Friday Night Meal: Chili

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[Editor’s note: This year at Hutchmoot, John Cal not only fed us with delicious food; he nourished us with beautiful stories, providing context for each meal and what it meant to him. What follows is the second of his three speeches, given two weeks ago today—we posted his first one last week and will be posting the last one next week. Enjoy.]

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

You are my son John, daddy’s only son John
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know, John, how much dad loves you
Please don’t take my son John away
Please don’t take my sunshine away

_______________

I’ve always been afraid of ghosts, axe murderers, and monsters under the bed. For years, as a child, a simple night light wasn’t enough assurance that the boogie man wasn’t lurking in the shadowy corners of my bedroom. I’d go to bed with the full brightness of the room lights on. I’d fall asleep in the living room with the TV blaring, or on the floor in my grandparents room—anything to avoid facing the darkness alone.

I know what that sounds like. I hear the internal monologue of some of the more judge-y parents in the room: set up a routine, practice boundaries, slowly introduce change. I know that it’s simply not okay to let a small child watch The Little Mermaid every night to help him fall asleep, but you, dear parent, did not know five year-old me, who, when forced to sleep in my bed alone in the dark, would lie awake, waiting till my parents were sleeping, before exiting my bedroom and finding safer, more well lit accommodations. Yes, every night. Yes, even with the risk of a spanking in the morning, because a spanking is one thing, but the fear of a tender bottom is nothing compared to the sight of vampires when you close your eyes or knowing there are witches and hags hiding in the hall closet just waiting for you to let your guard down.

One thing that would work, sometimes, is that my father would sing to me: old Campbell Soup jingles, classic Beach Boys, and more often than not, “You Are My Sunshine.”

He was one of sixteen siblings and always wanted a large family like the one he grew up in, but then my parents divorced, and it was just me: his only son, John.

But of course we get older, time passes and relationships get more complicated. We learn from someone, somehow, that it’s not so simple.

One time I was driving, which is the start of so many arguments between my dad and me. We were having a disagreement we’ve had so many times before, and we were screaming at each other, actually screaming, the “I told you so”s and the resurfacing of past transgressions flying about the Miata like shrapnel, all over where to go eat lunch.

“I decided yesterday,” I said, exasperated.

“I decided the day before and you didn’t like it,” dad replied.

“I’m fine with wherever,” I volleyed back, a sliver of saccharine covered kindness attempting to make my venom more palatable.

“I don’t want to pick a place you hate,” he returned.

Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that it's enough to go back, to not have to work so hard, to remember that in our differences, of course there are things we agree on, that there are things we share, things we all love.

John Cal

My father doesn’t cook, and whenever I’m back in Hawaii for a visit, doesn’t see the point in buying groceries, so besides the sweet reprieve of possible leftovers from the night before, we eat out every meal, literally every meal, so this argument is ongoing and constant. Each of us simply refuses to make a decision. Once, my father offered to go to California Pizza Kitchen, a restaurant he hates but I love, a fact which I pointed out by saying, “Why do you want to go there? You hate their food,” to which he replied, “See, I knew you were going to complain about what I picked.”

I know what that sounds like. I hear the internal monologue of some of the more judge-y people in the room—set up a schedule, practice emotional boundaries, it’s just lunch. But it’s never just about lunch, is it?

Relationships seem simple enough: an experience shared, a need met, a fear of the dark, a father singing over his son, like when Zephaniah writes, “With his love he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with singing.” But what happens when we find we can’t even agree on the music? And what happens when the metaphors of lunch and music give way to the realities of why we’re really in disagreement?

How are you faring after one day? Is it getting harder? I hope it is, because so often it is in this hard work that relationships are not only built, but strengthened and fortified. It is one kind of friendship to be able to say, “Olives on my pizza! I love olives on my pizza, too!” It is a quite another to be able to share a meal with someone who likes anchovies, or worse, pineapple.

It was silent in the car for a long time, and even without the exchange of words, the message of how we each were feeling was palpable. We all can be such awful people when we’re hungry. But then the discomfort is broken by something unexpectedly sweet and sincere.

“You know I love you, right?” my father said, angrily, yes, but it was the first kink in the wall we were both building between us.

“I know,” I said. “I love you too,” with slightly less venom than before.

Then, like magic, the argument was just about lunch again, not about who would win or who would default to whom, and it did seem silly after all that we were screaming at each other about lunch. And don’t mistake me, we were both still angry, but it was the sort of anger and argument you can only have with someone you care about.

Eventually we went to Zippy’s. It’s a diner of sorts in Hawaii which first opened in 1966 by brothers Charles and Frances Higa—burgers, macaroni salad, pie, but what they’re really known for is chili, of which they sell over a hundred tons every month.

It’s one of the meals I’m sure to get whenever I’m in Hawaii. As a kid, I would dip my grilled cheese in the stuff. When I went to college in Nebraska, my father would overnight me frozen packages of chili, a reminder of home.

So we’re having chili for supper. And while it’s delicious, I admit it’s not very revolutionary. It’s just chili, and pretty simple chili at that. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that it’s enough to go back, to not have to work so hard, to remember that in our differences, of course there are things we agree on, that there are things we share, things we all love.

For Lent last spring, Trinity Church in Wenatchee, Washington gave up donuts. Normally the congregants gather on the lawn in front of the sanctuary and finish a Sunday’s service with a fellowship of donuts, but Lent is a time to tackle difficult things, to meditate on the desert.

I was there at Trinity, Matt Canlis’s church, the Sunday after Easter. All that ruminating on death is bound to make one tired; even the idea of resurrection and life can labor one’s mind. We had gotten to the part in the liturgy where together we’d recite the Apostles’ Creed, when, of course, the over head projector stopped working. The words on the screen were gone, as if someone had taken away all the hymnals and expected us to sing the second stanza of “The Old Rugged Cross.” The fear began to sink in. Without a guide or a crutch, who are we really?

Then Matt calmly continued, “Let’s see how much of it we know.” And we did know it. Yes, we fumbled a little as he led us, but it was a delightful surprise to be reminded of what we already knew, of that work that was started in us oh so long ago, to go back and remember what we believe. And then after all that laboring, there were donuts waiting just outside to add to our rejoicing.

As I said, I hope it’s getting complicated. I hope, in these new friendships you’re forming, you’re beginning to tackle the really hard questions: Lewis or Tolkein, Star Wars or Star Trek, which Doctor Who is the best Doctor Who, and whether or not Harry Potter is appropriate reading; and when it seems like the disagreements are becoming too hard to bear, as they will at times in any relationship that is filled with love, just go back a little, when you weren’t so afraid to be afraid, when all it took to quell our fears was to rejoice over one another with songs.

Click here to read John Cal’s Thursday night speech.

Photo by Mark Geil


1 Comment

  1. Valerie Enlow

    These stories, centering around food, are so encouraging to me. I have spend many, many an hour preparing food for people I love—and sometimes for people I don’t even know. It’s great to be validated for efforts that often go unoticed. These are beautifully written and I love them! Thanks!

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