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Featuring guest Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist | Let’s Sit Here a Little Longer

Shauna Niequist brings her passion for food and her Christian experience to a conversation about food and spirituality.

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cut bread with holes

Shauna Niequist brings her passion for food and her Christian experience to a conversation about food and spirituality.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on July 02, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Shauna Niequist brings her passion for food and her Christian experience to a conversation about how food connects us to the created world and to each other and how our spiritual lives might be nourished around the table.

Related Resources


Transcript

Niequist:

I grew up in a very, what I would call a very fast-paced, productivity obsessed culture. How fast can you go? How far can you go? How can you be efficient and streamline your life to make more and do more and be more? And I think my great rebellion was saying, let’s sit here a little longer. Let’s tend to our bodies and our spirits. Let’s not just make this a pit stop where we shovel food in to get back to the real work at hand. What if what we’re doing here is some of the best things we’ll do with our day, and with our year and with our lives.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. And you just heard our guest for today, Shauna Niequist. Shauna is a popular author, speaker, podcaster. Her most recent book is Present Over Perfect, which came out in 2016. Previously she wrote books with lovely gustatory titles, like Bittersweet, Cold Tangerines, and Savor. And the book we’re going to primarily talk about today is called Bread and Wine. Don’t worry—this is not just an episode of The Splendid Table, where we exchange recipes. Shauna uses food as a gateway into larger, more existential questions about life, what it means to be human, and the nature of our faith. And I was excited to talk to her, so let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Shauna, it’s so good to have you on the BioLogos platform, virtual though it is. Thank you for being here.

Niequist:

Thank you for having me.

Stump:

So, many in the BioLogos community will know your husband Aaron, who has been the worship leader in our past two BioLogos conferences. And he was on this podcast in September of last year. So I think this makes the two of you the first husband-wife duo to be on Language of God. So feel free to add that to your resume.

Niequist:

Oh, well that’s great. And, you know, part of the reason I was excited to do this is because he has so much enjoyed being a part of your community and a part of your gatherings. He’s really loved it and he speaks so highly of you all. 

Stump:

Great. Well, let’s start by getting to know you a little bit, if you would. You and Aaron and your boys fairly recently moved to New York City, but have been, as I understand, quarantining back here in the Midwest for the last few months. Is that right?

Niequist:

That’s true. We moved to Manhattan, it’s been almost two years now, a year and a halfish. But then, you know, the quarantine situation came upon very suddenly in Manhattan and we had to make some very quick decisions. And my family has always had a little family cottage in Southwest Michigan and so it has been a really great place for us to spend a couple months we’re really grateful for it.

Stump:

So what are the typical days like for you now and how has that changed because of COVID days?

Niequist:

Well, you know, our life changed, like a lot of people’s, you know, pretty dramatically. We went from living in an apartment in Manhattan and our kids going to big public schools and we had a very busy, very fun…we were outside a lot. Our older son Henry is in seventh grade. He just finished seventh grade and his school is a mile away. So did a lot of walking back and forth through the city. And then all of a sudden, we found ourselves in Michigan in March, not nearly as much walking, not nearly as much city. But really the thing that’s been similar about those is all four of us in a very small space, getting a lot of time together. And there’s been a lot that’s really lovely about that.

Stump:

Yeah, for sure. Good. Well, let’s hear a little bit about your faith background, if you would, to start with. And here I won’t ask you to speak for all of American Christianity as there are lots of different perspectives on this, but I think yours is a particularly interesting perspective, having grown up at one of the most influential churches in the country and then finding your own way into this intellectual sphere of authors, speakers, bloggers, podcasters. Could you give us a maybe a kind of map of Christianity in the US as you see it these days and locate yourself on that? Who are your people? Who do you run with?

Niequist:

That’s a wonderful question and also just bizarrely complicated. So I will start with just a bazillion disclaimers. I would say, one of the through-lines of my life and part of the reason I’m a writer is because the people who that have shaped my faith most, probably in the most significant ways along the way, have been writers and I feel like God has used authors and thinkers and poets and artists to bring me along as a person of faith. And so reading Anne Lamott’s, Traveling Mercies the year after I graduated from college was tremendously important for me. Reading poets, especially in high school and college. Barbara Brown Taylor is a forever and ever favorite. I’d say Ann Lamott and Barbara Brown Taylor are two women of faith that I very much admire and aspire to be like, both as a woman and as a writer.

And I would say, I grew up very much in the broader evangelical tradition, but because I was a pastor’s kid, in a church…you know, when you’re a kid, your world is the whole world. You don’t know what else is out there. Right? So there are so many parts of evangelical experience that I didn’t have. I just had other weird things that were particular to my own church. And there were so many parts of it that I love and that I was really thankful for. And now we live on the campus of an Episcopal seminary, which is really different, and we love it. I feel like part of this season of my life as a Christian is broadening my experience and finding so much to admire and sort of borrow from the wider historic Orthodox Christian tradition, beyond the one… I would say I’m not, I have not left behind the tradition in which I was raised, but I have broadened my bookshelf and set of spiritual practices. And I hope to always be doing that. I think curiosity is one of my most deeply held spiritual values.

