New Orleans, LA. “What’s the point? It’s all just going to the toilet.” That’s what a friend—a highly competent, multi-lingual, musical friend—said when discussing fine dining. No one had ever put it that baldly, that crassly, to me. It would have been easy to dismiss the thought, had he not been what most would call ‘cultured.’ I knew I disagreed, but at the time, I didn’t know why or to what extent.
His position on food was rather easy to categorize: instrumental. We eat because we have to. Once all the caloric energy is harvested, all that’s unproductive is moved to sanitation services. Such a boxing in of life’s necessity to, well, necessity, appeared to be reductio ad absurdum.
Culture at large treats food as a mere tool for living. We are (or become) obsessed about not being obese. Pant size and pounds must decrease for self-esteem to increase. Pills, concoctions, faddish dietary experiments promise what evidently every other thing couldn’t deliver: a euphoric state of thinness.
Furthermore, we are fanatic about just how fast and convenient our consumption can be. We want it, and we want it now.
As it is with many other tools, our culture is obsessed with optimizing food and making it one more way of expressing our preferences and identity. Food becomes a way to live the good life, at least as it’s conceived in our cultural imagination. This imagination, however, can be excavated. The incessant food commercials offer us one site to dig.
It’s plain to see we so badly want to look the way people want us to look. We juice. We order pre-portioned, pre-cooked meals in plastic containers. We apparently need former professional athletes or current ‘influencers’ to tell us what to do.
One troubling sign of our incompetence shows up on packaging and menus. Federal organizations require food distributors to display the ingredients and health statistics. But such enumeration of calories serves only a portion of society. These might be the Peloton people and the dieting determined. This reinforces the idea that food serves our self image more than anything.
Fast-food adverts aver that my life will be full and happy if only I purchase a low-priced, highly unhealthy piece of meat with various fried starches. Some even wish to convince me that I need to add a meal, perhaps in-between breakfast and lunch, maybe after dinner. They call out that I, the master, the king, can choose my combo. “What creative opportunities of consequence lie at my feet,” these elaborate commercials convince me to think.
How might a Christian imagination renarrate our relation to food? Some of the answers are easy. For one, a Christian posture toward food begins in gratitude. You can voice a prayer about how grateful you are for the food that sits before you. Saying thanks prior to eating can center the event of eating on the Creator and Sustainer of life.
While we can make such pronouncements trite, they are not necessarily so. My own family has recently been reading and praying through various liturgical prayers and poems (modern and ancient). This has been an insightful and grounding experience, reminding us of God as Giver and us as Receiver. We learn to ask for food, daily. We want, in a gracious habit, to express our gratitude for answering that daily prayer. Yet giving thanks does not exhaust the connection between God and food. In fact, I think it’s only the beginning.
With some reflection, we may say that ‘God is in everything,’ and this is perhaps especially true of food. This theological fact is missed by many, even among the organic aficionados, because, for one, we neither cook nor grow food regularly. On the latter, only some thirty percent of Americans garden. This is nearly doubled by Brits. For my fellow-Americans, we may confidently say that part of the divide between God and food is the grocery store.
We break down this false barrier when we put our hands in the dirt and work to grow food. The connection between food and work comes up early in the Christian Scriptures. The ancient texts demonstrate that God is the Maker of all things. Most noticeable for our purposes is that this includes plants and animals. And part of the commission that God gives human is to work and shape the land and its lives. When we give up this work and become mere passive consumers, the chain of being is broken.
The farmer, however, has the opportunity to restore this chain. The farmer, and here I think of my father and grandfather, does his work in the proper time for the proper season.
Crucial to his work, and to the practice of gratitude, is the acceptance of the weather. This may seem off the point; it is not. Many professions have to plan and react to various changes in their business. So too the farmer. The difference is that the farmer can anticipate and plan only so far, and knowingly so. Most of the time, he simply must react.
When a young crop of flowers was growing in February and an unexpected freeze rolled in, my father, not trusting his mechanized heaters for the greenhouses, would rise and check the crop every few hours in the night. For him, it was not a particularly fussy event. This is the weather we have, now respond. There is a certain humility and temperance there.
