Gifts of food

One of the fun things about traveling in Japan is the process of purchasing a meal to go. Railway stations have restaurants where you can dine in, but they also have places that serve bento boxes - meals that are prepared to take with you. The bento boxes are a delightful alternative to American fast food, which is also available in Japan. Bento boxes are special compartmentalized boxes with nutritious food, usually in appropriate portions and most of the time presented in a very visually pleasing way. The tradition of bento extends far beyond what you can purchase in a train station. The tradition of expressing love through attractive lunches packed at home is the true origin of bento boxes. Mothers pack lunches for their children that are both nutritious and attractive. Rice balls formed to make tiny pandas with a scarf made of a thin strip of salmon and a few small tomatoes and broccoli for garnish. Many bento boxes have fish or chicken as the primary meat with bits of salad and rice. Some have sushi rolls, other have salads and other foods.

Bento boxes are seen as expressions of a mother’s love for her child. chars-ben are bento boxes made to look like characters such as teddy bears or people. A lot of effort is put into making the meals look attractive. Mothers believe that if they make the boxes look pretty, the children will be more likely to eat the food that they have prepared. Some mothers now take pictures of their creations and post them on social media.

The word “bento” is thought to have its origins in the Edo Period which lasted from around 1600 to 1867. Elaborately decorated lacquer food containers were made to take to the theater and other leisure outings. Bento was a symbol of wealth and status. These days simple and attractive bento boxes are available in markets at a low cost. The food, however, is generally prepared by hand, with a lot of attention going into the choice of colors.

We don’t have such a tradition in our country, though there are plenty of parents who use great care in packing lunches for their children. Most parents have experienced phases when their children are picky eaters and finding ways to encourage healthy eating is a challenge. Paying attention to the appearance of food is one way to encourage healthy eating habits.

I have been thinking of bento boxes lately as a rather steady stream of delicious food has been brought to our house. Members of the church have provided tasty meals and snacks for us since Susan’s hospitalization. Some have brought complete meals. One friend brought over a dozen or more cupcakes, elaborately decorated in autumn themes. Another brought a roast chicken that smelled so good it was hard to wait to eat it. We’ve received home-made chicken pot pies, a host of molasses cookies (my favorite kind of cookie) and salads and hot dishes and all kinds of other gifts of food. They may not be bento boxes, but significant care was put into making a beautiful presentation.

Gifts of food are part of our culture of caring in our community. I’ve commented that here in South Dakota we grieve by eating. A funeral lunch can be an excellent opportunity to share stories and remember the one who has died. Telling stories is one way of experiencing resurrection as the person lives on in the tales told. Our grief can be poured out in ways that enable us to remain connected to the living community that surrounds us.

In our church, cookies and bars are the staple of funeral refreshments. Those things and coffee - lots of coffee. For those of us who have given up caffeine, decaf coffee can be found if you know where to look, but in this part of the country, coffee is assumed as the beverage of adults. Years ago, when we first moved to North Dakota, Susan didn’t drink coffee. However she soon started because people didn’t ask her whether or not she wanted coffee. They simply served it to her and she learned to drink it to be polite and accept the generosity of her hosts. We’ve since learned to politely refuse some gifts of food when our diets require a bit of discretion, but we continue to feel gratitude for the gifts of food that come our way. It is part of the culture of the place where we live that we really appreciate.

Although the pressure to make the perfect presentation isn’t as intense in the United States as with bento boxes in Japan, there is a little bit of competition surrounding gifts of food in our culture, too. Various contributors of bars for a funeral snack work hard to offer their best. One of the beloved stories of our church is of a woman who always made bars for every funeral and other occasion, but who refused to share her recipe. Her family, in compliance with her wishes, put cards with the recipe on them out at the luncheon following her funeral. The cards put a smile on our faces at the time and have become treasured recipes in many households in our congregation. Once in a while a member will make those particular bars for another occasion and we all enjoy a special memory of a very special person.

This morning I am hosting a breakfast for colleagues. We are getting together to plan a community Thanksgiving service to be held in November. I could have gone to the store and purchased prepared food. Coffee and pastries are common offerings for such events in our community. However, I decided that a home-made egg bake would be easy to produce and would provide a better option both in terms of appearance and nutrition. So I’m off to the church a bit early today to make sure that I have breakfast for my friends. the Gospel of John reports that Jesus prepared breakfast for his disciples in one of his resurrection appearances.

We believe that when we share a meal in remembrance, Jesus is present. However you express your faith, food is a gift of the heart.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!