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Hutchmoot 2019: Thursday Night Meal Introduction

[Editor’s note: What follows is a transcription of John Cal’s delightful introduction to Thursday night’s dinner from Hutchmoot 2019, originally given five weeks ago today.]

I watched them as they filed into the room for dinner. They arrived scared and excited, full of glee and trepidation, faces washed and in Sunday best. By the hundreds they came, bags packed and off long bus rides, and plane rides, or driven up the mountain by their equally nervous parents.

These eager summer campers were met by counselors, horse wranglers, and water ski instructors, maintenance guys, campfire musicians, mountain bikers, laundry girls, and even office staff. They gathered in the lodge cafeteria around rectangular folding tables to share a meal, their first meal together.

Big Lake Youth Camp had been around for decades before I ever stepped foot on campus, and they’re still going today. This summer they celebrated 57 years. With each new season, I could feel the experiences of the thousands of people that had come before me, the years of campers and staff and countless meals that ebbed back in time. There were so many days of camp before this one. There were assuredly many first days to come, and yet, each Sunday, that first meal, the one that we were about to share together, somehow seemed to hum with the truth that this one was ours.

And for the years I worked in the kitchens at Big Lake, every Sunday it was the same meal, a meal I actually didn’t like very much. I’d chop the same vegetables, bake the same pans of cornbread, fill the same bottles with honey.

It was the traditional first meal for decades, served on Sundays for years before I became the head chef, served for years after I left.

The meal was called haystacks: a taco salad of sorts, a supper quite beloved in Adventism, the Christian denomination that first taught me about Jesus and that operates Big Lake Youth Camp, where I worked in the kitchen for ten years.

It is a meal that is recognizable enough by non-Adventists, but the details are also peculiar, like hot dish to a Minnesotan or poutine to a Canadian. There are regional aspects to it, like Spam Musubi in Hawaii or boiled peanuts in Cajun Country. Haystacks are an integral cultural food that might not be fully understood by outsiders.

This year we celebrate ten years of Hutchmoot, and perhaps without even noticing, we’ve created unique cultural variances of our own.

“What do you mean that people who are scholars of Buechner and O’Connor also have a deep affection for Dr. Who?”

“What do you mean you can quote both Toy Story 3 and Ephesians 2 to me verbatim?”

“How is it that Jennifer Trafton can so seamlessly compare Bruce Springsteen and Mary Poppins and their shared merits? Who knew Bruce and Mary had shared merits?”

And no, I still haven’t seen Star Wars. No, not any of them. And yes, I will keep reminding you year after year until I do.

But how does it happen, all this variance? How is it possible that he holds the whole world in his hands, when the mere prospect of those in this room getting along, we divergent few, seems so utterly frightening?

I had just become an Adventist, a Christian really, three years or so before I started working at Big Lake, and in my experiences with Adventism the concept of Haystacks had always scared me. The ingredients are put out on the table for you to assemble your own supper, but for a newcomer asking how to create their own haystack, the advice can be confusing.

“Cheese should go after the beans,” someone will say, “so that the cheese melts from the warmth of the beans.”

“Melted cheese eventually cools and forms a solid barrier in your haystack,” someone else will argue. “Cheese on top.”

I’ve been told to “crush your chips, so that it’s easy to blend all the flavors together.”

“Keep your chips whole so they stay crunchy as long as possible,” someone else will offer.

For years, I’d watch all kinds of Haystack creation come through my kitchen.

Caitlyn McNabb was fastidious about the correct order of layers and the proper amount of pressure needed to crush her chips before folding, gently folding the concoction together so that it was sufficiently blended while making sure that large red and white swaths of salsa and sour cream remained.

Matthew Russel would blend his haystack into an anonymous pink mass, enormously spanning the breadth of his cafeteria tray before piling pieces of cornbread and spoonfuls of melon over the top.

Lena Sailor segregated her ingredients in their respective corners of her plate, making sure the beans didn’t touch the scant dozen or so Fritos, which didn’t touch the immaculately piled mound of shredded cheese.

Seeing all of the deviations was the realization of my greatest fears. Are people just doing whatever, being whoever they want? Isn’t there a right way to do it? There are reaches of the country that put canned pineapple in their haystacks, or marinara sauce, or roasted potatoes. Some cover it with ranch or thousand island dressing or ketchup. And ketchup on haystacks is the manifestation of one of my deepest worries: “What if I’m doing it wrong?”

There’s something about any idea becoming incarnate, about the thing—fearful or joyous—becoming real, tangible, something you can touch, see, taste.

