July 12, 2011 / Creative Writing
Writer Alissa Wilkinson reflects on the brunching habits she learned from living in New York City, and the sacredness of eating together.
September 14, 2011
Editor’s Note: In 2010, The Other Journal published The Spirit of Food: Thirty-Four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, a collection of essays and recipes that colorfully depict how our acts of eating echo the community of the church and the sacrament of communion. One of these essays, “The Communion of Saints,” which we have chosen to feature in our Food Issue, offers a meditation on leaving church and finding fellowship and peace at Produce Junction.
One day in the fall I wake up alone. It’s dark. There is an empty spot in the bed next to me and I remember, my husband is working in another state. Through the window I see a black shape tossing its leaves like the mane of a great tethered horse, as though it were trying to get away. The wind hisses. I smell wet earth. Seconds later, just after seven a.m., our clock radio erupts with the news that there’s a tornado watch. The storm might hit any time until two this afternoon. Feeling a smattering of rain blowing sideways into the open window, I get up, pull a hoodie over my nightgown, and tug at the window until it slams shut.
Rain is swilling down outside, splattering fatly into pools of standing water. I imagine the brown rabbit who lives in our backyard must be huddling under the rhododendrons. I envision my mother’s grave, how she is lying in a tiny room underground with rain pounding down, knocking, knocking. The untrustworthy body, the body that breaks down. I pray that is not the final, final end, and I try to imagine her in heaven, maybe sauntering with my father down a golden street or strolling by the river of life with her own mother. But I’m still here in our cold bedroom, which feels as lonely and primal as a cave.
Last night I made a list of chores I need to do today, but I can’t remember where I put it. I do remember that my husband is coming home this afternoon, and there’s nothing in the house to eat, so I have to buy vegetables before I go to school to teach. Vegetables, I think, know about dark, cold rain. They come from the earth.
Soon I am parking and walking toward Produce Junction. The rain has thinned to mist. The wind turns my umbrella inside out. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a cardboard box flying through the air. Turning, I spot a semi filled with boxes of mushrooms. The man unloading his truck has stumbled and lost his footing, so hundreds and hundreds of button mushrooms are raining down all over the driveway and sidewalk. He curses vibrantly. Shoppers stop briefly to watch, snickering, then hurry on through the mist. He surveys the soggy mess, kneels to pick up the mushrooms, peers around at us, his audience, and grins. Some of us stop to help him. Hands of all sizes and shades, and ages, mine among them, drop wet mushrooms into his box.
Produce Junction is a simple one-story shack slathered in dirty beige stucco. On its left stands an abandoned, rickety garage, and to the right, an expanse of cracked sidewalk. As I juggle slippery mushrooms, I realize I’ve come here every day this week, and I can’t remember why. Not because I needed to buy food, I know. Although I can’t afford the time to keep coming back, when I feel the call of the place, I come.
Inside the shack, a bank of dusty windows filters light, revealing how the main part of the building stretches back several hundred feet, thinning to a dim cave where workers drag and unload boxes. Above us, crude rafters are hung with light bulbs dangling from bare wires. I stand looking around until my eyes adjust to the dimness. There are about a dozen people cruising the fruit and vegetables.
A woman holds up a papaya. “What’s this-here thang called?”
“You don’t want them. They’re overripe,” a worker yells.
The place is filled with bins, and every bin is piled to tumbling with hunks and colors. The air in here smells like the earth and rocks and moss. None of the produce is labeled; there are no names or price tags.
“These rutabagas is ugly as carp today!” an old Chinese lady complains to her husband.
A young mother barely misses me, sprinting for her toddler, who has dumped raspberries on the floor. She calls to her older daughter, “Samantha, will you get over here? And tell your sister to stop playing with the raspberries!”
Meanwhile, a tanned diva in dark glasses and toreador pants drifts from strawberries to the cantaloupe. She collides with a thin blond man in a postal uniform who’s just barreled in the front door. Outside someone blasts a horn, and I see the postman has double-parked his truck. As he brushes past Toreador Pants, he cheerfully calls back an apology. Then he seizes two cantaloupes from the bin, one in each hand like barbells, and goes to stand in line.