Stump: 

I’ve had a bit of a similar experience growing up in a traditional, fairly conservative evangelical church and through a lot of my own reading and writing have been exposed to some of that broader tradition. And I think one of the things that’s done for me is to maybe hold on a little more loosely or with a little more humility that my way has not been the only way that Christians have done that. Have you experienced any of that in these broader traditions, or maybe even incorporated things from other traditions into your own spiritual life that you’d share with us here?

Niequist:

Oh, absolutely. And I would say one of the qualities that I admire most when I think of the people of faith that I’m looking to most closely right now, they’re people of great, I would say humility. Humility and curiosity. They’re not afraid to learn beyond the boundaries of their own tradition. They’re not afraid to incorporate new practices or open themselves, their heart and their mind to new beliefs. I think the width of our tradition is one of its greatest treasures. And I think that started early. My mom grew up in a very conservative environment, much more conservative than the church that I was raised in. But when I was in high school—and she’s talked about this very publicly so I’m not by any means telling her story without her permission—she went on a pretty deep and circuitous spiritual journey when I was in high school. And I think that’s one of the greatest gifts she could have given me because what it showed me is it’s okay to ask questions. And it’s okay to deconstruct and reconstruct. And it’s okay for there to be seasons where the only thing you know, you can count on one hand, and then you rebuild from there. And so she sort of gave me permission to be a journeyer, to be a question asker to be a broadener as opposed to a narrow thinker. And I’m really, really grateful for that.

Stump:

So she was very open with you about this while it was going on even?

Niequist:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think I was old enough, where it didn’t feel disorienting to me. It felt like something you do as a person, as a person of faith, as a human. You look back at what you’ve been given. And you ask God, in His wisdom, what you bring into the future, and it’s not everything.

Stump:

That’s a great gift for a parent to share with a teenager, especially like that. So we are a science and faith organization so I’m contractually obligated to ask you about science to some degree here, whether it’s had any impact on your faith or how you understand science in relationship to your faith today. Any interesting stories to tell us about science from your childhood or anything like that?

Niequist:

Well, you know, certainly when you look at my work experience, I am definitely more on the arts side than science. But, for me, when I think about science, the first two things I think about are food and nature, the created world. If you were to ask me, what keeps bringing you back to the idea of a good creator… When I look at some things in the church and historically what religion has been responsible for, there’s a lot to lament and a lot to grieve. But when I think about God and the idea of a benevolent, loving, creator, it’s really easy for me to believe in that idea when I’m outside, when I’m watching the water, when I’m looking up at the stars. So I think the created world, yeah, that’s science. It’s also faith. It’s all those things coming together. And so I think the natural world, biology, the complexity of our bodies, that connection and harmony of nature, those are scientific realities, but they’re also, I think, beautiful faith realities as well. And then of course, when I think about science, I think about the kitchen. I think, you know, it’s a big science experiment, right? We’re talking about heat and mixing things together and making them new and chemical changes that happen when we apply heat or cold or different techniques. And so I would never claim to be tremendously well versed in the scientific world, but when I when I think about the natural world, and I think about my kitchen, I know that science has so much so much centrality in our lives, even if it’s not always the first thing I see

Stump:

Well lets….

Niequist:

Did I do Okay.? 

Stump:

Well let’s talk about your kitchen. We’ll dig in deeper than that. As I said in the intro, I asked if we could talk about your book Bread and Wine that has the subtitle, “a love letter to life around the table with recipes.” This was first published in 2013, which probably alerts people to the fact that I’m not always on the cusp of what is new and making headlines. But as we started putting together plans for this episode, I was deep into wrestling with my COVID sourdough starter and I thought I might benefit from reading a book about bread and wine here. So this book takes us through some pretty personal experiences in your life, and they’re all brought to us through the lens of food. And there were times when I was reading it when I’d laugh out loud at what you were describing, and other times when tears trickled down my cheek at the touching and difficult times you described. And through all of these, there were many trips to the kitchen to round up something to eat and drink to enjoy it all the more. So if you would just start a little bit tell us about the idea for this book. And even what the process of writing it was like.

Niequist:

Well, first, thank you. That was a very generous way to talk about that book. Thank you. I think with each book that I’ve done, there’s been a different why. There’s been a different thing that has pushed me to write that particular book at that particular time. And this one was I remember I had finished Bittersweet, the book that came before that and Bittersweet was a really difficult book to write because it was about pain and heartbreak and loss. And it’s hard enough to live through those things, but then writing about them, in some ways, it’s very healing because it forces you to believe that like, hey, there’s got to be a perspective on this somewhere and I’m going to find it. But it also can be a pretty dark process in front of the computer. And so, Bittersweet was a hard one to write and I knew it was time to start another book. And I went away and I brought with me all the books that I wanted. Like, I’m a little bit…I think a lot of writers are not superstitious, but like pretty attached to physical books. I’m not going to go so far as to say I think they’re my friends but like a little. And so I needed to go away and I needed my book friends with me. And I thought who are the book friends that are going to keep me company. And I remember sitting in this hotel room and looking at these two stacks of books, and I had brought two very distinct stacks of books and one was all faith memoirs, stories about people telling the story of their faith, and the other one was all food writing. And there was nothing else. And I thought those are the two stories I just can’t get enough of. Tell me about your religious and spiritual experience and why it matters and what doesn’t matter anymore, and what you got wrong and what you had to rebuild. And then tell me what you ate for dinner and why and tell me what comfort tastes like to you and tell me what your childhood table was like and tell me about the table you’re building right now, meal by meal, you know, experienced by experience. Tell me what spices make you feel connected to your family or to a faraway land or you know. Those are the things I care about. And so I thought, wouldn’t I just be the luckiest person in the world if I got to write a book about both those things. That would be the most fun book I could ever write. And so I thought I probably wouldn’t get away with it. I thought they’d be like, that’s not a thing. Don’t do that. And they were like, yeah, give it a shot. And I loved writing this book. It was a delight. Again, there are books that I’ve written that felt very hard to write. This one was fun, all the way through. I really, really loved the experience of it because it felt like getting to kind of dip my toes into my two favorite genres of story.

Stump:

So every chapter ends with the recipe and was it difficult choosing which ones go with which chapter or narrowing them down or coming up with enough of them?

Niequist:

I think it was mostly not too hard. But there were a couple, like for example, I don’t bake very much, but it felt like there had to be some desserts. So that was kind of hard to come up with. And then it felt like, I love appetizers, I love to have people over not necessarily for a full meal, but just for like a glass of wine and something good to nibble on, so I mean, I could have had 300 appetizer recipes. That was not called for so we kind of had to… The hardest thing was figuring out, find some more desserts, learn how to make them and then cut out some of the… And also I just get really excited about some things and so I add in too many of them. Like I remember at a certain point, my editor was like, you don’t need any more of vinaigrette. Like, just stop saying that word. Stop making, just like, we’re done. You have reached your limit on vinaigrette. So that was the hard part.

Stump:

Well, let’s probe the connection a little bit here between food and faith, if we can, and your title Bread and Wine is obviously an allusion to the ceremonial meal at the center of Christian liturgy, the Eucharist, communion. That’s not the only place that food shows up pretty significantly in the biblical narrative. Right from the very beginning with Adam and Eve eating a piece of fruit to the very end in the marriage feast of the Lamb. It seems that food is not just an optional add on here, but something central to what’s going on in this story. Do you have any thoughts of that or what do you make of the place of food within this grand theological narrative?

Niequist:

Well, I have a couple thoughts and I think you know, you’re exactly right that some of my fascination with this topic… First and foremost, I would say, one of my kind of most deeply held… I’m very much a person that wants to live in the tactile, sense-oriented, physical world. I love it. I was, you know, I love nature. I love being outside. I love playing with my kids. I love running around. And I’m absolutely unwilling to relegate those physical tactical sense oriented things to just like, normal non-sacred stuff, because I think, you know, we have developed—and I know where it comes from, and the Enlightenment age and modern era—but we have become Christians who operate largely in our brains, right? If you organize your belief system right, that’s what faith is. What I love about the Bible, is it’s very much not that way. It happens at tables and it’s about wine and it’s about grapes and it’s about manna. And it’s about the physical, actual blood and guts, bread and wine, apples and figs and honey. The Bible doesn’t tell us that the stuff that we touch and hold and eat is separate from what we believe and think and feel. Our culture has told us that about the Bible, but I like getting back to a faith that’s much more oriented toward bodies, and mouths and sustenance and nourishment and bones. This is where we live. We live in our bodies, not just in our brains. And so it’s really…food is sort of a way to say, you’re not just a brain, right? You need to be fed, you need to taste things you got your senses are there for a reason. You were created by God with this incredible ability to smell and taste and feel and touch and let’s not call those things any less holy, because they don’t happen in our minds. Right?

Stump:

Right. Good. One of the things we talk about at BioLogos quite often is what it means to be human, right? And I think some of what you’re pointing at there is the very embodiedness of being human, that we’re not just spirits floating around, right? So, even quoting one of your lines in here, “food is a reminder of our humanity, our fragility, our creativeness.” I think for some people it might seem paradoxical. So I want to probe this a little bit more about what is uniquely human about this food experience we have, because some people would say, come on, everything eats, right? From apes down to bacteria. That’s part of what it is to be alive even. But it seems to me that this is one of those activities that has been massively transformed by humanity, right? Just like all animals need shelter but we’ve made Gothic architecture that goes way beyond the needs of shelter. And so all animals need food, but we’ve become foodies. What is this distinctively human add on or transformation of food?

