I have baked groaning cakes for my clients for nearly ten years, since I came across it in the book The Birth House. Before I go on-call for a birth, I bake the cake, and then I freeze it, ready to take with me to the birth when I get the call. Most of the time, with the exception of a couple of super speedy births, the cake is thawed by the time the baby arrives, and I offer the cake to the mother as her first food after the birth (I offer some to the midwives too). I also bake this cake for my postnatal clients.

It had never occurred to me that this counted as ceremonial food.

Many of us are blind to our gifts, and take for granted the things we find easy. Baking is such a thing for me. I have loved baking for as long as I can remember. I was baking on my own by the time I was 8 years old. When I moved to university, I had to teach myself to cook savoury food because the only things I had cooked until then were cakes and sweets. Throughout the years I have loved making cakes for people. When I am asked to contribute to a shared meal, bringing something sweet is usually my first choice.

When something comes easily to us it is easy to forget the love and care we put into it.

Last week I was chatting with my friend Amanda. I complimented her on the love and care she puts in the stews she cooks. I told her about my groaning cake tradition, and she pointed out that this is ceremonial food. Her words had a big impact on me, because I had never stopped to consider that this was the case. 

I realised that, for me, ceremonial food was something that happened in a ‘special context’, like at a retreat. For instance I have taken part in cacao ceremonies run by others, and this counted as ceremonial food for me. Recently I attended a Cacao ceremony and I was excited because I thought that this was the first time that I would be taking place in a ‘proper’ cacao ceremony. Only when it happened I realised that I had already attended several similar ones, and that what I had labelled as ceremony in my head was a very narrow, restricted label.

I find it fascinating how we pigeonhole things in our heads, despite ourselves, and define whether they fit or not, whether they are worthy. What is ceremony? What is sacred? If not simply the intention put behind the action and the care taken to do it mindfully?

Until now, had never considered everyday food as ceremonial.

Reflecting on this was very powerful for me. Many years ago I used to believe that spiritual magic only happened in retreat spaces, outside of the drudgery of everyday life. After attending retreats, I always found re-entering my normal life, especially with small children, hard, full of drudgery and somewhat boring. I longed for the feelings of specialness and connection that came with the retreats. A friend told me that I needed to bring this magic in my everyday life. I didn’t understand how this was even possible and dismissed it as ridiculous. I just didn’t know how.

A few years ago I started paying attention to the small moments of grace and magic in my life and I finally understood what she meant. It had been right in front of me the whole time, the grace, the beauty and the magic, but I just couldn’t see it, because my mind had put a narrow label on it. Starting a daily gratitude practise really helped.

In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown use the analogy of a marble jar to symbolise building trust. When someone does something that makes us feel good, it adds a marble in our jar. She is surprised when she asks her daughter, what adds marbles to her jar, because she expected her daughter to talk about grand gestures, but it’s just tiny everyday little things, like someone remembering your name, or something important happening to you, on which trust is built. Brene tells of her research in the topic:

As a researcher, I start looking into the data. And it is crystal clear. Trust is built in very small moments. And when we started looking at examples of when people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom’s chemotherapy was going.” “I trust my neighbor because if something’s going on with my kid, it doesn’t matter what she’s doing, she’ll come over and help me figure it out.” You know, one of the number one things emerged around trust and small things? People who attend funerals. “This is someone who showed up at my sister’s funeral.”

You can read the full story here

With food it is the same. What makes it a ceremonial, jar building process, is that it someone has made it for you for a special reason.

Have you ever eaten food that has been cooked especially for you, and found it to be really special? Have you ever had this feeling that it was more than just food, that it was imbued with love? That it nourished the soul as well as the body?

I remember eating such foods several times in my life. When I gave birth to my daughter, my midwife, Siobhan, brought a fruit cake she had baked for me. This was the first thing I ate after the birth, and it tasted like the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.

Once, unexpectedly, a Chinese mum at my children school gifted me a Pandan cake she had baked especially for me. She said that I deserved it for all that I did for new mothers. I was very surprised, and very touched. This cake has also become a family favourite, and, when my new Chinese neighbours moved in a few weeks ago, I baked them the very same cake to welcome them. Kindness has a way to pay it forward.

I also remember times in my life when I cooked food with love for others, in situations where nourishing was needed. 

When I was pregnant with my son, a new friend from my antenatal class gave birth unexpectedly at 32 weeks pregnancy. I visited her in the NICU, and I brought her a box of homemade beef bourguignon, because I knew that hospital food wasn’t the tastiest food, and I wanted to do something caring for her. 16 years late, Suzanne and I are still friends, and she recently told me that she still remembers that, out of all the people who visited, I was the only one who brought a casserole. Until she spoked these words, I hadn’t realised how much of an impact it had on her.

More recently, my friend Amber was sick with Covid. I made her a traditional postpartum dish of a Chinese chicken and red dates soup for her, and I left the soup on her doorstep. Two years later, she tells me she still remembers how nourishing it had felt for her.

It is easy to dismiss and to forget, but ceremonial food isn’t just something that happens in spiritual spaces and retreats. More than the special space in which it is shared, it is the intention behind creating the food that makes it sacred.

Now that I know this, I look forward to putting even more intention when making nourishing food for others. I want to try and bring more of this in my everyday life too, when I cook for my family.

I invite you to do the same. As you bake or cook for your clients, your friends or your family, tune into the intention and the love that you are imbuing into it. You too can make ceremonial food and bake sacred cakes. All you need is intention.

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