks that you might enjoy as well along with some comments:
Real Cajun by Donald Link
There are food stains splattered all over this book at home. That’s the sign of a good cookbook. Try the chicken and dumplings, dirty rice, meatloaf (you’ll never be satisfied with another), and especially the chicken and bacon hash (picture a crab cake texture but instead with leftover grilled bbq chicken, potatoes, jalapenos, and bacon. I mean, how can you say no to bacon?)
Down South by Donald Link
He has a great set of recipes here for big gatherings.
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
She is a country cooking legend!!
Big Bad Breakfast by John Currence
The chef and restaurant owner in Oxford. The cinnamon rolls with sausage filling, shrimp and grits, and blueberry muffin tops will make you want to wake up early on Saturdays.
Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey by John Currence
Got to see his Grits and Grillades.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer
This is one of the classics that most of the other people on this list say influenced them. What better compliments could I give to it?
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat
This book is awesome in teaching you how each of these work! She has some great recipes but the best part is that she teaches you how to take your cooking to another level. She also has a Netflix documentary series too.
The Flavor Bible by Karen Page
This book is not a book with recipes but rather a massive list of ingredients showing what works well with each other. I was once in a restaurant in Orange Beach, AL where I spotted the chef studying this book before closing time and I immediately went to look it up. It has been very helpful to see what works well with garlic, onions, tarragon, bacon, and many other things.
My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh
One of the best chefs in New Orleans. He knows how to cook for several kids which means plenty leftovers at times. My dad has worn out his copy of this book.
My Family Table by John Besh
Best snickerdoodle cookies out there. Not only that but he shows you have to make some of the classic dishes like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, slowed cooked beef chuck roast, pork and sausage jambalaya.
Baking by Dorie Greenspan
Try the World Peace cookies, the snowy brownie top cookies, and the classic chocolate chip. You’ll always keep these in your diet.
Dorie’s Cookies by Dorie Greenspan
If you have instagram, give Dorie a follow. She often reposts people baking her cookies.
Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless
Seriously, this is THE book on mexican cooking. His enchiladas are the best I’ve had anywhere.
How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
There are 2,000 recipes in here and you would be surprised how many of these you have actually had or tried cooking already. So simple, clear, and tasty.
Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Like Bayless, many people consider this THE book on italian cooking.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
My comments on this book and Julia Child would be underselling how good it really is. She’s a legend.
The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinnertime by Ree Drummond
Awesome for midweek meals especially for families. Her lasagna, chili, wild rice pancakes (Oh, you’d be very surprised at how awesome this is for dinner), and buffalo chicken salad are great. Her salads have made me want to eat more salads as a main meal and not just an appetizer.
A Southern Gentlemen’s Cookbook by Matt Moore
His wife’s white chicken chili is a frequent visitor in the Van Hooser household.
Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi
She is one of the best pastry chefs in the world. Netflix’s renowned documentary series “Chef’s Table” has featured her on one of their documentaries that is so much fun to watch. Two words: Funfetti Cake. Sprinkles doesn’t have to be only for the kids anymore. This cake is phenomenal.
What are some of your favorites? I’m sure I am forgetting some that are at home right now that I’ll be mad are not on here. Hopefully, some of these can be used for your own meals with friends and family. In an age with much hostility, it’d be beautiful for the church to show hospitality in the name of Jesus Christ.