Niequist:

Well, you know, I think I would say that’s an interesting way to put it. Because I would never say…I would not just draw the distinction between humans and animals. I think the distinction I’m trying to draw is between humans and computers and robots. That’s what we’re not. I don’t mind being compared to a bird that feeds her babies. Or I think to be part of the, you know what you said is they’re all alive. Yes, exactly. We’re not machines. We don’t get plugged in. We’re not on autopilot. We’re living, breathing, fragile. I like that connection to animal life. That doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s the comparison to robot computer life that I think has… There was an article not that long ago that about just made me insane. I don’t know if you have little kids or you’ve been around little kids and they eat those little pouches now. They’d didn’t have those when I had kids, we had like glass baby food jars. And now they’ve upgraded to these little pouches and they’re amazing. But I read this article and it said, it’s really important that adults don’t eat them. And I was like, what? What is going on? Apparently, in some tech companies, young adults didn’t want to leave their desks long enough to eat and so they would buy cases of these baby food pouches and eat them all day long to keep up their productivity. And I just thought we’ve lost something fundamental. That’s not…

Stump:

That’s the point I was trying to make In comparison, so it brings to mind—this will show you how old I am—this scene from The Matrix where Neo is out of the matrix in the real world and given this bland looking bowl of gruel or something and Morpheus says, “it’s the perfect blend of amino acids for all your nutritional needs.” I’m guessing that wouldn’t be quite your style to reduce eating to a pill or a bowl of gruel that gives you all the nutrients you need. There’s something more to that tactile, sensory part of eating, right?

Niequist:

Absolutely. That sensory and tactile part, but also the communal part. You know, I think, to gather together over a meal is part of what makes it sacred as well. I think, if you were the greatest, you know, you talked about Gothic architecture, one of the distinctives of humanity is, you know, all the various animals need shelters, but look what we’ve done right? In good and bad ways. If someone made the most beautiful gothic cathedral but never allowed anyone in, that would be such a loss. If you’re the greatest chef in the world, and every meal you made for yourself was just like restaurant quality to the highest degree, but never shared that meal across the table with someone, that would be a real loss as well. So it’s not just the creativity or the care or the sort of detail that goes into it. It’s the capacity to connect with someone in that way. I have a friend who does really weird high level diplomacy work between, like warring governments. He has like the strangest job in the world. But one of the things he does is he kind of forces people who hate each other, to sit across the table from each other for a meal, not a boardroom table with documents and lawyers, but like a kitchen table with pasta and bread. And he says it’s very difficult to hate someone when your mouth is full. And I think that’s very true. There is something sacred that happens when we sit together when we allow ourselves to be nourished together. There’s a humility in that. And there’s a connection that I think is really important.

Stump:

Yeah, let me probe that a little bit more because besides COVID, which we’ve mentioned a couple of times, there’s been another major event in our country and some people listening will know that we had originally had planned this conversation back earlier in June but cancelled it because it seemed insensitive or maybe tone deaf, for a couple of white people to get on the internet and talk about food right in this immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Now, a month later, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the two of us thinking we can somehow solve or even provide much commentary on this deep societal problem. But is there anything about food that might at least speak to the deep divisions that exist between people in the country and maybe even some little glimmers of hope that food might play in overcoming some of these divisions? So your friend you just mentioned there sounds like has profound experience of this. How about you personally? Do you ever experience that, where people you bring around your table that might be arguing in other circumstances tend to get along better when they’re eating some of your vinegar at or some of your appetizers?

Niequist: 

Well, you know, I would say I am by no means an expert on a lot of the things that we’re talking about right now. I would never say that I have nailed this or done it perfectly. I would say I’m very much in learning mode. But I know that a lot of the people I’m learning from, particularly a lot of my black friends and the black writers that I’m reading, they’re talking a lot about the importance of proximity, right? That you could have any number of ideas or preconceived notions or whatever and unless you’re regularly spending time with people who have had really different experiences than you have, your life will be the worse for it. And our culture will not heal heal itself until we are, each of us, intentionally populating our lives with people who’ve had really different experiences and until we’re listening to their stories, and until we’re humble enough and quiet enough to understand the way that their story has shaped this present moment and the way that their story might have implications for what we need to adjust and give up and change in our own lives and our own culture. That’s where progress is going to get made. And so I think tables provide proximity. 

One of the things I write a lot about hospitality. I feel like it’s one of those things that I’m always adding another definition. I probably have like 75 definitions of hospitality at this point. It keeps getting longer and longer. But one of the things I said is, “true hospitality is looking around your table and asking who’s missing.” If there is ever a person or kind of person or a person with a certain history or person with a certain experience, when I look around my table, and that’s not represented, my table is lacking, and my hospitality is underdeveloped still. And so I think the table is a place where those of us who historically have had or have benefited from broken systems, we need to be inviters and then the listeners. If you convene anything at all, you need to be convening intentionally, always asking the question of who has not yet been represented around my table. And then when you convene, you listen, and you let what you learn shape whatever choices you make with whatever power you have. So I’m not an expert at all. But I know that making space at my table and then listening and learning is always the right thing for me to do. And, on the other side of that, being willing to go to other people’s tables. It’s not healthy to always be the host to always be the one in the power position, to always be the convener. It’s really important to me to show up and say, I’m a little uncomfortable or new or I’m not in control of this situation or I have a lot to learn, but thank you for inviting me. I think those are really important things right now for people like us, who have conventionally had a lot of systemic power.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Back to the other big story in our country today. How has COVID changed your eating habits over these last couple of months? 