People are streaming around me, as if I were a statue of a woman, and I realize that I’m meditating in the doorway, that I need to move. When a worker walks by, carrying a cardboard box filled to the top with bright green dill, I follow him, or rather, I follow the smell of the dill, which he is dumping into one of the bins. Running my hand over the wet, soft, ferny fronds, I pick up a bunch that’s light as a handful of air. I take it over to the checkout line.
While we are standing in line, a worker in tall olive rubber boots appears from the back and orders us all to move to the left so he can hose down the floor. Someone has just dropped a bunch of tomatoes and they’ve been smashed to a bloody pulp by our feet. Like a chorus line, we obediently step to the left.
I didn’t come for herbs. But for the rest of the day, my car is filled with the aroma of dill.
What I didn’t understand at the time, what lay buried beneath a year of escalating visits to Produce Junction, was the fact that six months earlier, I had lost my church.
* * *
We were gathering in the shabby, comfortable parish house, where a dozen of us vestry members had spent hundreds of hours considering furnace problems, worrying about our leaky nineteenth-century roof, poring over revisions in the liturgy, thinking of ways to get the Eucharist to shut-ins. I took pleasure in working through these problems because they brought us together, my friends, a group of warm, funny, smart parishioners.
That spring Thursday evening, one of them, still wearing her pea jacket, was passing around pictures of her gorgeous dark-haired children, and then another showed up with a big plate of brownies. I slipped out of my coat, draped it around a chair, and pulled up at the large table. Warmed by the smell of chocolate and surrounded by the sweet harmony of chatter, I studied the parish balance sheet, formidable tables and columns of numbers. The e-mail announcing this meeting had told us that we would be voting on a big budget question.
The meeting started with prayer. Then our priest explained that she felt we needed to hire an assistant. Unfortunately, however, the day-to-day expense of lighting and heat and salaries and shoveling the sidewalks was taking up our whole parish budget. And still, she said, she desperately needed someone to help her with her duties.
Our Finance Warden took over then, saying that the main budget question was this: could we violate a trust agreement that had been set up fifty years ago? The trust, he said, had been made by an elderly couple who attended and supported the church for many years. In the 1950s, they gave a large bequest in exchange for a written and signed promise that none of the principal would ever be used to pay for day-to-day operating expenses. For over fifty years, the church had paid operating expenses from the trust’s interest, but it had respected the terms of the agreement and never touched the principal.
Impatient with his long explanation, our priest stepped in and emphasized that she needed an assistant. She needed one badly, she said, and she wanted us to break the trust agreement.
The vestry sitting around the table became very quiet. We stared at our hands. After a few minutes of heavy silence, the priest told us she would go around the circle, one vestry member at a time, and each of us had to tell her how we would vote.
I felt panicked to be put on the spot in this way. Fear and resentment rose in my chest as one friend after another spoke, and the focus moved closer to me. I worried about some of my friends, too, who were more diffident than I.
The first three or four vestry members, one by one, agreed with our priest that she had a lot to do. And after all, none of us knew the couple who had bequeathed the money. And it was a long time ago. The first four members of the vestry said they felt it would be OK to violate the trust.
About the time our priest got to me, the anger inside me reached flood stage and was filling up my throat, so I spoke faintly. I didn’t think we needed an assistant, I said, since we averaged less than a hundred people in church on Sunday mornings, though I confess I was also thinking of the fact that our priest had just enrolled in a graduate program that was sapping her time. I said, “I think before we hire an assistant, we should work on attracting more members, and then maybe we will be able to afford an assistant without breaking the trust.”
Our priest fixed her eyes on me, her face reddening. She asked, “Don’t you think you should have more faith?”
I didn’t know what to say. I found myself looking at her awkwardly while the silence accumulated.
“God’s just testing us to see whether we have faith,” she explained. “The point is not some legal document. We need the funds now, and we have the funds. This trust belongs to us. God is faithful,” she said. “And he’ll replenish whatever we take out.”
I said, “If we made a promise to the old couple, God will honor us for keeping our promise.”
“It wasn’t us who made the promise. That was fifty years ago. And when they signed that contract, they didn’t realize we’d need the money now.”
“The people who signed the contract,” I said, “were the church then. And we’re the church now. The church promised.”