The land gives and the land takes away. The farmer, by habit, is more inclined to trust God than the rest of us. The reason is simple: dependence. If there’s a drought, human sourced water can do only so much. If there’s a freeze, skills and machinery give but a little security. If there’s a flood, dams are temporary.
The farmer does not struggle for place or position in the world either. She understands her small place in a grand landscape. Work the land, serve it, the community, and God. There is no confusion where food comes from for these people: the land is food’s source, not a store. There is also no ambiguity regarding from whom it comes. God is in food, because He is the Maker, the Provider, even for those, the farmers, that we typically think of as such. This, nevertheless, remains opaque to many of us who are removed from the land.
Most churches in my tradition celebrate Communion, or the Lord’s Supper only once a quarter. I’ve never heard a good reason why. That is, why so infrequently? One recurring answer is they don’t want the event to feel stale, rote. I’ve been entirely too lazy to search for a better historical answer for such limitations. Yet taking the received answer at face value, I cannot help but be embarrassed.
No portion of the life of church is treated that way, except Communion. Our Bible reading, preaching, praying, financial giving, and so on, these should be done weekly, if not daily, I’m told. And even when we do celebrate Communion, the bread and wine are but wafer and juice. The idea that my mind should reside on the body and blood via something so cheap and manufactured is, at best, absurd.
Communion fundamentally comes to us in food. This intersection of food and the worship of God is by no means novel. The Lord’s Supper itself harks back to the Passover, the great celebration of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery and oppression. The food of the Passover meant, and means, something. It wasn’t ad hoc. It wasn’t convenient. And it certainly wasn’t for vanity. Food was purposefully part and parcel of worship.
Our plastic wrapped Communion wafer gives us away. Its utter convenience effaces our religiosity. It is no wonder then that Christians have an obsessive and image-driven view of food. God is not seen in food—not even in our churches.
If I accept the consumerist, utilitarian view of food and life, then I agree to inane busyness. My prime concern becomes developing my children into highly skilled savants. To achieve this my days and nights must be full. Practices, classes, pre-tests, and all the necessary extra-curriculars (what an entirely ridiculous idea) require a driver. This American dream, whether we recognize it or not, actually entails a vision of food.
When life is pressed to the limits of time management, it is improbable, if not impossible, to grow or even cook food. The chauffer sits at the mercy of the drive-thru. Even if this adult cabbie finagles a semi-healthy dinner on the road, it is still—on the road. Most likely with the kids in the back, tapping on their mini-computers, taking bites in between scrolls. The driver scarfs down dinner while attempting not to wreck a shiny SUV and somehow simultaneously listening to NPR on the radio and glancing at text messages. No discussion is had. No chat has occurred. Food is just a quick and necessary instrument to fuel a frenetic lifestyle.
What is lost here is food in the service of communion. In this sense, I’m not referring to the celebratory and reflective event within the church community. Here I mean communion with one another through conversation.
As anecdotal as it is true, food opens people up. Sit a disgruntled, irritated, and overly-busy person down to a properly set table with carefully prepared foods overflowing with flavor (I may, or may not, have been one such person). See then if they will not only change their mood, but actually lower their defenses and be open to relating to other persons–as persons–around the table.
The Scriptures make it clear that humans should not be alone. Whether it’s Adam and Eve, the community of Israel, or the setting of New Testament churches, the plurality proves vital. And it is food that draws us together in a centering way to share our lives in significant and habituated rhythms.
Our dinner table has seen its fair share of celebrations and sadness. There are candles, flowers, books, and always delicious foods to be had. At any event, be it a birthday, Easter, or Remembrance Day, those around our table discuss the occasion and our thoughts thereof. Whether it’s Lentil Dahl, Moroccan Lemon-Tomato Chicken, or Brined Chicken and Veg, our table is life-giving, in various senses of the phrase.
In difficult times, more than one woman has sat across from my wife and discussed the topic of an imminent divorce. Tissues, coffee, and cookies are all necessary for such nights. My kind, empathetic, wise partner listens and counsels. God is in those burden-bearing moments. But those times come about more easily, more profoundly, with food. Of course, someone could pass over the theology of such an activity, but that would be a myopic view.
