Ever felt like you had a lot of energy and desire to do something big, but didn’t have the foggiest idea how to get started? Have you ever gotten that let-down feeling when setbacks pop up and reality creeps in? I think everyone has had to grapple with this dilemma on some level, and it’s no fun, but it’s necessary. Neta Jackson’s book, Come To the Table deals with all this and more. The continuation of her previous book, Stand By Me (read my review here), Come To the Table shows the pitfalls of misplaced passion and the joys of learning how to really help people where they need it. What ties it all together is food.
It’s still summertime. Kat, Nick, and Bree are still living in the three-flat they’ve sublet for the summer. Here’s a spoiler alert from Stand By Me: Avis Douglass’s daughter, Rochelle and her son, Conny have joined them. The place is a little crowded; in fact, Nick has taken over the flat’s study as a bedroom. Things are crowded in other ways, too, as Rochelle and Kat are both developing feelings for Nick, who is in love with Kat and trying to get up his nerve to do something about it. Nick also has been installed as a pastoral intern at SouledOut Community Church, which is quite an adjustment. Not only that, but the housemates are trying to work around living with Rochelle’s having HIV, especially Kat, who is unsure how to bring up her concerns.
Speaking of Kat, she still gets bent out of shape at seeing kids eat unhealthy food, and thinks it’s her mission in life to educate low-income people about nutrition. Her first idea is to join forces with Edesa Baxter, who has a degree in public health, to see if they can start a class at Manna House, the local shelter. Edesa balks, because she can tell Kat doesn’t have a clue as to the practicalities of their neighborhood, and her first idea is to have Kat join her in observing a class teaching women how to food shop.
Kat’s first bit of reality comes when she sees how far away the nearest grocery store is, even when traveling on the El. When they do finally reach a store, the group has to load carts with groceries for three meals so they can see what good choices look like and how to get the most for their money. While the rest of the women pick out waffles, frozen pizza and bags of chips, Kat fills her cart with ultra-healthy offerings like bagged spinach, olive oil, black beans, and muesli. While this is all well and good, Kat is advised that what she has chosen is out of reach for some people–packaging adds to costs, and it’s better to shop the sales. Kat is miffed, but there’s not much she can say.
Her next bit of waking up happens at a Bible study Edesa gives at the shelter, and they study the passage in Matthew on Jesus feeding the five thousand. What sticks out for Kat is when Jesus tells His disciples, “You feed them.” Further enlightenment comes when Kat, Bree, Nick, and Rochelle volunteer at Rock of Ages Food Pantry, where they see a variety of people in need–everyone from the destitute who show up in socks but no shoes to characters like Lady Lolla, who wears a slinky white dress and costume jewelry. That’s when Kat starts thinking: Maybe it’s not so much about educating the public on nutrition, as if she’s making a present of her knowledge, but of feeding them. Kat being Kat, she gets so hepped up on the idea of feeding people that she doesn’t care if she can only feed them peanut butter and jelly.
Kat’s not the only one who gets the spotlight in Come To the Table; Nick has quite a lengthy storyline himself. He has to juggle his internship, plus a part-time job at Peter Douglass’s software firm, Software Symphony, and he understandably feels a little overwhelmed. Everything he’s been training for at college and in seminary is starting to get real, and he wonders how he can make it. Fortunately, Nick has excellent mentors in Pastor Cobb and the Douglasses, which help ease his mind some. He still has to deal with unfortunate remarks on the part of a very small minority in the congregation, who are glad there’s at least one white person on the staff of SouledOut. Fortunately, these rumblings stay very low, as SouledOut seems to be a healthy church.
Nick has bigger worries than his internship, though. As his love for Kat grows, the apartment starts feeling smaller and smaller, and he begins to have qualms about being housemates with a girl he wants to date. People at SouledOut are a little concerned that he’s sharing an apartment with three eligible young ladies, even though things are very innocent and above board. Nick wants to avoid any appearance of evil, i.e., shacking up, and his out comes when the Douglasses take a two-week trip to South Africa and ask him to house-sit. Their apartment is only one floor up, obviously, but it does the trick as far as separation goes.
The move upstairs has other benefits. Conny, Rochelle’s son, feels very attached to Nick. Conny wants Nick to read to him every night, and makes a beeline for him whenever he sees him. It’s not surprising, because kids need stable male figures, and in a house full of women, Conny wants to be with the one other guy. Conny’s attachment starts to get a bit out of hand. In fact, he talks about Nick so much to his dad, Dexter, that Dexter shows up at the three-flat one night when Nick is baby-sitting Conny and beats Nick up. Rochelle storms at Dexter and tells him she can be with anyone she wants, which drives Nick to finally come clean about being in love with Kat. So, the timing of the move is indeed fortuitous. Nick still joins his former housemates for meals and helps with the rent, but for all intents and purposes, he’s outta there, and he and Kat couldn’t be happier that they can finally start dating.
Come To the Table is paced in a more leisurely way than Stand By Me. There are plenty of breaks from all the intrigue; it seemed like the characters were always packing picnics and riding the El to the beach or to concerts in the park, and it’s a relief. It’s nice that these characters get chances to unwind and have fun. There’s also a surprise pregnancy (not Nick and Kat, though) and a visit with the whole Yada Yada Prayer Group, and for those who are familiar with the original Yada Yada series, it’s a nice little reunion. I may be a wee bit biased because I like these books, but Neta Jackson does it again. It’ll be fun to see where she takes these characters if she ends up developing them some more.