My friends on the vestry looked out the window. The smell of the hyacinths in the vase on the table suddenly seemed to stain the air with overbearing scent. A door slammed loudly in the hall.
“This is a dark time,” the priest went on, “like Good Friday. A dark time. Dark times are precisely when we need to trust God.” She looked pointedly at me and asked whether I trusted God.
This time she didn’t leave space for me to answer. It was several weeks after Easter. She was wearing her collar and revving up the decibels. She slipped into a sermonizing cadence and went on while I looked around the room at the bright watercolor paintings by Sunday school children.
“What you need is Good Friday faith,” she concluded, looking directly at me. “If you don’t have Good Friday faith, you shouldn’t be on the vestry.”
The priest paused, waiting for me to answer, but I felt claustrophobic and puny and powerless to reply. I felt so mortified by the way she had singled me out that I couldn’t think of a way to respond. Maybe she’s right, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be on the vestry.
“I vote against breaking the trust” was all I could think of to say.
Her piercing black gaze fell on me briefly and then traveled on to the next vestry member. Five of us voted against breaking the trust, but there were a dozen of us altogether, so we went ahead and broke the couple’s trust and took funds from their principal to place an ad for an assistant rector. Then we paid him every month with the money the donors said we were legally barred from using.
Because our priest had told me so publicly that I didn’t belong on the vestry, for several weeks I wrestled over whether I should resign, but that seemed unfair to the people who had elected me. So I finished my term.
After that, I didn’t go back to church.
* * *
As I am walking toward Produce Junction, a man driving an eighteen-wheeler leans out his window and bellows at me to get out of the way. He swings his rig onto the sidewalk, jumps down from his cab, and at the rear of the truck, leans his upper body on the lever to raise the heavy door. Then he begins unloading wooden crates marked EGGPLANT.
I can’t remember what I came for. I don’t even recall the drive over. I must have been listening to NPR, letting the car drive itself. I warn myself about how unsafe that is, and a cold wind blows through my heart. I plunge my hands into my jeans pocket to feel for my grocery list. Light bulbs, it says. Freezer bags. Cereal. Half and half. Nothing I can buy here.
I think about leaving, but instead I stand and watch.
“You know anything about this vegetable?” a young woman asks the clerk at the checkout counter.
“What do you do with kohlrabies?”
“You cook it, ma’am. Did you want these peppers?” The clerk holds up a plastic bag of red peppers. Sassy, glossy, exquisite.
I find myself stopping by the market regularly four or five times a week now. It’s almost winter. The workers are bundled in coats and brown cloth gloves, and some of them wear earmuffs as they dump boxes of carrots into tubs and sweep the cement floor. I shiver in the freezing draughts blowing through the windows and walls. Today the apple bins are full of fruit hardly bigger than golf balls. That’s what nature can do to you, the management seems to be saying, so that’s what I pick up.
There are no shopping carts or baskets, so we hug the dirty produce in our arms. Stuff topples to the floor. I lose a bunch of grapes, squat gracefully, sidesaddle, and swipe at the floor, just missing them. My bag of apples tumbles to the ground. When I lean over to pick up my apples, the bananas and broccoli fall.
An Asian teenager with tattoos, long black hair, and an earflap hat stops, bends down, picks up my produce, and plunks things back in my arms. His tattooed hand sweeps against my hand.
“Thank you,” I say in surprise.
“Hey, no problem,” he replies, trotting off toward the flowers.
I cradle my fruit and vegetables, walking over to stand in line.
The lady in front of me turns. She’s African American with ample hips and she is wearing dark blue jeans with rolled-up cuffs and boots. Over this ensemble she has thrown a fake tiger cape.
“I’ll never use all this zucchini,” she says. “Take a few.”
I’m a million miles away, thinking about something else. I can’t remember a stranger asking me to split an order. I don’t need zucchini, or I’d have picked some up. I want to help her out, but I’m worried that so many vegetables will rot in my refrigerator. Besides, I don’t know the etiquette for transactions with other shoppers.
So I balance my stuff, manage to pull a dollar out of my pocket, and offer it to the lady with the zucchini. She waves me off with long, graceful red fingernails. I ask her whether she’d like some yellow squash. She says thank you, but she doesn’t need any. She lays three big zucchinis atop the produce in my arms, lifts her bags with poise, and walks out.
