The evening newspaper in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has a weekend magazine that ran a feature for several months titled “The Best Meal I Ever Had.” Each week the editor asked a Louisiana celebrity to write about the best meal they had ever eaten, concluding with the recipes for the main courses. Eventually he ran out of celebrities and broadened his author pool to include doctors—and picked on me.
This is the story I told: We were in the Kundah mountains of South India on holiday with our four children and the Webbs, another family with four children. We vacationed together every year. We loved to hike over the hills and along the rivers, even though the youngest often needed to be carried most of the way. Both fathers enjoyed fishing, and the Billitadahalla River was full of trout. The country was wild and desolate; the only other humans were a boy or two keeping an eye on peaceful herds of buffalo. For food we carried only dry bread, and for cooking only a piece of chicken wire and a knife or two.
After a stiff morning walk, we arrived at the river, and the children scattered to collect dry bits of driftwood or dead branches from the forest, while the fathers selected just the right flies to bait their hooks and began to fish. Everyone knew the meal could not begin until eight or nine trout had been caught, but we didn’t worry because few knew about the river, and it was full of trout waiting to be caught. Except that day.
The sky was clear and the air still. The sun was high and only the mosquitoes were active. The fish had breakfasted well and were not ready for lunch. We could see them clearly through the unruffled surface of the water, and it was obvious that they could see us. We went to our favorite pools where we usually caught our best and biggest fish. We crouched behind rocks and cast our lines until our muscles were sore. Our hooks got caught in overhanging branches, and when we reached out to catch the twigs and release the lines, we fell into the river, bruising our shins. We fished a mile or two up-river and then as far down-river.
Hours passed, and the children came to inquire about the probability that lunch might be near, only to be sent back with the appalling news that not a single fish had been caught.
Lunchtime came and went. The fire burned out. The older children tried to comfort the younger ones, and the youngest was crying and chewing on the dry bread. The fathers tried to look confident but knew that their reputation as providers was rapidly being lost. This was crisis. Then clouds drifted over the sun. A breeze came up and ruffled the water. Suddenly both our fishing poles bent and lines became taut. We caught fish after fish and landed them on the grass. Excited, our children gathered them up and ran with them to their mothers. Relieved, the mothers split the trout and laid them on the chicken wire over the revived embers of the fire.
Wonderful smells began to drift up the river. Grilled trout were laid on slices of bread, their natural oils serving as butter. The children could scarcely wait to sing grace before biting down on the food they had doubted would ever come.
Finally we fathers arrived, carrying the last trout that would complete the meal. We were sunburned and weary with aching muscles. We were mosquito bitten, bruised, and hungry. But we were welcomed with cheers. We rested beside our families on a great rock under the shade of a twisted old tree and began to eat. We all agreed it was the best meal we had ever tasted. I, for one, still declare that it has never been bettered, not in the most expensive restaurant nor by the most famous chef.
Many times since, when I’ve been to fine restaurants, I have ordered trout, and I’m almost always disappointed. I’ve wanted to tell the chef I know trout can be more exciting. I even considered offering to demonstrate how to cook it myself.
It was a while before I realized that my expectations were unrealistic. What my subconscious memory was seeking could never be reproduced in a kitchen. No chef has access to the essential sauce that made my special meal unique: hunger, bruises, sunburn, aching muscles, and a sense of near failure transformed into success. Mix those ingredients with the happy faces of family members enjoying each other and contributing toward the shared ecstasy of grilled trout, and you have a memorable meal! (I must add that fresh grilled trout on dry bread tastes good beside any river, anywhere.)
I mentioned that the children could hardly wait to sing grace before biting down on their trout on dry bread; but wait they did, and if we parents had forgotten, the little ones would have reminded us to sing. We had a series of musical graces that each of our families used to sing before every meal. It seemed to us that they had special meaning on picnics in the open countryside. There we were surrounded with the evidence of God’s bounty. On that special day we probably sang Johnny Appleseed’s grace:
The Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord,
Who giveth me
The things I need,
The sun and the rain
And the apple seed.
The Lord is good to me.
The Lord is good to me. We sometimes substituted our own words in place of “apple seed.” We may have sung “The sun and the rain and the fish and the bread.”
Whatever the words, the music rang out from 12 voices, across the river, and echoed back from the hills, “and so we thank the Lord.” The singing postponed the eating by just a few minutes, but I have no doubt that it enhanced the flavor of what we ate. It brought wholeness into the meal. Our meals were not just an array of wholesome foods for our nourishment; they were a chance to be together. And it was an invitation to our Lord to take His place at the head of the table. My family and I sang another grace before meals:
Back of the loaf, the snowy flour.
Back of the flour, the mill.
Back of the mill, the grain and the shower,
The sun, and the Father’s will.
This grace gently reminds us that God is the source of all we need. He is the one who sustains and nourishes us, both physically and spiritually.