One of the best meals I ever ate was in a kitchen in El Salvador, the kind without walls, with dirt floors and a wood fire and plastic chairs. Anna and Alberto invited us into their space without shame, with only smiles and grace. Neither was who I expected them to be. I had expected homeless people to be … less. Alberto was handsome, articulate, poetic. Anna was warm and self-possessed. They were happy to finally meet me—I am the mother of the gringa they love.
My sons, daughter and I sat in their kitchen with their six children--–the exact echo of my own family. My daughter told them we had already eaten, but Anna would not invite us in without feeding us. Under a piece of tin, our feet on the dirt floor with bony dogs at our legs, she made us tortillas, rice and beans with an egg and a glass of cola—a feast, the most and best and all that they had. I knew we could get sick, all of us, from this food, but we did not hesitate. We knew the value of this offering.
I’ve known about this family for almost a year, since the flood that filled their pieced-together tin shack with muddy lake water. Alberto used to stay up at night when it rained and would fill the holes with soap, because that was all he had. He sold soap, toilet paper, whatever he could buy cheaply and peddle in a basin with a shout between the cement row houses.
Ten days of relentless torrents sent them and sixty others into a shelter where my daughter met them. After three months, she raised enough money to buy them something unthinkable—a house. A three-room house with concrete walls and a tin roof that did not leak when it rained and would not wash away in the next rainy season.
Alberto was in the Salvadoran army for ten years. He talked to us while we ate.
“I saw terrible things. I slept all night next to a dead man. I saw massacres.” He shakes his head, his eyes penetrate mine. He looks at me and does not turn away for any of his story. I do not take my eyes off him. I give him everything I can right now: I eat his food, I give him all of my ears, my body is still, listening.
We go down to the lake that has flooded. He shows us where his house used to be. He shows us where they lived in the street. My daughter would come and sit on their sidewalk shack made of plastic shopping bags and visit with them.
They offer more soda, more tortillas. We keep eating. Over the door of their three-room house, where nine of them live, they show us the mural and Scripture verse they asked my daughter to paint, for all their comings and goings:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace . . . If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.”
They have always had nothing, but this year they have a little more than nothing: they have a door this year, they have a door to a house. And that door is open to any who come and to any they can help, rich or poor.
I possess a lot more than nothing. This holiday season, I’d like to open my door and my table with the same ease and pleasure as Anna and Alberto, who worried not a moment about how clean their kitchen was, how many flies, the hungry dogs at our feet. Nor will I worry about my house, It will not be very clean. I won't have much time to cook. I've been extraordinarily busy these last few months. But we and about 20 others will gather, bringing whatever we have. In that Salvadoran kitchen, I saw only their generosity. We tasted only the finest of foods. I hope those who come to my house this week see the same.
Open doors and tables are like that: they blind us with love.
I would like to give away two copies of "The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God". Editing this book changed my food life----and my spiritual life! Learn and listen to 34 others who write beautifully about their own Faith and Food practices.
If you would share this post on your social media, then let me know in the comments below (and do include your email please, so I can get a hold of you!) I'll do a drawing and send on this book, one of my absolute favorites, that continues to feed me deeply. Especially around the holidays!
I would like to give away two copies of "The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God". If you would share this post on your social media, then let me know in the comments below (and do include your email please, so I can get a hold of you!) I'll do a drawing and send on this book, one of my absolute favorites, that continues to feed me.