If we only ever read recipes and never get our hands dirty cracking eggs or whipping butter into soft peaks, we might be in danger of understanding what a cookie is, but never knowing what it tastes like. John Cal

I’m sure many of you have heard the story of a pastor who put rocks into a large jar in front of his congregation—rocks and pebbles, sand and water. In the early 2000s, the story circulated through electronic inboxes and was recorded in books about soulful chicken soup. We know how it ends, how there is enough time, how there are enough resources, how to seek first and all will be added. We get the concept, at least cerebrally, but have you ever seen it done? Have you ever touched the rock, or poured in the sand? Have you seen the water fill the empty jar? We think knowing the story is enough, and so we often stop short of living the story. If we only ever read recipes and never get our hands dirty cracking eggs or whipping butter into soft peaks, we might be in danger of understanding what a cookie is, but never knowing what it tastes like.

So before we get to the difficulty of navigating haystacks for supper, let us practice incarnation by first filling a jar. Our jar today, proverbially speaking, will be the song “Jesus Loves Me,” and I’d like us to sing it together, but just the melody, just the core line of notes, some might even say the most important of the notes, the ones that hold the whole song together. So please join me in singing.

Here’s a note for us to start on. Remember, just the melody.

[At this point, John walked over to the piano and played the middle C note.]

Jesus loves me, this I know For the Bible tells me so Little ones to him belong They are weak, but he is strong Yes, Jesus loves me Yes, Jesus loves me Yes, Jesus loves me The Bible tells me so

Beautiful. Of course it would be beautiful. We knew what to do. Unity, perfection, lack of dissonance. We all knew exactly what to do. The line of notes ahead of us clear and distinct.

But now, I’d like us to try it again, and this time if you’re soprano, I’d like you to hit those ethereal notes seemingly unreachable to the rest of us. And if you’re an alto, let your voices, full and round, gently meander about the words. If you’re a tenor, you’re probably a praise band leader, so don’t be afraid to sing crisp and clear. Let your notes be a marker for the rest of us to come back to. Basses, show us rhythm and deep, deep perspective, and baritones, well, you can just remain the mysteries you are. Hold to the melody if you wish. Remember, these are your notes, not mine, and if you have no idea about any of the musical jargon I was just using, all I ask is that you try to find whatever song is inside you, and remember we were never told that the noises we make unto the Lord had to be beautiful, but only that we make them with joy.

Here’s that note again.

Jesus loves me, this I know For the Bible tells me so Little ones to him belong They are weak, but he is strong Yes, Jesus loves me Yes, Jesus loves me Yes, Jesus loves me The Bible tells me so

You probably saw it coming—the ending, the punch line—and somehow, you already knew it would be better, when you allowed yourself to be yourself, to sing the notes inside you, your notes, the notes you were meant to sing.

Then why is it still so hard to be ourselves, to believe that we were fearfully and wonderfully made, to not be so afraid that we’re doing it wrong?

In the early 1950s Ella May Hartlein and her husband moved to Arizona to work at small boarding academy, where Mr. Hartlein was the dean of boys. While in Arizona, the newly married couple loved eating out at a local Mexican restaurant, where they became fans of tostadas. But after only a few years in the southwest, the Hartleins moved to Idaho, and then Iowa where there was a shortage of Mexican restaurants. It would be a decade before the first Taco Bell opened in Downey, California.

With the lack of Mexican food or even ingredients in Iowa in the 50s, Ella May created a new thing, an answer to the longings inside her, a taste to remind her of home. She assembled a supper of chips, beans, cheese, and vegetables, and the concoction was so well received that a copy of the recipe made it into the local newspaper where it was labeled “Hartlein Special.”

As the dish spread and the recipe was shared, it colloquially became known as “haystacks” from the maker creating a larger and larger stack of food on their plate.

Tonight we feast on the story of Ella May, and in doing so, I hope you are able to practice telling your own story, to practice being yourself—hold the onions, extra sour cream, and salsa on the side. It’s scary, I know, to fumble around into uncharted territory, to make a discovery, to try something new, to maybe not do it right. What if you find you don’t like black beans, or that you didn’t take enough cheese at first? I promise, even these scary revelations are bringing you a few steps closer to uncovering how wonderful you already are, allowing people to see the real you.

In all honesty, I still don’t really like eating haystacks, or taco salad for that matter, and yet the more I think about them, the more I am able to marvel at the many facets of the story they tell. Like in college, when we all seemed to be at our poorest and most hungry. We’d hang out in the park on a Saturday afternoon, or if we were lucky someone lived off campus and out of the dorms. We didn’t have enough money to even order a pizza and so someone would bring over a bag of tortilla chips, someone else a can of beans. Someone would find half a block of cheese in the back of their fridge and we’d dice up a sketchy tomato. Sour cream was a luxury, but you could count on an old crusty jar of salsa to appear from who knows where.

And when we all gathered, bringing what we had, what at first didn’t seem like enough somehow manifested into coffers overflowing and able to nourish us all.

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