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Dr. King’s Refrigerator

Looking for a late-night snack, the young Martin Luther King, Jr., discovers instead the truth of interdependence.

Illustration by Andre Slob

Beings exist from food. — Bhagavad-Gita, Book 3, Chapter 14

In September, the year of Our Lord 1954, a gifted young minister from Atlanta named Martin Luther King, Jr., accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was 25 years old, and in the language of the Academy, he took his first job when he was ABD at Boston University’s School of Theology—All But Dissertation—which is a common and necessary practice for scholars who have completed their course work and have families to feed. If you are offered a job when still in graduate school, you snatch it, and, if all goes well, you finish the thesis that first year of your employment when you are in the thick of things, trying mightily to prove—in Martin’s case—to the staid, high-toned laity at Dexter that you really are worth the $4,800 salary they are paying you. He had, by the way, the highest- paying job of any minister in the city of Montgomery, and the expectations for his daily performance—as pastor, husband, community leader, and son of Daddy King—were equally high.

But what few people tell the eager ABD is how completing the doctorate from a distance means wall-to-wall work. There were always meetings with the local NAACP, ministers’ organizations, and church committees; or, failing that, the budget and treasury to balance; or, failing that, the sick to visit in their homes, the ordination of deacons to preside over, and a new sermon to write every week. During that first year away from Boston, he delivered forty-six sermons to his congregation, and twenty sermons and lectures at other colleges and churches in the South. And, dutifully, he got up every morning at five-thirty to spend three hours composing the dissertation in his parsonage, a white frame house with a railed-in front porch and two oak trees in the yard, after which he devoted another three hours to it late at night, in addition to spending sixteen hours each week on his Sunday sermons.

On the Wednesday night of December first, exactly one year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, and after a long day of meetings and writing memos and letters, he sat entrenched behind a rolltop desk in his cluttered den at five minutes past midnight, smoking cigarettes and drinking black coffee, wearing an old fisherman’s knit sweater, his desk barricaded in by books and piles of paperwork. Naturally, his in-progress dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” was itching at the edge of his mind, but what he really needed this night was a theme for his sermon on Sunday. Usually, by Tuesday Martin had at least a sketch, by Wednesday he had his research and citations—which ranged freely over five thousand years of Eastern and Western philosophy—compiled on note cards, and by Friday he was writing his text on a pad of lined yellow paper. Put bluntly, he was two days behind schedule.

A few rooms away, his wife was sleeping under a blue cor- duroy bedspread. For an instant he thought of giving up work for the night and climbing into sheets warmed by her body, curling up beside this beautiful and very understanding woman, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, who had sacrificed her career back East in order to follow him into the Deep South. He remembered their wedding night on June eighteenth a year ago in Perry County, Alabama, and how the insanity of segregation meant he and his new bride could not stay in a hotel operated by whites. Instead, they spent their wedding night at a black funeral home and had no honeymoon at all. Yes, he probably should join her in their bedroom. He wondered if she resented how his academic and theological duties took him away from her and their home (many an ABD’s marriage ended before the dissertation was done)— work like that infernal unwritten sermon, which hung over his head like the sword of Damocles.

Weary, feeling guilty, he pushed back from his desk, stretched out his stiff spine, and decided to get a midnight snack.

Now he knew he shouldn’t do that, of course. He often told friends that food was his greatest weakness. His ideal weight in college was 150 pounds, and he was aware that, at 5 feet, 7 inches tall, he should not eat between meals. His bantam weight ballooned easily. Moreover, he’d read somewhere that the average American will in his (or her) lifetime eat sixty thousand pounds of food. To Martin’s ethical way of thinking, consuming that much tonnage was downright obscene, given the fact that there was so much famine and poverty throughout the rest of the world. He made himself a promise—a small prayer—to eat just a little, only enough tonight to replenish his tissues.

He made his way cautiously through the dark, seven-room house, his footsteps echoing on the hardwood floors as if he was in a swimming pool, scuffing from the smoke-filled den to the living room, where he circled around the baby grand piano his wife practiced on for church recitals, then past her choices in decoration—two African masks on one wall and West Indian gourds on the mantel above the fireplace—to the kitchen. There, he clicked on the overhead light, then drew open the door to the refrigerator.

Scratching his stomach, he gazed—and gazed—at four well-stocked shelves of food. He saw a Florida grapefruit and a California orange. On one of the middle shelves he saw corn and squash, both native to North America, and introduced by Indians to Europe in the fifteenth century through Columbus. To the right of that, his eyes tracked bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England, and a half-eaten Mexican tortilla. Martin took a step back, cocking his head to one side, less hungry now than curious about what his wife had found at a public market, and stacked inside their refrigerator without telling him.

