Thanksgiving is upon us.
There’s much to mourn, to celebrate, to give thanks.
But amid the food and family, I have something I ache for you.
Something I discovered while spending time with a family who lacked indoor plumbing or electric. Leif and I had traveled to a remote island off the coast of Croatia to bring in an olive harvest for my research of Taste and See: Discovering God Among Butchers, Bakers, and Fresh Food Makers.
Our kind hostess, Natalija, takes us to parents’ home in a remote location on the island of Hvar.
Let me unfold the story for you….
As we drive toward the remote property, I sense I’ve stepped back in time.
Natalija’s parents live remote on the side of a mountain far away from signs of civilization like electric lines or street lamps. We park in a dirt space.
We follow Natalija beneath a trellis of grape vines dripping above a narrow walkway, vines so thick, we cannot see our destination.
A stone deck emerges, an extension of a house built into the side of a mountain. A pair of well-worn, mismatched chairs and crotchety table sits empty. An array of spices burst from a metal barrel sliced in half.
Laundry, air-drying in the wind, frames the deck. The corner of the deck provides a sink for dish washing—every plate and fork stacked haphazard about to topple.
A mysterious shack sits in the corner. Later I discover this is the only toilet. The house was built long before indoor plumbing.
Donning a tattered grey sweater, black pants and a plaid shirt, an elderly man shuffles toward us with a walker. He shouts, “Kaput! Kaput!”
That’s when I noticed Natalija’s dad has a false leg and wicked sense of humor.
“Pappa,” I announce. We laugh and hug and hug and laugh, because sometimes words aren’t necessary.
Pappa waves us toward a steep circular staircase that leads to the deck beneath. I try to silence my gasp (too late) as he clings to the uneven rock sidewall to make the descent. The scene makes me cringe. How can he do this?
I peer around the staircase. A second walker waits on the lower level. Ah, Pappa is smart, stubborn, and feisty. I like him even more.
Two bright orange cats follow in tow as Pappa shuffles us toward a crowded, stone basement. Inside, a line of huge plastic jugs filled olives glow with purples and greens. A pile of gourds rest against dark wooden barrels of aging wine.
Pappa stumbles over a five-gallon bucket of mandarins.
Leif catches his arm.
There’s no stopping this man. He’s proud of his work, the produce of his life.
Natalija explains we’re here to clean the olives so we can take them to the mill.
Leif carries the heavy fruit, bucket by bucket, up the staircase where we begin the sorting process. The drupes are poured into smaller containers and filled with water. Then we remove by hand the leaves, stones, and debris.
Much of the time we work in silence.
Donkeys whine in the distance. The hum of a solo cars scurries past.
With the last bucket, Pappa proudly announces, “Yah!” and disappears down the precarious stairs. He returns with handful of mandarins.
We gather around the rickety table. A stack of pomegranates, a few partially open, forms the center piece.
Momma brings squares of bed on a plate with green and black olives sopping in oil.
Momma cured them herself.
After crushing the olives she soaked them in water for a week—changing the water regularly. Salt is added as a preservative to temper the bitterness and ward off fungus and foreign cultures.
My teeth clanks on the green olive pit. I try not to contort my face. The sharp bitter taste shocks my taste buds and burns my throat.
I force a smile gnawing at the surrounding meat. The wrinkled black olives tastes so sour and pungent my nose tickles. Some describe this taste as “older than meat and wine” and “cold as icy water.”
I just need a reprieve and reach for a slab of bread baptizing it in oil for relief.
The buttery flavored zeal cools my tone.
“Sooooo good,” I exhale.
Pleased by the hearty response, Momma laughs, then disappears.
She returns with a bowl of walnuts. Hungry from a long day’s work, I grab a big handful and stuff them down my throat. Later I’m regretful when I discover the high cost of the morsels I consumed.
As leave, Momma and Pappa press water bottles of olive oil into our palms. I try to refuse knowing how much this will cost them.
“There’s a rule,” Natalija explains. “If you help pick olives you get one litre of olive oil per day. No one comes for the oil, because it’s such hard work. It’s a sacrifice, but also a standard reward for the labor.”
I bow my head in gracious thanks and accept the holy gift.
The air breathes brisk. The sky illuminates with tangerine hues. The moment the sun descends three stars appear. I’ve heard the olive people are a generous people, but now I’ve tasting their kindness firsthand and I am overwhelmed.
The secret to the best Thanksgiving ever is found in tasting more than food—it’s found in tasting kindness.
No matter what food appears on your table this Thanksgiving, my hope and prayer is that you will infuse the food and faces around you will with kindness, love, and graciousness.
No matter what the disappointments.
No matter what the history.
No matter what the frustration.
No matter what the awkwardness.
No matter what the day may bring.
Through you, may people taste and see that the Lord is good.