Niequist:

Well, I would imagine that if you were to have this conversation with anybody right now, or at least maybe I’m saying this to make myself feel better, everybody would say they had like a couple weird little ticks throughout this pandemic journey where they got really weirdly anxious about at least one aspect of it, you know? And I’ve talked to my friends about it and everybody has different stuff. For some people it’s like, you know, they bring Lysol wipes wherever they go. For some people, it’s about, I don’t even know. For me, I got real, real, real into eliminating food waste, which is always something I do. Like I’m a real leftover person. I like to repurpose things. That’s sort of a passion area of mine. I grew up in a Dutch Midwestern family with a grandma who puts like one spoonful of something in an old yogurt container. This is my history. And I mean, it went to another level during quarantine. My kids were like, is that a teaspoon of pasta? What are we doing? I just so badly didn’t want to be wasteful. We were trying not to go to the store. You know, we’re trying to wait like at least 10 days or two weeks in between store trips. I was trying to freeze a lot. I was trying to really be responsible and cautious and stay home a lot. And what it turned into is some very, very strange meals. You know, one tablespoon of 50 different things sort of thrown together. So, I would say at the beginning, you know, things got a little weird. And then I did like you mentioned, I tried sourdough and I didn’t…I failed. How’s it been going for you?

Stump:

First two times were failures, but I have a good one going now and I’ve been pretty pleased with it the last couple of weeks. So this last weekend…

Niequist:

What’s the secret?

Stump:

Just getting that starter fed every day and all the things I read said it’ll take seven days. Well for me after the first time of seven days, it didn’t work. I was still baking loaves of bread that came out like hockey pucks or discusses. It wasn’t… But so I started a brand new one and it took about two weeks before the starter itself would rise enough. But I’ve gotten it to the point where just this last weekend had a garlic rosemary sourdough bread, it was just about the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth if I do say so myself. 

Niequist:

That sounds fantastic. Well done. 

Stump:

It was really good.

Niequist:

Aaron was so excited the day I finally threw out my failed starter because the just smell just made him…it was like, I’m not sure I can, life is hard enough here in a quarantine, but the smell of that starter is going to send me right over the edge. It really bothered him.

Stump:

Oh, dear. Well, one of the questions somebody in the audience is asking, related here a little bit, as Christians, do you think we have an obligation to eat more whole or sustainable foods? And any advice in moving in that direction?

Niequist:

I mean, I think. yes. I’m trying to think if I think it’s a Christian responsibility or a human responsibility. It is our responsibility, I think for all of us. And I would say one of the things that the quarantine, the pandemic, has taught all of us, I think, is how interconnected we are and our systems are and how unsustainable they are. Sorry, I’m in the garage and I’m on a timer and it just got really dark, but it’s back on. Don’t worry. It’s a real fancy operation here. [laughs]

Stump:

Keep gesturing when you’re talking. That’ll keep it on.

Niequist:

Yeah. Okay. But so, you know, one of the things that we did very intentionally when we first got here, you know, we’re still very, very cautious. We’re not going out. We’re not eating out. We’re not doing anything like that. But I’d go two or three weeks at a time and the only place I went was a restaurant nearby that had converted to a local market and CSA program. And so you would schedule your time and they did such a good job of, you know, they’d send you a list ahead of time with all of the different local farms and all the local butchers and the local bakers and the various vendors locally that we could support and you’d click on everything you wanted, and they’d bring the box out to your car. And that felt to me like a very concrete way to say, I care about helping our local farmers. I care about supporting this local economy. I feel connected to this place. And rather than ordering things that come from 3000 miles away, or further, I want to be connected to the people who are growing things here. And then of course, anything grown locally travels less distance to get here and has been changed less along the way, right? Like the apples don’t have to stay perfect for six weeks to get here from the other side of the world. You can just buy them right here. And so I think anything we can do, both to support other humans, but also to tax our land less in terms of pollution and sustainability, I think is very important. And again, I’m not even sure I’d call it a Christian issue. I think I call it a human issue. And I would say the same thing about, obviously, our meat consumption, what we’re doing to our environment because of our dependence on meat is not sustainable long term, and not the best thing necessarily for our bodies. So I love when I see people moving more and more toward both local produce and also even taking a couple days a week off eating meat, I think things are really important long term.

Stump:

So another listener is asking about in this regard, then do you find yourself cooking with the seasons? If you’re cooking locally, you have to use what’s available right there, right then right? How does your cooking change then throughout the seasons?

Niequist:

Oh, I would say it, that’s one of my favorite things. I’ve actually never lived in a place that doesn’t have seasonal changes. So I don’t know what it would be like to do that year round, but I can’t imagine. I mean, summertime is strawberries and then peaches and then blueberries. It’s Sweet Corn, you know. And then I love when it starts to cool off and then it’s pumpkin and squash and those kind of fallish sage, rosemary flavors. And then I love after the winter, the first asparagus at the farmers market, the first little fresh tender herbs, those baby lettuces. I mean those things…I think seasonal eating feels right in line with being a person who notices the goodness of the world that we get to live in, feels like another way to participate in being grateful for the created world.