I stand holding my produce with her zucchini on top. I realize with a pang that I might not see her again, that I have accepted vegetables from her and will not have a chance to pay her back. I don’t know whether I’ve won or lost, and then I am taken aback by my way of measuring the exchange. It feels so limited and competitive.
That night I think about the zucchini woman, and again the next morning I remember her. I believe I’ve seen her at Produce Junction before, maybe more than once. I decide to look for her next time I’m there. Sometime after that, the truth dawns on me: it was when I stopped going to church that I started driving to Produce Junction almost every day.
* * *
My first reason for loving Produce Junction was because it’s full of bargains; five eggplants for a dollar, a box of raspberries for two dollars. Finding the place felt like discovering that Aladdin’s lamp is really a garden and we’ll never go hungry. Like many children of Depression parents, I adore bargains. I come from a grandfather who once bought a thousand trailer hitches because he could get them for a nickel apiece. No wonder I was thrilled to get three bags of celery for a dollar. The fact that I had to buy three, if I bought any at all, didn’t worry me. I took them home and stashed them in our refrigerator.
In a month or so I had to carry two soft, blackening bunches of celery to the trash, because we just don’t eat that much celery. One of the main differences between celery and trailer hitches, I realized, is that celery goes bad and trailer hitches don’t. For five years my grandfather sold trailer hitches, one by one, to filling station attendants across the state of Minnesota, and eventually he made a profit. But I began to live on fairly close terms with death. There was nearly always a vegetable or fruit in my refrigerator that was in some stage of decomposition—softening, molding, rotting into black liquid. This didn’t represent a waste of money, because they had been so cheap, but every time I had to clean a corrupting bunch of asparagus from our vegetable cooler, I felt a little sick.
I decided to take responsibility for the surplus. So I started to give vegetables and fruit to neighbors and to our grown children. I still do, feeling slightly apologetic as I hand the stuff over, but my victims bear my gifts of peaches or arugula or scallions with patience. They thank me and assure me it will be useful. Still, forcing vegetables on them feels slightly un-American, because America is about choice, and my friends don’t get to choose what I give them. The fact is, what I bring home isn’t exactly my choice either.
* * *
One day I walk into Produce Junction looking for russets. Not only is the market out of russets, they have two bins of brussels sprouts instead of any broccoli. The beets are scaly and misshapen and clotted with a little mud. It makes me a bit irritable. I think of driving to Super Fresh. But I’ve already figured out that one of the reasons I return to this shack is that I rather like working around the seasons. I don’t mind if some things aren’t available. At least, I say that I like craving what’s not there, looking forward to the first whiff of asparagus in the spring, anticipating the way it resists a fork, imagining its buttered taste. If I have to improvise meals around what’s available, I feel in partnership with the earth. If I have to think about collaborating with nature, I remember I am not the creator; I am a creature.
* * *
After the vestry meeting where we voted to violate the elderly couple’s trust, I didn’t leave one church for another. I went on strike. One year with no church stretched to two. Sometimes I tried other churches, but just showing up and sitting in the pew would turn me into a lump of self-righteous, critical protoplasm without grace or charm or a sense of humor. When I am thinking of someone I can’t forgive, I become the sort of person I hate. Many members of my old church scattered to other parishes and we sometimes brooded together on the various offenses of the spirit that had occurred there. We felt excluded and violated. I had enough sense to know that after sharing the Eucharist with friends every week for decades, I’d feel lonely if I gave it up, but every time I got close to any church, misery shut me down.
Following the mushroom incident, as I drove to school through the rain, I thought, maybe gathering mushrooms in that storm was so crucial to me because in my suburb there isn’t much street life. The summer my husband and I first moved here from the city, I remember, we ate breakfast on the front porch, thinking we would get to know our neighbors that way. After three weeks, I realized the reason there are no people on the street is because when we leave our houses, we get into our cars in our backyards. And coming home, I pull into the back, as we all do. It’s no wonder we don’t see one another. True, we do have block parties and we meet over lawn mowers in the summer. We share an amiable mailman and ask our neighbors to feed our cat when we’re on vacation, but we don’t see one another frequently.
