St. Martha and Making Food

On Marthas, Marys, Contemplation and Cooking in Quarantine

If you grew up at all as a girl in the church, you probably know about Martha and Mary. Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus’ friends. When Jesus came to visit them, Mary was enraptured, and sat at Jesus’ feet as he spoke. Martha, however, is rushing around, pulling things together in the kitchen, making sure everyone has someplace to sit and something to drink. At one point, noticing that she is the only one who is taking this care, she reproaches her sister through Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Biblical smash cut, new chapter, new verse, new scene.

On its face, the message here is clear: if you choose material things, you will be anxious, if you choose Christ, you have chosen the better portion for yourself. This starts getting complicated and gnarly and uncomfortable when you add in things like: gender roles and expectations, this idea that we should help and love others, wives submit to your husbands, the fact that someone needed to fill the wine glasses and deal with all 12 (!!!) of the disciple’s bodily needs like sitting and eating and where they would sleep, and all the rest of it. It’s one of the passages that deflects my desire to understand it, not letting me do anything but glance off the top.

If you like me, were raised in a church-y setting (nondenominational evangelical, here), you know about Marthas and Marys—these two women’s choices on one day abstracted out into personality types: Marthas are active, busybodies, load-up-the mini-van-ers, Marys are dreamy and passionate and focused on God and the contemplative life. Even now, if you google “Martha and Mary,” you’ll see articles like “We need Marys and Marthas: An Evangelical Egalitarian Take” and “Maybe Mary’s Right but Martha’s Me” and “Martha and Mary: When Life Gets Too Busy.” All these horrific headlines get at this: the ideal woman is both a Martha and a Mary, and only women are expected to be these needed Martha’s at all.

But there’s something else that bothers me about this story, which is that the work Martha has done, and is doing, isn’t recognized as a form of love or devotion, isn’t valued at all. In the book of Luke, Jesus has his feet washed by a “sinful woman” who uses a perfume of great cost, and Jesus praises her for giving up her expensive oil for him, while chastising his host, a man, for not greeting him adequately. There’s a complicated calculus between the material and the divine presence and what we ought to give up or not depending on how sinful we are or aren’t that Biblical scholars have likely teased out or argued over the years, but today, I want to argue for the material being the best care we know how to give right now.

I’ve been cooking dinner nearly every night for the last 8 months. We have a weekly(ish, sometimes more, very rarely less) takeout escape hatch, and a few cheats (a freezer full of Trader Joes’ perfect chicken gyoza, $2.99 for a bag that is good for at least one meal for two, some frozen ravioli jammed in there between the bags of dumplings), but other than that, I’m making a full dinner for two just about every night. To avoid getting bored, I rotate in new recipes every week: citrusy grilled pork in lettuce cups, vegan turkish kebabs, vegetable paella with chorizo, toasted to a crisp in a cast-iron pan. I cooked dinner a lot in the before-times too, but this kind of dinner-making, planned the week ahead, executed to avoid wasting ingredients or trips to the store, careful, lavish, is something that’s come about because of the pandemic.

I love doing this. This is not to say that there aren’t times that I would rather…not, that I don’t get crabby or despairing or weird when a sauce won’t gel or the chicken dries out, or the bread I was planning to do goes moldy. This is to say that I love setting down food in front of my little family every night, that when my partner compliments me on a meal or better yet trusts me enough to try something new (really pushing mushrooms this season) that it feels good down to the bottom of my feet, that I feel like I contribute to this house and the way it runs by cooking regularly.

If anything, this year has shown us that the food we eat comes from deeply entrenched networks of care, and labor, and calculations that ought to make us at least as uncomfortable as the Martha and Mary story: from managers at a Tyson plant betting on how many line workers would end up with COVID-19 to the ways that farm workers have been placed at the intersection of horrific COVID-19 policies and horrific immigration policies. My placing meals on the table is just the last link in a chain that is otherwise full of exploitation and harm, and the extent to which my cooking is done with care and love for people I already care for and love does not mitigate the harm it does. And yet: we need to eat, and not just occasionally, but daily (our daily bread), and it can be incredibly difficult to do this ethically because of access—financial, logistical, knowledge.

I don’t know how to resolve any of this. I’ve been gently poking at issues of food justice in correlation with parts of my book, and this month’s newsletter is just basically me dredging up that whole mess and trying to look at it through a slightly different lens.

I think what it comes down to is also the way we handle things in my house: what if everyone had helped, and Martha was not the only one running from place to place, filling wine glasses and seating dusty disciples? Washing up the dishes after the meal? Would everyone have been able to sit and listen then? Would everyone have had enough to eat and drink? My point is that there is plenty available if you take what you need, if you help your neighbor, if you make sure that you can trace the provenance of one or two things on your plate, if you plant a garden, if you share the load—not just of the cooking and the washing up, but of the planting and the keeping and the knowing about things, if you step outside the way things have always been.

Reading List:

As a reminder, all links here lead to my affiliate profile, and I’ll earn a small percentage of anything you buy! You can also browse the full booklist here, I’ve thrown in a few of my favorite cookbooks in addition.

  1. I read this Deb Perlman interview about halfway through the writing of this newsletter and it made me strangely emotional for reasons I can’t articulate. I’m a regular reader/cooker from of her incredible blog, Smitten Kitchen, and own both her cookbooks, and her voice is a kind of comforting presence in my own kitchen. To see that voice full of anger or despair or uncertainty is just one more reminder that this thing we’re living through is extraordinary and scary and in short, it is ok not to be ok.

  2. Having Samin Nosrat’s ray of sunshine voice cut through my mornings has been lovely, if you don’t listen to Home Cooking yet you ought to.

  3. M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf is a kind of guide to wartime rationing cooking, but a kind of cooking that begins with finding abundances even within restrictions

  4. James Salter Life is Meals. A year in foods, both simple and grand, mostly just about pleasure.

  5. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Seth Holmes. An ethnographic look at the real conditions under which your produce comes to your table.

  6. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter is a fantastic and more regular deep dive on many of these themes.

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Not a whole lot from me this month. October was nuts and went by in a blur. Earlier this month, (on election day, natch) Best American Travel Writing came out with my essay in it! You can buy it here.

As usual, if you loved this newsletter, please forward, tweet, email me, whatever! I love hearing from you.

On a more logistical note, I’m contemplating some changes to the structure/frequency/type of newsletter you get from me: something more regular, perhaps these essays interspersed with recommendations, or shorter snippets. What would you like to see or read from me? Is there a figure you’d want me to cover? Feel free to drop it in the comments, or to reply to this email. I get those in my inbox!

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