Stump:

Well, let me come back to my outline here and some of these questions I wanted to ask you, myself. And we were talking about the humanity that food is. You had, I think there’s a great quotation at the part of the beginning of part four of your book that I’ll just read if I can. “Food and cooking are among the richest subjects in the world. Every day of our lives they preoccupy delight and refresh us. Food is not just some fuel we need to get us going toward higher things, cooking is not a drudgery we put up with in order to get the fuel delivered, rather each is a hearts astonishment. Both stop us dead in our tracks with wonder. Even more they sit us down, evening after evening, and in the company that forms around our dinner tables, they actually create our humanity.” Here we are, back again, talking about what it means to be human. And we’ve talked a little bit here about the sensory part of this and a little bit about the community that it engenders. What else is it about food that has so drawn you to write books about it to be so heavily invested in making food for other people and using your gifts of hospitality? Why was this the route you went instead of becoming a nuclear physicist or something.

Niequist:

Well, you know, I think some of it is, I grew up in a very what I would call a very fast paced, productivity obsessed culture. How fast can you go? How far can you go? How can you be efficient and streamline your life to make more and do more and be more. And I think my great rebellion was saying, let’s sit here a little longer. Let’s tend to our bodies and our spirits. Let’s not just make this a pit stop where we shovel food in to get back to the real work at hand. What if what we’re doing here is some of the best things we’ll do with our day, and with our year and with our lives. And so I think, again, when I talk about… God didn’t have to make us hungry. He didn’t have to make us require nutrition every single day, multiple times a day. Who knows exactly why he did that but possibly—again, I’m not a scientist, definitely not a nuclear physicist—but what if it’s an invitation to remember our createdness and our fragility and our need? You are not a robot. You are not autonomous. You can’t just go forever. You need to stop. You need to put things in your body that you don’t already have. I think there’s such an invitation to humility there. And again, in a culture that is so valued running beyond your boundaries or pretending you have no limitations. There was something important for me about saying, guess what, I’m hungry. I’m going to sit down my feed and nourish my body. That felt a little bit countercultural, and therefore very important to me.

Stump:  

In this vein of food, connecting us to other people, connecting us to the world even, to the created order of where it comes from. Some people, even when we were talking about doing this and saying we were going to use this book Bread and Wine, the question was, why is a science and faith podcast talking about this? But as you mentioned already, there’s this created order that comes into play here. And I think the people who wonder about that, just don’t see the miracle that it is of how food connects us so much to this created order. And I came across this passage from Wendell Berry, the author, when I was preparing for this conversation, he said, “whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine, which was after all a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water with soil and sunlight is turned into grapes.” How do you look at the natural world that is feeding us like this and see it this way Wendell Berry talks about, who you know is such this earthy person and connected to the land all the time. But when you’re looking for food, when you go out to the garden, to the you-pick strawberry patch, I mean, is it this marvel that’s these things weren’t there last fall, and now all of a sudden, they’ve bloomed up? How does this work? What does somebody who’s into food as much as you are, how do you process looking at the gardens and where this food comes from and the miracle that this is of how this works?

Niequist:

Well, first of all, I love Wendell Berry. Absolutely. And I love that passage. I think one of the most fun things when I look back in parenting, you mentioned the you-pick, the town that we live in—and we’re living in it now but we’ve also spent all of our summers here forever and ever, since, you know my grandparents did then my parents now we do—and it is the blueberry capital and they take away lot of pride in that. And so picking blueberries is a thing. And taking our kids to pick blueberries and blueberries are kind of rough. Like strawberries, it’s a shorter season, but strawberries are pretty big. You know, like it doesn’t take that many. Blueberries are tiny. You’ve got to do a lot of work for these tiny little berries and your bucket, you feel like it’s just gonna be empty forever. And I remember our kids just, we realized, like, we were definitely not raising like farm kids because they were like, I just pick them and then we take them home? Like that’s okay, you know? Like, yeah, we have to pay for them, and we did but it was really one of the things we love about spending time here is our kids know what a blueberry bush looks like as opposed to a cherry tree as opposed to the raspberry fields across the road from us. And I think that connection to nature is very easily lost in modern life. And I love it. To me, a connection to nature, whether through food or just through a being outside in nature, both of those things to me are such a direct line to a sense of God’s presence and goodness in the world. And so I think the more we can stay connected to the natural world in an intentional way, I think the more the more technology drives our lives, the more I think there are a lot of good gifts in technology, but it will not make you dinner, and it will not sustain you. And it will not come up year after year like a flower or a blueberry bush. And so I think it is at our own peril that we get too connected to technology and too disconnected from the natural world. I think the natural world is tremendously healing both for our bodies and our spirits.

Stump:

So it’s a surprise to some kids growing up that meat doesn’t come wrapped in cellophane from the supermarket but has to actually come from a butcher somewhere. You mentioned a little bit ago the relationship of meat to the climate crisis we have going on and in your book, at least 2013, when you wrote this you weren’t going full on vegan or vegetarian. How have you processed the eating of meat? The difficulties that some people find with that now?

