a homily delivered by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday November 18th, 2007
READING: “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost
One of the great things about being historically-minded is that it really can (and often does) give a person an entirely different perspective on just about everything in life. I know that a lot of people think of history as “boring” -- just a lot of talk about war and politics and the kind of people who are interested in that sort of thing, plus trying to memorize a bunch of meaningless dates that all sound the same after awhile, or the names of people you’ve never met and are never going to meet because they’ve gone to meet their Maker long before any of us were even born. But this is just the superficial view. History is really all about people just like you and me; in its most extensive understanding, it’s the study of everything that Human Beings have ever done or thought or felt since, well, the beginning of time. It’s about tradition and heritage, but mostly it’s about understanding why things are the way they are by learning how they used to be, and how they got to be this way.
For example, take this symbolic communion meal of cornbread and cider we’re about to celebrate. I’m sure you’ve all probably heard that “an Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away,” but how many of you knew that, according to historians, the apple is probably the earliest fruit actually cultivated by human beings, which is really pretty amazing when you think about it. Before there were any vineyards or olive groves, or any cultivated citrus fruits; before peaches, pears, plums, figs, dates, cherries, apricots and all the rest, there were apple orchards. So you see, there’s a reason that “A is for Apple.” And there are over 7500 different varieties or “cultivars” known today, all of which are descended from a single ancestoral variety, which can still be found growing wild in the mountains of Central Asia, in the region between the countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and China.
Modern apples basically come in three different types. There are the sweet, so-called “dessert” apples (which are the kind that you can just pick and eat right off the tree, or nowadays more typically after bringing them home from the supermarket); then there are cooking or baking apples (which are generally a lot more tart than the dessert apples, but release their more subtle flavors when cooked); and finally there are cider apples -- which are far and away the majority of the cultivars, which makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about it. Because of all the beverages which have historically been available to human beings (including plain old water), cider is both one of the simplest and one of the safest...not to mention one of the tastiest.
Furthermore, thanks to what some would call the “miracle” of fermentation, cider also gets “hard,” even if you pretty much just leave it alone -- which makes it both easy to store and preserve, and also gives it all sorts of other historically desirable qualities. As those of you who may have read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Botany of Desire already know, this is basically what the legendary “Johnny Appleseed” was doing when he planted all those apple seeds out in the Ohio territory back at the start of the 19th century. John Chapman was essentially a very eccentric, mystically-inspired Swedenborgian real estate speculator, who tried to anticipate the westward expansion of the young United States, and planted his orchards in such a manner so that by the time that the pioneer farmers caught up, there would be mature apple trees waiting for them. And although as an adult he apparently never even owned a pair of shoes, when he died he reportedly left his sisters an estate worth several million dollars.
This same intoxicating quality of apples also puts a rather interesting twist on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. You know, I’ve never really understood the doctrine of Original Sin, at least not on a thelogical level; but maybe it was really just that Adam and Eve decided to throw a little party, drank a little too much cider, did some things that maybe they shouldn’t have and which they regreted and were ashamed of later, and the tried to cover it all up; but naturally God found out anyway, and threw them out to fend for themselves. Nothing particularly original about THAT story, is there? It’s more like the oldest mistake in the book. Which is another big advantage of being interested in history; we get to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, rather than having to make them all again ourselves.
The Cornbread, of course, has a history all its own. Maize, or “Indian Corn” as it was known to the Europeans, is a New World crop, native to the Americas; and for the Native Americans it was one of the “Three Sisters” (along with beans and squash) that provided much of the basis for their diet. The three crops were grown together in fields of small, cultivated hills -- the cornstalk doubling as a beanpole for the beanstalk, with the squash planted around the base, and a fish head at the bottom of the hole for fertilizer. This was the agricultural technique which, according to folklore, Squanto taught to the Pilgrims at Plymouth -- and combined with plentiful fish and game, as well as other native American plants like potatoes, tomatoes, wild rice, wild onions, and of course here in this part of the world, blueberries and maple syrup, it allowed the indigenous inhabitants to eat pretty well most of the time. Cooking was easy. Often they simply combined the meat and vegetables into a thick soup called sagamite, or else steamed their food in the ground just like we would at an old-fashioned clambake today.
And sometimes they would make and eat popcorn, or grind the dried kernels into a coarse cornmeal and cook it as a quick bread, kind of like a tortilla. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Europeans that people started to bake actual cornbread and eat it as a staple of their diet, just as they baked bread with the milled flour of more traditional cereal grains like wheat or rye: grains which, like the colonists themselves, were brought over from the old country and planted here in the Americas. But until these grains were well established in the New World, cornbread was a staple of the Pilgrim diet: a creative combination of the old and the new, of innovation and tradition which is now an important part of our own cultural heritage as well.
Which brings me to the point of all this culinary history. When we think of the traditional Christian Communion -- the Eucharist -- we think of a symbolic meal comprised of the two staple foods of the ancient world -- bread baked from wheat, and wine fermented from grapes. It is both a reenactment of a traditional Passover meal, but more importantly, a making sacred of that which is ordinary: a sacramental act to commemorate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But the symbolism also works on at least two other levels as well. Communion is a celebration of community -- not just in the sense of breaking bread together, but also symbolized by the very foods themselves: think of how the grain of the fields and the fruit of the vine become as one in the bread and the wine. And then there is also the fact that these foods are alive, with yeast; which is what causes the wine to ferment, and the bread to rise (even if, for Passover, it is baked before it has the chance to rise too much, to symbolize the sudden urgency of the Exodus from Egypt). And in the New Testament, these are both metaphors for the Kingdom of God as well: the New Wine which the old wineskins cannot contain, or the leaven which was hid in a measure of flour, until the whole loaf was leavened.
The food we serve at our own symbolic meal shares these same properties. But it also reflects the heritage of THIS region of the world, and the bringing together of traditional English and Algonquin cuisines, just as they did at the celebration of the First Thanksgiving so many years ago.
And at the end of the day, it really is about Giving Thanks, and expressing our gratitude for the great gift that is life itself. We were, each of us, born into this world naked and helpless. But through the compassion and generosity of others -- beginning most commonly with our parents and immediate family, but including as well friends and neighbors, members of the extended community (including our communities of faith) and of society as a whole, we are protected and nurtured and helped to grow to maturity.
And the ONLY appropriate response to this great gift is one of Gratitude, combined with the commitment to imitate the example of our ancestors, with our own generous and compassionate service to others whose needs are often even greater than our own.