The nourishment business
Essay | We are what we eat, and what we read
by John R. Erickson
Posted 7/23/16, 11:11 am
My mother, Anna Beth Erickson, was an excellent cook. From her mother and grandmother, ranch women in West Texas, she learned the basic recipes of that region: fried steak, fried chicken, fried okra, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, roast beef, hearty beef stew, chili, pickled okra, and wild plum jelly.
But she was more than a good Southern cook. At church luncheons she tasted casseroles and salads, sought out the women who made the good ones, and asked for their recipes. She collected recipes and traded them with family and friends. She amassed a small library of cookbooks and studied them.
She regarded cooking as more than drudgery and more than a process of blending ingredients and spices into palatable concoctions. In her view, there was no job more important than monitoring the source of her family’s food supply and tending to its preparation.
She prepared most of her meals from fresh ingredients. We kept a garden and she had at least a dozen recipes for yellow squash, a vegetable that prospers in West Texas. We raised our own chickens. She hated the gory ritual of wringing a chicken’s neck, but she didn’t trust store-bought chickens. They’d been raised in cages and that wasn’t natural. She believed that a chicken should walk around on God’s earth and eat grasshoppers.
Our family was eating broccoli long before it showed up in school lunchrooms, and homemade yogurt years before it appeared in our local grocery store. She showed great cunning in slipping wheat germ into any dish that might disguise the taste. When her children protested that wheat germ sprinkled on top of peach cobbler wasn’t good, she said, “Well, it’s good for you.”
She also recognized that there was a spiritual dimension to eating. We took our evening meals together as a family. For that one hour, we became more than individuals racing off to meetings and school events. We were the Erickson family. We said grace together, ate in a mannerly fashion, and talked.
Mother was a nutritionist, a student of the science of wellness and well being—the chemistry of Life. She understood that what we eat, and how we eat, contributes substantially to who we are, both physically and spiritually.
Now that I am older and a writer by trade, I often compare what I do with what my mother did. There is a spiritual dimension to storytelling that equates to the chemistry of food preparation. A good story satisfies the appetite for entertainment, but it can also reveal truth, structure, justice, humor, and beauty, and when that occurs, a writer has the opportunity to make readers better than they were before.
People need good stories just as they need wholesome food and clean water. Stories that enumerate chaos and absurdity leave us weaker and diminished. Those that reveal beauty and meaning in human experience nourish the soul.
We who were given the talent to write (or compose music or make movies) should use our gifts to strengthen the people who use our products. Like humble cooks, we’re in the nourishment business, and that changes the focus of art from Me to Us.
“Us” is who we are as a people, the human family. In this country we share a core of traditions and beliefs that we call “civilization.” For at least 3,000 years, philosophers, prophets, and preachers have told us we should preserve it, protect it, and pass it down to the next generation.
The Founders of our nation accepted this as common sense. So did Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Luther, Bach, and C.S. Lewis. It used to be taught in great universities, and I hope it still is.
Are we making our readers stronger or weaker, better or worse? That’s a question that anyone in the nourishment business should be asking every day.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.