Niequist:

Well, I would say I grew up in a really…my mom and I’m so thankful for this, she cooked really healthy food well before it was trendy. Like she looks at recipes now she’s like, “I’ve been making quinoa since before you were born.” I’m like, Oh, no, I remember. We were totally like that weird health food house. And now I’m really grateful for that. And what that means is I didn’t grow up eating a lot of meat and almost no red meat. And so it’s not something that I have a real taste for, to be honest with you. There are meat recipes, absolutely in Bread and Wine and I cook meat now. I mostly cook it for my husband and my kids and if we’re entertaining. I don’t have a real intentional…I know it’s good for me to not eat a ton of it. I just don’t also don’t have a huge taste for it. So that for me it’s not like oh man, I used to love a steak three times a week and now I never get one. I do like a steak about…I bet I like a burger once a month, and a really good steak about once every three months. But other than that, that’s not a hard one for me. But I think the way things are going, we all need to become much more conscious of the overall impact of our meat consumption both in our bodies and in our natural world.

Stump:

Have you tried the impossible burger?

Niequist:

I have not, have you?

Stump:

I have had one. And it did alright. It was pretty realistic if I say so. Another listener is asking any advice as a parent in how to raise kids who can appreciate food beyond french fries and chicken nuggets?

Niequist:

Oh, I mean short answer, no. I would say a couple things. When—and they’re both basically ways of saying no, I have no good advice on this—but when our kids were really little, two different people gave me pieces of advice that really helped me. They said, and one of them was my friend’s pediatrician, my friend Casey’s pediatrician told her, don’t get super hung up about what your kids eat at a meal, like at one particular meal, but instead think of 21 meals in a whole week. And as long as they’re getting a relatively balanced diet over the 21 meals, don’t sweat the one meal that’s just chicken nuggets and french fries. And then another person said, and we’ve taken that to heart, the other friend said, she had older kids, she said, when you’re taking your kids to a restaurant, and you can either very much focus on their behavior there, or very much focus on what you’re asking them to eat there, but probably not both.

Stump:

Don’t do both, huh?

Niequist:

But when you’re home, and it’s like their normal table and everything else is normal. That’s the time to introduce unusual foods. So like It’s okay if they ate the whole bread basket and nothing else at the restaurant but they looked the server in the eye and said please and thank you and you know, didn’t act like wild animals. And then when you’re at home and they feel comfortable in every other way, that’s the time to sneak in like, tonight we’re having brussel sprouts. And I would say we also…our older son was always like a really, really good eater and tried a lot of stuff. And even as a really little guy liked sushi and hummus and we just thought, like, are we amazing parents, like this is us, you know. And then our second son still lives on bananas. Like if he ever grows up to be a relatively functional adult will be like, that’s a lot of bananas, I don’t even know. And it just…so kids are so different. And so, you know, we try all sorts of things, some work and some don’t. And we mostly just I think at a certain point there you know, we just try and try and try and they keep taking more and more bites, and they hate it every time and we just keep going. So I have no great wisdom on that, except that we’re in the same boat and we’re trying too.

Stump:

very good. Well, our hour is flying by here, In closing I’d like to have you respond to a few of the lines that jumped out to me from your book, little nuggets of wisdom or insight. And you don’t have to give a complete dissertation on each of these, but maybe just a bit of context how you’ve applied these or worked them out in your own life. And I’m not even expecting you entirely to remember all of these. You wrote this book a while ago, right? But one of these in the chapter that ends with Nigella’s flourless chocolate brownies. Is it Nigella? 

Niequist:

Yes, yeah, yes. 

Stump:

So the chapter that ends with that recipe, you wrote in there, “one of the ways we grow up is by declaring what we love.” What do you mean by that?

Niequist:

Well, first, Nigella is Nigella Lawson, who is one of my very favorite cookbook writers. She writes about food in a way that’s really moving and inspiring to me. So if you like to read cookbooks like novels, get her cookbooks. And I think there’s so much messaging, maybe, especially for women, but for all of us, this is what you should care about. This is what matters. This is how your life should look. This is how the script should go. And I think there’s something very powerful in saying—you know, Mary Oliver was an extraordinary poet and her poem, Wild Geese, says, you do not have to be good and on and on. You just have to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I think there’s something very moving about getting to a place in your life where you say, not everybody has to care about this, but I do. I experience great delight or great meaning or great groundedness or a great sense of pleasure or purpose when I care about this thing, and nobody else has to care about it the way I do. This is what I love.

Stump:

That’s a part of maturing of growing up then of coming to that realization. Nice. Number two. The watermelon feta salad chapter. You talk a lot in your book about traveling and going to different places and even bringing your kids with you when when you’re traveling. And this this line just jumped out to me as so helpful and appropriate and I wanted a chance for you to expand on it a little bit. You said about your kids, “I want my kids to see themselves as bit players in a huge, sweeping beautiful play, not as the main characters in the drama of our living room.”