And beyond that, I realized there are very few places where Americans get to talk to people of other ages and races. Supermarkets are amphitheaters with nervous music and garish lights. When I’m there I don’t talk to neighbors; I feel mesmerized. I’ve read that the aisles are specifically designed to move us along, because the store has only so many shopping carts, only so much space. Since I’ve been shopping at Produce Junction, I’ve noticed that the food in supermarkets is trimmed, injected with color, waxed, and sealed under plastic—supermarkets aren’t about human connection or about a connection with nature. I don’t remember ever having an opportunity for either insight or moral behavior in the supermarket.
* * *
A couple of days later I am driving to Produce Junction, imagining the pungent aroma of fresh lemons, which are the sine qua non for our evening’s dessert. We don’t usually have dessert, but tonight we are celebrating the successful end of a big project. I walk directly to the fruit and discover the lemons are almost gone. I’m vaguely aware that an older woman with a soft, powdered face is circling the herbs. She’s dressed as if for church or a concert, in a good quality, loopy black wool coat and a big, flowered scarf tied at her neck. I lunge toward the last bag of lemons just as she floats to a stop in front of the bin. Our hands meet. We both withdraw. I’m moving faster, with more certainty, and I got there first. But she is older.
She gives me an appraising look.
“Go ahead,” she says. “You were here before me.”
Her expression is that of someone pleasant and eager to please. Maybe this trip is her outing for the day. Maybe she has gotten dressed just to come here. Maybe she is determined to have a good time, whatever happens.
But her voice conveys disapproval. I consider what to do. There’s no time for another stop. It’s these lemons or no lemons. Nevertheless, I think I ought to let her have them. That will show her she’s not a victim, which might be good for her, I think, with entirely too much self- righteousness.
The woman and I each politely urge the other to go first until the exchange feels embarrassing. I give in and grab the lemons. I take them home and we have a splendid dinner. But I don’t eat any of the lemon torte, because I’m realizing what I could have done that might have made me happier than dessert. I should have picked the lemons up and put them in her hands.
That evening it dawns on me that what happens at Produce Junction is not unlike what happens at the Eucharist table. Maybe that sounds blasphemous. But for me buying produce was by then tangled up with the mystery of being fed. Those of us who regularly come to Produce Junction come for food and for fellowship.
* * *
The first time I left a church, I was twenty. I’d been sitting in a pew in our Baptist church like a ventriloquist’s dummy for months, no, for years, so many years that my mind and soul were full of sawdust. I no longer believed I would find anything holy there, so I didn’t. The truth is, instead of encountering God, I tended to spend the time cataloging everything that was wrong with the place. During one Sunday evening service I found myself holding a list that I had scribbled in pencil on the bulletin. It was numbered. It was a grudge list. When I realized that, the penny dropped.
I needed to be sorry so I could be forgiven. But I wasn’t sorry. I felt I was right. It was a terrible, terrible church. But at least I realized that criticizing the church was getting me nowhere. Maybe it would be better to stop going to church at all than to go to a place where my main activity was to feel superior. Slumping there in the pew under the fluorescent lights, I decided that the next Sunday I would try St. Mark’s Episcopal in the neighboring suburb. I had friends who loved that place.
Sitting in my Baptist church for the last time, I thought with irony that no one knew what I had just decided. The last time you perform certain actions, it is marked and celebrated. There are little ceremonies, for instance, marking the last day of school, marking the day you stop being forty-nine years old. But leaving church doesn’t get commemorated. It’s unremarked, like the last time you see your mother. As I plotted to leave my fundamentalist people, they stood around me singing, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” No one guessed my spot would be empty next week, and the next and the next.
That week I felt like a weedy, vacant lot with the wind whistling through it. But I didn’t go back on my decision. I just hedged a little. I would try St. Mark’s, yes, fair enough, but I reserved the right to go back to my fundamentalist people if I couldn’t deal with the new, strange religion I might find in the Episcopal church.
