I learned how to cook at the Catholic Worker House in Rock Island, IL. We ran a small homeless shelter in that house, women and families, usually about 10-15 people. And we ate whatever was donated to us. Just to be clear, that means we didn’t buy any food. I had to work with what we had.
When we moved in, I was the one who was going to do most of the cooking. And I was told there was a pantry, and we would plant a garden, and people dropped off things like meat, occasionally. So with great anticipation I went down to said pantry. Most of the shelves held precisely two items: cranberry sauce and canned sweet potatoes. Shelves and shelves of cranberry sauce and canned sweet potatoes.
So if you get nothing else out of this brief reflection, please let it be not to donate those things to homeless shelters, and in fact, not to give your garbage. If that can of lychees has been in the back of your kitchen cabinet since you moved it there from your old house, please eat it. Don’t give it to “the poor” because “they will be grateful for anything if they are hungry.” It simply isn’t true.
Let me say that now, I love cranberries, and I make my own cranberry sauce when they are around in the fall. Then, I wasn’t so thrilled. Because my plan was one can per week would be incorporated into a meal. Maybe two.
It turns out you can do a lot with sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. You can make sweet potato pie, sweet potato cakes, sweet potato hash, sweet potato soup. I even have a great recipe for sweet potato salad that I made up over the years. But cranberry sauce is a little harder. I would often throw it in soup. Like vinegar or lemon juice. You can mix it with mustard for a great sauce for chicken. You can fold it into rice and bread crumbs and sage to stuff pork. You can make punch. Little by little I whittled the supply down to almost nothing. Until Thanksgiving time, when I would get hundreds of cans again. I learned to say no.
We are approaching a season of generous giving. My hope is that we are all giving from our abundance, giving from our substance—not our leftovers. If it isn’t good enough for me, I don’t give it to someone else. I reduce or reuse or recycle. Sometimes I throw away. But I make sure the gifts I offer are truly gifts. If I wouldn’t give it to Jesus, well, that is my litmus test.