Niequist:

I yeah. First of all, everybody, if you haven’t had a watermelon feta salad, most people think it’s gross when you think about it. When you taste it, it totally works. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s perfect for the summer, so I highly recommend even just giving it a shot. But, you know, parenting trends go back and forth every couple decades or years or whatever. And we are definitely in a phase where being kid friendly is such an extraordinary value. And that’s good. But also, there’s a great big world out there that is not particularly bent over backwards with like brightly colored, puffy edges. And I want our kids to live in that world as well. I want them to know that even if the food is weird to them, or even if the smells are weird, or even if it takes a long time to get there, and even they don’t have their iPads or their little pouches of food, they carry with them enough security and stability to be slightly uncomfortable in order to experience something outside of the familiarity of our own home. When I was raised we traveled a lot and we traveled a lot internationally, especially when I was young. And now sometimes I run into people who, you know, only ever went to really kid friendly places like amusement parks or water parks. And I’m really grateful that I went to some really wild, weird other side of the world, not particularly kid friendly places. I think it gave me a good perspective on the world. I’m really grateful for it.

Stump:

Last one. The chapter that ends with your recipe for bacon wrapped dates. That chapter itself is called present over perfect, which is a shout out to the next book that you were going to write. Correct? Tell us a little bit what that’s about.

Niequist:

Well, I will say, it’s funny that you brought up the watermelon feta salad and the bacon wrap dates because those are probably two out of all the recipes that people are like, “thank you, no,” when they read it. I literally have gotten emails with people I’ve never met apologizing to me, like, “hey, I said some bad things about you and your recipes. And then I tried the bacon wrapped dates and I owe you an apology.” So again if it sounds bonkers to you I understand and try them and they will be so…again that’s another thing, I don’t make or eat a ton of meat, I make those bacon wrap dates all the time and they are a party favorite. People are crazy about those things.

Stump:

I can’t imagine I can’t imagine anything wrapped in bacon not tasting better because it was wrapped in bacon.

Niequist:

I know exactly. Rule for life. But..

Stump:

Present over perfect.

Niequist:

Probably yes, It took me a second to get back there. One of the things I don’t think I even really meant to do this super intentionally but in, I think in every one of my books, there’s a chapter title that leads to the next book title. What I’m doing is I’m sort of writing myself a path into the next book by the time I get to the end. I know what’s coming next, a little bit. And so I think that’s what that was. And Bread and Wine was really fun book to write, but it was busy. It’s a lot of recipes, a lot of recipe testing. I actually just had to reread it for another project I’m working on and I feel like sometimes even just reading it you’re like, oh my gosh stop cooking like get takeout. I’m exhausted just reading this book, stop having people over. So it was a wonderful but very busy season of life we had a newborn and a five year old and so I think you can tell by the end right I was tired and I needed a little balance, you know, we’ve talked about that from a food standpoint, that there has to be a balance there between kind of the fasting and feasting side of things, but also just in the rest of our lives. There can be seasons that are very full, in a good fun stimulating stretching way and then you need for there to be seasons that feel deeply restorative with a conspicuous intentional quiet and I needed that and that’s what Present over Perfect was about.

Stump:

So then we have to ask, what was it in Present over Perfect that was leading to this next thing you’ve been writing?

Niequist:

Well, yeah, I wish I knew. I don’t quite know yet if I knew the chapter title. But you know, one of the things, some of the themes that we’ve talked about so much tonight, you know, as a person kind of right in the mid life season, one of the phrases that’s been the most important to me, and there’s a whole story behind it, but when we first moved to New York, I wrote a piece of paper, a phrase on a piece of paper, and I taped it up on our wall, and it said, “I guess I just haven’t learned that yet.” And I wrote it because our kids were trying to figure out their new life and their new schools. And they were wondering, like, am I falling behind? Am I my dumb, am I failing? No you’re not dumb, you’re new. This is what it means to be at the beginning of something. This is what it means to be a learner. And as a family every day, we’re going to find another opportunity to say, “I guess I just haven’t learned that yet.” And we’re not going to be mad at ourselves. We’re going to feel proud of ourselves for trying and learning and asking for help. And, you know, like all of parenting, you think you’re doing it for your kids, and then you realize this is the thing I most needed to learn. So I don’t know that that’s the title. But this will be a book about the gift of starting over and of the curiosity and humility that goes along with being utterly out of one’s familiarity. And that has brought up so much good in my life, in my writing, in our marriage, in my life as a Christian. The lack of certainty and this deep curiosity has been a very exciting, very life giving way to live. And so I don’t know exactly where I’ll land from a book standpoint, but that I’m definitely circling around that idea of continuing to learn as opposed to continuing to be an expert. I want to be an expert in fewer and fewer things, but a ravenous open hearted learner in so many more areas.

Stump:

Well, thank you so much for stimulating our curiosity tonight, stimulating us to learn further. Reading Bread and Wine certainly stimulated me to do a little better job in the kitchen. And I appreciate that and appreciate you being here with us tonight. Thanks so much Shauna Niequist for being with us on Language of God.

Niequist:

Thank you. It’s my pleasure. 


Featured guest

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist is the New York Times best-selling author of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread & Wine, Savor, and Present Over Perfect. She is married to Aaron, and they live in Chicago with their sons, Henry & Mac. Shauna is a bookworm, a beachbum, and a passionate gatherer of people, especially around the table.

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