From the minute I passed though its red door, St. Mark’s electrified me. At the end of the service, the priest yelled, Thanks be to God! and everyone shouted, Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Allelujah! I felt off balance and out of place and humble. I couldn’t find the right pages in the prayer book. When I sipped the real alcoholic wine from the chalice, teetotaler that I had been to this point, a disconcerting buzz filled my head, and I worried about catching a cold from the shared germs. During the entire first week afterward, I feared punishment from God, which my fundamentalist people said he visited on people who turned to false religion. But astonishingly, as I kept returning to St. Mark’s, the spare language of the prayer book seemed to express exactly what I felt. I realized it was becoming my prayer book. I would catch my breath, close my eyes, and grip the back of the pew in front of me.
This is what I gave up when I gave up my church after the terrible vestry meeting. This is what I gave up: worshipping with friends I think of as the communion of saints.
* * *
I keep driving back to Produce Junction three or four times a week, even though I think my attraction to this place is preposterous. I have shopped at produce markets on the streets of Bogota and Paris and London and Barcelona. I have shopped at street markets in small Maine villages, in California, in Vancouver, and in Minnesota towns. Unlike many of them, Produce Junction isn’t outdoors, and it isn’t run by the people who grow the food, and it’s not organic, and I don’t have any idea what the place pays its workers.
I have begun to think about the workers there the way I used to think about our neighborhood filling station attendants, not as friends, exactly, but as minor stars, revolving within my galaxy. Some look Eastern European. One Saturday two of them listened sympathetically to my inquiries about whether one of the plants was an annual or a perennial, then shrugged, meaning they’d answer if only they could understand the question. Some of the workers are teenagers who, I suspect, might more profitably be in school. Several of the women laugh and comment to one another in Spanish, probably about us shoppers. Or is it paranoid to imagine that?
I want to think the faces of the workers at Produce Junction are full of character, but I know I might be partly inventing that. One late middle-aged man with a theatrical, expressive face and springy curls said, each time he gave me change, “Make this a good day.” I never took this lightly, but then, suddenly, he disappeared and where he’s gone, I don’t know.
I don’t recognize many shoppers at Produce Junction, and that doesn’t matter. I don’t mind coming and going as a stranger. When I’m there, I don’t have to pretend to be more patient or reliable or smarter than I am. What I do will not affect my status or job. It will not shape the ongoing persona other people know as me. It’s enough, I think, that the choices I make there frequently reveal me to myself. Sometimes I am decent, sometimes truly awful.
So I’m standing in the vegetable market, coming to terms with the fact that we aren’t going to have russets for dinner tonight. Then I notice broccoli on the floor, stoop down, retrieve it, and replace it in the arms of the woman who dropped it. She’s wearing a Chanel-style jacket and a black hat with a black veil. It was the slender, tattooed Asian teenager who taught me to pick vegetables up from the floor and return them to their owner. As I put the broccoli into the woman’s hands, the warmth of her hand reminds me of passing the peace.
The word peace passes through me like a radio wave.
And I know, suddenly I know that I am no longer holding a grudge, that I can return to church. I stand for a minute in the middle of the people and vegetables, while foolish tears swim in my eyes. The bins blur until they shimmer like jewels.
* * *
The next Sunday I wait outside a simple old brick church in Philadelphia under a canopy of maples, surrounded by graves that date back to the sixteen hundreds, and listen to the congregation sing “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” I walk by a big maroon sandwich board welcoming visitors to enter through the large white doors, which are propped wide open. I’m feeling nervous, slightly nauseated. I don’t know exactly why I am so afraid. When the last notes of the hymn fade, I gather my courage and step onto the stone floor of the church, feeling the air shift slightly to coolness. A man in a suit hands me a bulletin. I find a pew, pick up the prayer book, which feels in my hands like my own prayer book, and begin reciting the confession with the rest of the congregation.
 This essay was first published by The Other Journal in Leslie Leyland Fields, ed., The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 16–29. Reprinted here with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Jeanne Murray Walker
Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of seven collections of poetry; the latest is New Tracks, Night Falling. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, the Georgia Review, Image, the Atlantic Monthly, and many other journals. Among her awards are an NEA Fellowship, an Atlantic Monthly Fellowship, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. In 2007, she was given the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Prize. She recently hosted a public television documentary on poetry in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A professor of English at the University of Delaware, Jeanne also teaches in the Seattle Pacific Low Residency MFA Program.