I believe in God. I struggle with this belief almost daily, but I can still say, despite my doubts over all the intricacies of my belief, that it never completely evaporates.
I try hard, but my relationship with God comes in and out of focus.
A couple of Sundays ago, I had a moment of extreme clarity. As it was the first Sunday of the month, according to Presbyterian tradition, the church celebrated communion. My church prefers communion by intinction: participants walk down their pew to the center aisle, then up the pew towards the front of the sanctuary. A church member holds the communion bread, the participant breaks off a piece of bread, and the bread-holder murmers, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” The participant then dips the piece of broken bread into the cup of grape juice, held by the minister who reminds the participants, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Each Communion Sunday, I pray and try to focus on the meaning of communion, but often the reality of forgiveness and divine acceptance seem so far away.
On that particular Sunday, visitors sat in my same pew. As they were new, they caught my attention. The group of three each differed from the next: a young girl—maybe ten years old with freckles and a paradoxical cheerful primness—sat next to a twenty-something man who could have been her brother, and next to him sat another twenty-something man who appeared to be connected to the other two by friendship. The man in the middle, the assumed brother who I will name George, nodded his head vigorously during parts of the sermon. He jostled his legs restlessly, stared at the ceiling and stained glass for periods of time, then his attention would return to the events of the service, and he’d focus intently as long as he could.
When communion time rolled around in the service, I discovered that George had a lot to teach me. He didn’t rise for the communion when the ministers invited us to take part. His younger sister passed him to participate as he and his friend tucked their legs under the pew to let her pass. They had to tuck their legs even tighter against they pew when my large ass and I had to pass. Two soon-to-give-birth pregnant women followed me out of the pew, and as they passed, the men had to pull their legs up on top of the pew and lean back.
I took my bread and grape juice (communion always reminds me how much I like grape juice and how many pleasant childhood memories it conjures), then returned to my pew from the other end and sat down to pray for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes again, I saw George rocking back and forth in indecision. Finally, he stood up, pushed himself past his friend, and joined the line to participate in the sacrament. He shifted from foot to foot while in line, then took his bread and juice, crossing himself afterwards. Returning to the far end of the pew, he encountered the two pregnant women. They both looked up at him, smiled but didn’t budge, promptly returning to their prayers. George grimaced. I watched him try to figure out what to do.
He looked down our aisle at where his seat waited for him, blocked by two contentedly large pregnant women, me and my large ass, and his sweet little sister who had her head bowed and hands folded like the image embroidered on “Now I lay me down to sleep” children’s pillows. The possibility of reaching his seat? Zero to none.
Hope lay in the pew behind ours. It held only one person, a slender man that George passed easily. He reached the spot directly behind his previous seat and hesitated. I could feel him behind us, thinking about what to do. I could hear that he hadn’t sat down; his shoes softly whined against the hard linoleum.
Suddenly, brown shoes flew over the top of the pew, followed by long legs and the rest of George. He had vaulted himself over the pew, feet over the head of his praying sister, and into his seat. Upon landing, he curled forward to pray, as if in one smooth motion.
Oh George, I loved every moment of your communion because I understood it. I know your indecision, your awkwardness, your sincerity, and your inadvertent clumsiness before God and others. I know these things because I experience them almost every day. I have felt every moment of your discomfort and confused devotion. This is faith, the simple faith most of us know. It isn’t fancy or easy, and it certainly doesn’t glimmer like a static-free channel of Divine Inspiration. Instead, it is the clumsy expression of the essential human self searching for God.
This Saturday, I made what I think is the culinary equivalent to George’s sacrament of communion. It’s messy, simple, and certainly not fancy, but it is the essence of itself. It is the simple concentration of one of God’s perfect creations: the ripe tomato.
Homemade Tomato Paste
I sized-down the recipe from last week’s LA Times Food Section to be more manageable after one trip to the farmers’ market. It’s messy, but it makes the house smell of sunshine and every tomato-based memory you have ever tucked away.
You will need:
2 ½ pounds of your favorite variety of ripe tomato
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for storage
½ teaspoon of good-tasting salt
To make the tomato paste:
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Dice the tomatoes, then toss them in a large frying pan with the oil and salt. Heat the mixture just to boil and keep on a low boil for a couple of minutes. Don’t fry; you are just trying to soften the raw tomato.
Let the mixture cool for a few minutes while you lightly oil a large baking pan with sides at least an inch and a half high. In batches, puree the mixture in your food processor. Using a rubber spatula, work each batch through a sieve, pushing the juice and pulp into the baking pan. This will take some patience. Discard the seeds and pieces of skin left in the sieve. Don't be alarmed by your product--the liquid in the pan will look like tomato juice. Oh, but what it will become!
Place the pan in the heated oven. Set your kitchen timer for four hours. Every half an hour or so, stir the tomato paste. You will notice that the volume will decrease substantially each time you check on it. If the mixture starts to brown slightly at the edges, don’t worry; just stir the carmelized bits into the beautiful red paste.
After four hours at 300 degrees, your paste should be getting pretty thick. If it isn’t shiny and dark brick red yet, lower the temperature to 250 degrees and continue to cook, stirring it every ten minutes or so. When it gets near to ready, it starts cooking fast, and as you don’t want tomato fruit roll-ups, I recommend you keep a close eye on it. Once you have a dark red, shiny, thick and incredibly fragrant paste, remove the pan from the oven. With a flexible rubber spatula, scoop the paste into a clean glass jar. You will have just under a cup of paste. Pour a half-inch of good olive oil over the surface to help your concentrated sunshine last.
This will keep for months in the refrigerator, as long as you maintain the protective layer of olive oil.
This is spectacular stuff, and you will want to eat it by the spoonful, by itself or on toast. Try it everywhere you’d regularly use tomato paste—in coq au vin, pasta sauce, soups—and you’ll notice it’s authentic tomato-ness.
Messy? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. Honest? You bet.