(RNS) — The Rev. Jennie Williams may not not care much for the kitchen, but she didn’t start cooking her way through the solemn season of Lent as penance.
She did it to get to know her new congregation at Elm Springs United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas.
Williams will resume that Lenten practice this week in a new installment of her Facebook video series “Lent’s Eat,” in which she makes a recipe or two from congregants each week of Lent, the season of prayer and penitence many Christians observe in preparation for Easter.
“It ended up being a tool for ministry for me in ways that I did not expect,” she said.
Williams started the video series last year during her first Lent at Elm Springs, after coming to the church in July 2020. A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic was “an incredibly wild time to start a new appointment,” she said, and it was challenging for her to get to know her new congregation.
The church was cautious in how it met at the time to protect its many elderly members who were among the most endangered by the disease. There were services each Sunday in the church parking lot, but no potlucks or home visits.
Then the pastor stumbled across a cookbook published by Elm Springs United Methodist Women in 2014 called “Let’s Eat.” The compilation included recipes from many members who still attended Elm Springs — and it gave the pastor an idea.
“Why don’t I film myself cooking these recipes and then try to get to know the person either through their recipe or talking to them?” she said.
It might be funny to film and put online, she thought.
She started with a hot artichoke dip and something called Mexican casserole. The oven broke. The recipes turned out delicious anyway.
Members of the congregation shared the video with friends beyond Springdale.
Food often plays a role in Lenten observances, though the season usually is associated with fasting instead of feasting.
Many Christians observe food-related traditions on the day before Lent begins — like making Shrove Tuesday pancakes and eating jelly- or custard-filled pastries on Paczki Day — intended to use up stores of alcohol, butter and other indulgent ingredients.
For the next 40 days, some choose to give up their favorite treats to remind them of Jesus’ suffering and death in the days leading up to Easter. Catholics in particular abstain from meat on Fridays as part of their Lenten practice.
“I think one of the things that we forget about Lent is that early Christians did fast and abstain from things, but they would also take on new practices,” Williams said.
“I’ve mentioned cooking can be a chore for me, but these things have been a joy for me as well. It’s expanded my emotional and spiritual awareness and capacity, and so I think it’s appropriate to share the joy that I get from it with others.”
But “Lent’s Eat” videos aren’t super spiritual, she admitted. They’re more about connecting with people.
They do end with a blessing for those whose recipes were used, though. A recipe for hot rolls — a surprisingly simple favorite the pastor has made over again since — was accompanied by verses from Scripture about Jesus being the “bread of life.”
And they did help her connect with her new congregation.
The hot artichoke dip Williams had made in the first episode of “Lent’s Eat” came from a recipe written by an elderly church member named Doris Turentine. Turentine’s granddaughter showed her the video. The pastor was invited to meet her before she died and then to officiate her funeral.
“It may not have made the family or her feel better, but it certainly made me feel like I had at least had a moment to know Doris because she was an excellent cook. She had several recipes in the book. That was one of the things she was really well known for,” she said.
This year, as Lent arrives, Elm Springs is back to meeting in person. Williams, however, is still cooking and posting videos online. Instead of working from a cookbook, this time she is making recipes submitted by members of the congregation.
And, like last year, she hopes it will bring some light to a dark time.
“Even now, we can’t obviously hide from the heaviness of the world,” Williams said.
“But there are moments when I think it’s appropriate to lighten that burden for others. And so that’s, I think, what this was: It was just a little sweet light in a world of heaviness, and I think that was meaningful.”
Adapted by Sophie Godrey from a recipe by Reva Chenoweth in “Let’s Eat: Elm Springs United Methodist Women 2014 Cookbook.”
Makes 12 servings.
- 3 cups flour
- 1 packet dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup hot water
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 egg
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast and 1 cup of flour. Briefly mix with a spoon, then add sugar, 2 tablespoons of oil and hot water. Beat on medium speed for two minutes with a paddle attachment. Add 1/2 cup of flour, salt and the egg, then beat on high speed for another two minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour by hand until a shaggy dough forms, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Give it a quick knead in the bowl to ensure it is completely combined.
Grease a large bowl with 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Place the dough in the bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. Set the bowl on the top rack of an unheated oven for one hour, preferably with a shallow pan of hot water on the bottom rack. The enclosed space and steam from the water will help the dough rise.
Once the dough has risen, briefly knead the dough on a well-floured surface. Divide it into 12 pieces of about equal size. Roll into balls and place on a greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Let rise another hour in the oven. Once the rolls have risen, take them out of the oven and preheat to 400. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden. These are delicious brushed with melted butter or olive oil after you take them out of the oven.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct Sophie Godrey’s name.