He began to empty the refrigerator and heavily packed food cabinets, placing everything on the table and kitchen counter and, when those were filled, on the flower-printed linoleum floor, taking things out slowly at first, his eyes squinted, scrutinizing each item like an old woman on a fixed budget at the bargain table in a grocery store. Then he worked quickly, bewitched, chuckling to himself as he tore apart his wife’s tidy, well-scrubbed, Christian kitchen. He removed all the berylline olives from a thick glass jar and held each one up to the light, as if perhaps he’d never really seen an olive before, or seen one so clearly. Of one thing he was sure: No two olives were the same. Within fifteen minutes Martin stood surrounded by a galaxy of food.

From one corner of the kitchen floor to the other, there were popular American items such as pumpkin pie and hot dogs, but also heavy, sour-sweet dishes like German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice, one of the staples of the Far East, all sorts of spices, and the macaroni, spaghetti, and ravioli favored by Italians. There were bricks of cheese and wine from French vineyards, coffee from Brazil, and from China and India black and green teas that probably had been carried from fields to faraway markets on the heads of women, or the backs of donkeys, horses, and mules. All of human culture, history, and civilization laid unscrolled at his feet, and he had only to step into his kitchen to discover it. No one people or tribe, living in one place on this planet, could produce the endless riches for the palate that he’d just pulled from his refrigerator. He looked around the disheveled room, and he saw in each succulent fruit, each slice of bread, and each grain of rice a fragile, inescapable network of mutuality in which all earthly creatures were codependent, integrated, and tied in a single garment of destiny. He recalled Exodus 25:30, and realized that all this before him was showbread. From the floor Martin picked up a Golden Delicious apple, took a bite from it, and instantly prehended the haze of heat from summers past, the roots of the tree from which the fruit had been taken, the cycles of sun and rain and seasons, the earth, and even those who tended the orchard. Then he slowly put the apple down, feeling not so much hunger now as a profound indebtedness and thanksgiving—to everyone and everything in Creation. For was not he too the product of infinite causes and the full, miraculous orchestration of Being stretching back to the beginning of time?

At that moment his wife came into the disaster area that was their kitchen, half asleep, wearing blue slippers and an old housecoat over her nightgown. When she saw what her philosopher husband had done, she said, Oh! And promptly disappeared from the room. A moment later she was back, having composed herself and put on her glasses, but her voice was barely above a whisper:

“Are you all right?”

“Of course, I am! I’ve never felt better!” he said. “The whole universe is inside our refrigerator!”

She blinked.

“Really? You don’t mean that, do you? Honey, have you been drinking? I’ve told you time and again that that orange juice and vodka you like so much isn’t good for you, and if anyone at church smells it on your breath—”

“If you must know, I was hard at work on my dissertation an hour ago. I didn’t drink a drop of anything—except coffee.”

“Well, that explains,” she said.

“No, you don’t understand! I was trying to write my speech for Sunday, but—but—I couldn’t think of anything, and I got hungry...”

She stared at the food heaped on the floor. “This hungry?”

“Well, no.” His mouth wobbled, and now he was no longer thinking about the metaphysics of food but, instead, of how the mess he’d made must look through her eyes. And, more important, how he must look through her eyes. “I think I’ve got my sermon, or at least something I might use later. It’s so obvious to me now!” He could tell by the tilt of her head and the twitching of her nose that she didn’t think any of this was obvious at all. “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.”

“Yes, dear.” She sighed. “I can see that, but what about my kitchen? You know I’m hosting the Ladies Prayer Circle today at eight o’clock. That’s seven hours from now. Please tell me you’re going to clean up everything before you go to bed.”

“But I have a sermon to write! What I’m saying—trying to say—is that whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly!” “Oh, yes, I’m sure all this is going to have a remarkable effect on the Ladies Prayer Circle—” “Sweetheart...” He held up a grapefruit and a head of lettuce, “I had a revelation tonight. Do you know how rare that is? Those things don’t come easy. Just ask Meister Eckhart or Martin Luther—you know Luther experienced enlightenment on the toilet, don’t you? Ministers only get maybe one or two revelations in a lifetime. But you made it possible for me to have a vision when I opened the refrigerator.” All at once, he had a discomfiting thought. “How much did you spend for groceries last week?”

“I bought extra things for the Ladies Prayer Circle,” she said. “Don’t ask how much and I won’t ask why you’ve turned the kitchen inside out.” Gracefully, like an angel, or the perfect wife in the Book of Proverbs, she stepped toward him over cans and containers, plates of leftovers and bowls of chili. She placed her hand on his cheek, like a mother might do with her gifted and exasperating child, a prodigy who had just torched his bedroom in a scientific experiment. Then she wrapped her arms around him, slipped her hands under his sweater, and gave him a good, long kiss—by the time they were finished, her glasses were fogged. Stepping back, she touched the tip of his nose with her finger, and turned to leave. “Don’t stay up too late,” she said. “Put everything back before it spoils. And come to bed—I’ll be waiting.”

Martin watched her leave and said, “Yes, dear,” still holding a very spiritually understood grapefruit in one hand and an ontologically clarified head of lettuce in the other. He started putting everything back on the shelves, deciding as he did so that while his sermon could wait until morning, his new wife definitely should not.