Lest my argument be deemed antiquated, I want to make it plain that living in the countryside and eating solely off the land is not the exclusive way to observe God in food. Nor will it be an attainable vision for most of us. I myself am now an urbanite. I suspect, as a professor, this will be so for the rest of my working life. Before I make some observations for my fellow urban dwellers, however, let me state my agreement with the wise agrarian, Wendell Berry, who writes “our bodies live by farming; we come from earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh.” Or put less eloquently, let’s not fool ourselves that we’re somehow divorced from land and farming, wherever we might live.
To begin a more city-centered thought on food and God, I’d like to claim there is a time and place for take-out. While this might seem the height of triviality, I find that it’s essential to understanding our topic. In picking-up prepared proteins and produce, the key, as I see it, is timing. Even for so-called fast-food, a family can still practice a theology of food. To do so, planning and protection are vital. By that I mean that the choice of quick take-out should not be a reaction to pure boredom or busyness. Even these meals should be accompanied by conversation from family, friends, and anyone in between.
My personal lack of success at times does not disprove the validity of these principles. Food can be secured, served, and savored as a centerpiece for family happenings. When we do so, God is very much in the food.
After a recent night of my son’s favorite burger place, In-N-Out, I put the experience to poetry, titled ‘Everydayness’:
A night filled with tabled food and joy.
Happiness expressed through closed eyes.
A four-year old’s elation.
Beef, salted pork, bread.
Crispy starch and pressed tomatoes.
Unadorned, white wrapping is our plate.
Smiles, love, and conversation,
With reflections from the day.
Some say ‘perfunctory’.
Some claim ‘unimportant’.
But my eyes have seen.
My tongue has tasted.
This is everyday glory.
This is the goodness:
Food with family chatting.
We didn’t eat to be full.
We ate to enjoy—
Enjoy our meal and each other.
Instrumental, yes. But the burgers and fries did more for my family than give us caloric fuel. And this leads to another key feature in recognizing God in food—taste.
As a kid, I was known far and wide as ‘picky.’ Chicken fingers and peanut butter sandwiches kept me alive. This, I should say, was in a context where my aunt and grandmother were just steps away in their respective houses and known throughout our rural community for their cooking and baking. My opportunities were wide, but my choice narrow.
Thankfully, things have changed a lot over the years. There’s hardly any genre that I won’t try. Of course I have my favorites, but I can navigate Thai, Texas BBQ, German cuisine, curry, seafood, and more. These selections we’ve made available for our son, Amos, too. He gets as excited about a burger as he does traditional Chinese food.
In our weekly rhythms, Amos and I go out on Saturday morning for treats. This gives my wife a quiet house and the chance for me to enjoy some local goodies and conversations with my son. Over the last few months, he’s set his sights on doughnuts. Our city, like most, has a plethora of local doughnut shops. After one experience, I responded in poetry, titled ‘Saturday’:
Encrusted in sugar,
Round bits of dough,
His smothered in
Mine mapled cake.
We sit and delight.
Talk with a treat,
Are quick, but
Not at all small
They are Saturday,
Church on Sunday.
The goodness divine
Is taken and tasted
In treated taste
The treats themselves were delightful. In turn, he and I had such a satisfying time. What’s more, and to the point, that delight led to a delight in God himself. It was a physical analogy.
There were so many wrong impulses to hold at bay, however. Whether it was the guilt from having eaten a doughnut or the craving for more sugared dough to achieve that sweetened gluten rush, the delight had to be victorious over these dangers.
Here is where even a prayer for thanksgiving comes up short. Certainly, my son and I were grateful for the doughnuts. That, however, is not the real issue; we enjoyed them. Those moments, when I’m actually aware, prompt me to consider my affections for my God. Those moments lift my eyes off myself in a deeply important way. But critically, my sight moves upward not in spite of myself. It’s my gratification in a well-crafted circle of dough that reverberates in theological activity.
Years ago my wife, on her own volition, wanted to bake for the first graduate class I taught. I suspect it was to brighten their course that was filled with difficult exams and lectures that were. . . , well, let’s just say, in the development stage. After all, I was a young, inexperienced adjunct still working through my PhD program.
