This column was published on UPI’s Religion and spirituality Forum on July 23, 2007.
If book sales can be trusted as an indicator of the American mood, then Americans are starting to care deeply about food. In 2006, Michael Pollan’s definitive tome on good eating, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a runaway best seller; since its recent publication, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver’s gastronomic musings of a year’s worth of local eating, has spent eleven weeks (and counting) on the New York Times’ best seller list.
The economic impact of the newfound American obsession with food goes beyond our reading habits. The UDSA reports that the number of farmer’s markets has grown by more than 100 percent over the last ten years. Whole Foods, an international supermarket chain specializing in what Michael Pollan calls “industrial organic” food is a booming success, and the Disney/Pixar film “Ratatouille” cooked up for its creators nearly 50 million dollars in profit over the course of its debut weekend.
What is missing in America’s foodie mood is a strong articulation of why eating well should matter to people of faith. At every level—from the farm to the large intestine—the food we eat is infused with spiritual and theological meaning, and the integration of food and spirituality is something that, as far as I can tell, is integral to all religious traditions.
While looking for directions to a meeting at a local synagogue, I stumbled across these words on the congregation’s website: “We’re Jewish, so there will be noshes.” I was on my way to attend a gathering of the Jewish/Presbyterian dialogue group to which I belong. We have been meeting for nearly three years, and the commonality of food—the noshes—is part of what has enabled the dialogue to continue. When our group of Jewish and Presbyterian leaders gathers for discussion, the conversation usually turns to our disagreements on matters of war and peace in the Holy Land—a weighty and emotional topic in the best of circumstances—and many is the time we’ve taken a break from our arguments about separation barriers, settlements, economic sanctions and the right of return, to talk about food. From descriptions of the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi cuisine to the story of a legendary church pot luck, where my mother’s rice pudding melted the heart of a particularly gruff and grouchy member of the congregation, these retreats into the world of food have had a restorative effect on our ability to continue in conversation.
Food matters to people of faith, and because food is so important to us, religious people should be on the cutting edge of the growing American concern for food, not just enjoying the taste of food in a religious context, but caring passionately about how food arrives at our tables. There is an inherent connection between faith and the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, and in many ways, the industrial food chain that dictates how most Americans eat is antithetical to the food values of every religious tradition worth its salt of the earth.
Industrialized food relies upon the manipulation of heavily subsidized corn and soy, whose production levies a heavy tax on the earth’s ability to grow healthy crops. The distribution of such foods requires great quantities of fossil fuels, extensive packaging and advertising, all of which are hard on the environment and remove the consumer from a knowledge of how the Creator has endowed the earth with the miraculous ability to produce food for our bodies and for our souls. Whereas God has made the earth to produce food in great variety, the purveyors of industrial food would have everyone eating a uniform diet, entirely produced, packaged, and distributed by the industry itself.
Industrial food, in short, alienates us from God, and that should be a matter of deep concern for people of faith.
As a Christian this matters to me. I am part of a faith tradition that uses a meal—the Eucharist—as the central metaphor for God’s grace, and in my life the religion of the table crosses over from church to home. Both as a child and as an adult, dinnertime has been the most religious time in the life of my family. The table is the only place where my family prays together. It is the principle place of family togetherness, our time of fellowship and the symbol of our unity. The food I buy should honor the table, the family, and God who provides it.
Of course, this is true not just in Christian homes. I recently had the pleasure of being one of only a few Christian guests at a large gathering in a Muslim home. There was food, of course, lots of it, spread buffet-style down a table that could have accommodated several barbershop quartets. I came to the table as I have come to many tables set for large gatherings of religious folk, serving myself as if at a Protestant pot luck, taking small servings of each dish in order to fit something of everything on my plate. Suddenly, someone was scooping huge spoonfuls of tabouleh onto the center of my paper plate. “You are in a Muslim home,” I was told. “You will not go away hungry.”
And I didn’t. God is great.
There is a lot about which religious people disagree, but we all want to eat well together, and we all want to feed God’s hungry children. We all want to see God’s creation conserved for the sake of future generations. So let’s talk about food. And let’s eat.