A member of our gardening club experiences the harvesting of her vegetables with pain. Not the physical kind of pain. The heart kind. She tells our club that a head of cabbage is so beautiful it feels like an injustice to cut it. Beans swinging bravely on the stalk, proud carrot tops hovering over their sturdy tubers, brownish squash basking in the sun are too lovely to disturb. It’s painful to selfishly gather them for dinner’s plate.
She reminds me that eating from the garden is about more than what’s on the dinner plate or put away in the freezer. It is about a relationship with life and beauty — and pain.
As I take a morning walk through the garden, there is a sense of community. A community that nourishes my understanding of myself and the world. A community that will sustain me with lessons long after they have nourished my body.
A broccoli flower or ripe plum is not only about having a good meal. It’s also about the building blocks of reality and truth.
Beauty is everywhere, and it is beauty that sustains the world. We love the presence of the white-tailed deer in our back yard. The early morning is their favorite time to stop by. In some ways they are pests, devouring favorite flowers. We know better than to plant a tulip where they can access it. In other ways we enjoy them as a wild beauty nervously entering the space of people. Either way they are beautiful.
Some years ago, we watched from behind the comfort of a window as an awesome mother mountain lion took down a lovely deer and, along with her yearling and two cubs, devoured it. Beauty consuming beauty.
Modern life separates me from this basic truth. Death is stacked on shelves in the store as though it never truly lived. It is ground up and fashioned in artificial ways, so it isn’t recognized for what it is. The beauty of blemishes and imperfections is removed to create an illusion of excellence. And we eat it as though nothing has paid the price of suffering, as though there’s been no sacrifice.
There is always sacrifice in eating. Sometimes the sacrifice seems minimal. What is one less turkey in the hundreds that roam our yard? Allowing all those pumpkin seeds to grow to maturity would be impractical. At other times, the sacrifice is enormous, when soils are killed and insects destroyed because they compete with our desires. But, whether great or small, something beautiful has given its life and potential for our sustenance.
For those like myself who want to cause no harm, there is a tendency to want to fix this problem, to find a way for the spinach to lie down with the human and none shall be afraid. But this is not a problem to be fixed. It is a reality to be faced, a truth to be remembered, a challenge to gain perspective. In forgetting, we become calloused and self-centered consumers propping up systems of death and destruction, gluttons of a beauty never engaged.
Some years ago, a friend gave me a small gooseberry plant. It has grown into a row of lovely bushes. But each spring, immediately after flowering and setting fruit, a worm invades its branches and denudes it of leaves. Those worms test my patience and convictions about beauty. Yet I have never used my killing ability to rid the bushes of those uninvited lovely green worms. The leaves grow back smaller, but the bushes remain strong, and the fruit is plentiful. I still get to enjoy gooseberry pie. The only reason the worms are problematic is that the bush looks different for a couple weeks. And if I would condemn their hungry appetites, then what condemnation awaits me, who will rob it of its fruit?
The first question when something isn’t as I would like it to be is: Why am I tempted to use my killing powers? What appetite am I feeding to kill the beautiful?
The heart of all spirituality is to see the beauty of life and rejoice in it, to serve it and sacrifice for it, to know its pain and feel its cost. Life, in all its forms, is never to be taken for granted. And when we propagate it for food, we do it most honor to practice humility with a heart of thanksgiving, to recognize and acknowledge our dependence on all that is good and wonderful.
Jesus once took some bread and juice and referred to it as his body and blood given for us. It is a painful picture and has become for us a remembrance of how our lives depend on his sacrifice. We have developed sophisticated explanations of how this works and taught compact doctrines to sum up its worth. In doing so, we may have missed the most basic truth of how God has created this world and sustains us: through sacrifice of the good and beautiful. God’s world is not only beautiful. It is sustained by the sacrifice of beauty.
I do not hesitate to partake in this feast of beauty. I gladly gather the kale and cauliflower, apples and grapes. Unlike my gardening friend who finds it painful, I find it a gift to celebrate. With appreciation for each gift, I acknowledge that I am part of a wonderful cycle of life and beauty.
Jeryl Hollinger is pastor of Mountain View Mennonite Church in Kalispell, Mont.
3-4 cups fresh gooseberries (some mashed)
Sugar to taste (1½-2 cups)
Thickener, such as 3 tablespoons tapioca or flour
Mix mashed berries with sugar and thickener along with a pinch of salt and cook for several minutes. Add some water if needed.
When thick, add whole berries and pour into crust. Use a top and bottom crust, and bake at 400 F for 30-40 minutes.
Use ripe berries. In my opinion, berries are often picked too soon when they are sour, so too much sugar is needed. (But if berries are ripe, you might be tempted to eat them before they get into the pie.)
Cook and mash at least half of the berries before adding to the filling mix. They’ll sweeten, cook and thicken better.
Since raspberries and gooseberries ripen about the same time in my garden, I like to use half gooseberries and half raspberries. Raspberries will reduce more than gooseberries, but will add sweetness. Or just be brave and cut back on the sugar anyway.
Since I try to cut back on sugar, the last time I made a gooseberry pie I used 1 cup stevia powder and ½ cup sugar with 3 cups gooseberries and 3 cups of raspberries. Delicious. It seems stevia works well with berries, but maybe I’m just accustomed to it.
The toughest part of making a gooseberry pie is finding fresh gooseberries. They are an underappreciated berry in the United States. Try your farmer’s market or, better yet, plant your own bush.