In that season, a tradition was born. Every exam for every class would have something baked by Emily. Years later she has continued this. The students, without fail, praise her baking and note their gratitude. They love it. My colleagues, less so.
What began as sporadic comments of jest developed into full-fledged critiques of my teaching. My (then) peers stated in no uncertain terms that I was hoping to ‘butter up the kids’ (that is, my undergrad and grad students). They explained that these students would rate my course and teaching at the end of the semester. Such baking would surely result in a higher score and thus better evaluation from my dean.
At first, I rolled my eyes. I thought, “This is what Emily wants to do, what difference is it to you?” Over the years, I landed somewhere between irate and irritated. I realized these fellow faculty, even though they teach the opposite, were actually imbibing the idea that students are merely brains on a stick.
Now, having a quick retort at the ready, I state “Full brains, full bodies.” Colleagues in turn roll their eyes but usually don’t usher forth any further unsolicited opinion. That said, I understand clearly now, more than ever, that food connects with mind, body, and God.
Moments prior to students taking their exams, I state the examination is not a marking up of their self-worth. Furthermore (at our institution where women and men receive theological education), I explain that we do all as unto the Lord. That is, even our test taking is an act of worship. This information usually arrives in their minds as news, but after a month or so, they begin to see the implications of my theological observation.
In such a setting, I have to wonder, is not food absolutely essential? These students have given their all to write, discuss, and translate what is needed for my course, but most important for the glory of their God. So why would they not celebrate with a homemade lemon cake? While here is not the place to put forth my full philosophy of education, I consider it better that ‘testing’ should be conceived as a ‘Celebration of Learning.’ And celebration, to my mind, is inseparable from food. Moreover, could not the perfect mixture of flour and sugar lift the students’ eyes and cause them to consider more carefully what it is they have just done and why?
Food is not god. It is not the god of strength, the god of beauty, or the god of efficiency. As argued above, we’re prone to miss the fact that the living God is in food. Yet we suffer, the same as the ancients, from wanting to deify the concrete. To do so would be a rather blatant, although all too often practiced, form of idolatry. But again, the opposite of idolatry is not to view food as an instrument of bodily energy and future bodily waste. Nor is it simply to prompt the eater to give thanks prior to consumption.
Inside and outside the walls of church buildings, food draws us to God and one another. In various times and places, it can move us vertically to worship. Contra the clever pitches, food is not for beautification of the body (whatever this tends to mean in the current moment, be it anorexically thin and body-building brawn). Food itself is beauty. Its form, its smell, they draw us. The ancient Augustine reminds us that “God as the Beauty of all things beautiful.” The aroma and textured construction of food lead me not just to congratulate the cook or baker on a job well done. It becomes an argumentum a fortiori. How beautiful, how majestic, how creative must this God be? God is in food; it is His food. As we enjoy it, may we enjoy Him.
Donuts in New Orleans? Go get ye to a plate of beignets.
well done, thanks. Reminded me some of the movie Babette’s Feast. One of the seeds Merton used, if I remember correctly, was reading Bible verses and his advice was to read until you found a verse that resonated (and pity the man trying to paraphrase such a good writer). Anyway, to your post, a leaf of basil will do it for me sometimes. Talking with a young person in the kitchen while we prepared a meal, I was trying to communicate my wonder and gratitude that such a plant even existed on the planet. It could just as easily all taste like grass. We wouldn’t know any better.
Peters had a review of sorts of a book some years back… found it – https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2015/10/the-holy-earth-and-liberty-hyde-baileys-front-porch-cred/ there is a line in there that is important – well, more than one but in this instance, thinking of the leaf of basil between our fingers and thumb: “So “a useful contact with the earth places man not as superior to nature but as a superior intelligence working in nature as a conscious and therefore as a responsible part in a plan of evolution, which is a continuing creation”
since the basil will have been changed over time through seed selection.
Not only “The aroma and textured construction of food … become an argumentum a fortiori. How beautiful, how majestic, how creative must this God be? ” but also a role somehow for us. A hint towards, maybe. I don’t know.
Well said, Brian. Most of my comments were from my time in Texas. Now in Nola, beignets have been had. Too many? Possibly.
Thanks for sharing, Dave. Indeed, a hint.
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