Tasting God: A Spirituality of Food
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 6, 2002
If it is true that “We are what we eat”, as has been said, then some of us are in a heap of trouble.
Have you ever spied on the contents of the grocery cart of the person ahead of you at the checkout line at the grocery store, and, based upon what you saw, made snap judgments about that person’s morals, economic status, good taste, or even intelligence? Have you ever run into a friend at the grocery store and tried to hide what you have in your shopping cart? (Will they be able to trust me as their minister if they know I buy Doritos, I fret.)
But maybe, as one writer has out it, older people shouldn’t eat healthy foods—after all, we need all the preservatives we can get!
When we read that Americans spend fifteen billion dollars annually on snack foods, and then another (incredible) thirty-three billion dollars a year on weight-reduction products and services—things like “Lean Cuisine” dinners and Weight Watchers programs—we might wonder about our society’s tortured relationship with food.
The Surgeon General has just declared a national crusade against obesity. I wasn’t too concerned about Ashcroft coming to get me—but the Surgeon General, I may have to worry about! But in spite of this, and in spite of current economic setbacks, we are still an incredibly prosperous nation—yet the number of hungry people (including hungry children) in our society is on the increase again. Approximately four million children under the age of 12 experience crippling hunger each year; an additional 9.6 million are at risk for hunger. Remember then, if as Gandhi said, “God comes to the hungry in the form of food,” then, for those that are hungry there is no God, perhaps—just anger and despair and rage.
On the one hand, the economic powers that be continue to peddle their salt-and-sugar-laden soft drinks and snack treats and fast foods at us with all the ferocity that modern advertising can muster. On the other hand, the denizens of modern advertising present us with the “perfect” image we are called upon to attain: glamorous—healthy—and always (of course) pencil thin. (Is it any wonder, then, that severe problems are caused when young girls, especially, are bombarded by mixed messages like these—though they affect boys, too, I think; they impacts upon the psyches and sense of self-esteem of us all, really. Is it any wonder, then, that we have such a severe problem with anorexia and bulimia in our modern consumer society?)
And now, mealtimes in our society seem under assault as never before. Reports from the mid-1990s (and these trends have only increased since then) tell us that 60% of Americans eat at least one meal a day away from home—and among teenagers the rate is even higher. Only about one-third of America males report eating the evening meal at home all seven nights of the week. And when we do eat at home, those of you with children know how it’s almost impossible to get everyone to the table at the same time, how difficult it can be to find the time to go to the grocery store, cook a meal, and clean up afterwards. So, even when we do eat at home, it’s apt to be on the run, something pre-prepared or out of the freezer, or eaten in front of the television.
This pressure against mealtimes extends beyond the home, too. Is it just me (I don’t think so), or is the very act of inviting guests into one’s home for a meal rapidly becoming a thing of the past? I don’t know about you, but it just seems that we have people over for dinner a lot less often than we used to in the past. Pot luck suppers used to be common occurrences—especially in churches like ours—now they’re rarities. These days, the very act of sitting around a table together at a planned meal, sharing relaxed conversation and just being together, is a special event. It used to be a basic component of civic life. (And I’m not talking ancient history here, even if there is now a substantial amount of silver on the roof of the temple: Most of these changes I’ve just outlined—this “assault” on the dinner hour—date from well within the last ten years.)
I know that many of you would have liked to have come to our “Break Bread for Peace” gathering yesterday, but that you just couldn’t find the time. But if you didn’t come, you really missed something special, in my opinion-- special, because it was so simple, so elemental: A simple sharing of the most basic (and sustaining) foods—bread and soup; a simple sharing of our time and beings with one another; a simple sharing of our most basic aspirations for peace and friendship among all people.
This is the basic kind of connectedness for which we all yearn, more than ever. This yearning is the deepest hunger our society faces (and is even more prevalent than that hunger for food, which is, nonetheless, a national disgrace in a land as wealthy as ours).
But in spite of our society’s tortured relationship with food (and our own personal tortured relationships, perhaps), our food is still sacred, and every act of eating should be an act of worship. James Beard once wrote that “Food is our common ground, [our] universal experience,” and the noted food writer M.F.K. Fisher once noted that “Our three basic needs for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” Nearly all the major religions of the world have sacred rites that are acted out through the sharing of a common meal. Elaborate rules for providing care and hospitality—especially food—to guests and strangers are also part of most religions. The very act of eating is basic to life, of course: If we don’t eat, we die. The very act of sharing the fruits of Mother Earth is our direct, physical connection with the interdependent web of all existence. As Matthew Fox once said, when we drink our orange juice in the morning, we are taking in the elements of Creation—we are, in fact, drinking in the Big Bang-- drinking in that great primordial fireball which brought all life to birth.
It is a holy act, then, eating is. Or should be. And the act of eating together is, according to the sociologist Leon Cass, a deeply human act, basic to civilized behavior. Animals, Cass suggests, feed—but they do not participate in eating the way we humans do (but, it occurs to me, at least our cats get to eat at home everyday). It is said that when Confucius was asked whether it was enough merely to take care of one’s physical needs, he responded, “Even dogs and horses get fed.” According to Confucius—and to Cass—it is our human calling—if not our duty—to transform the act of obtaining nourishment into a ceremony of special significance. It was through the ritualization of the basic experiences of life, Confucius said, that we human ones distinguished ourselves from the other species of animals, and came to know or true dignity and worth.
This is a theme very close to the heart of the novel by Isak Dinesen (later made into a film), Babette’s Feast:
The story is set is the 1880s, and Babette, a woman approaching middle age, was once a renowned chef in Paris, something very unusual for a woman in that time. But in 1871, both her son and husband die tragically in the civil war that was then raging France. She flees her war-torn city and seeks refuge with two kindly old sisters in a small, isolated Norwegian village. The sisters are poor, but deeply religious, and they are trying with all their might to maintain the small religious community which their father, a brilliant minister, has established years before, but which is now in danger of dying out. They welcome Babette into their home, treat her kindly—but she is still basically a servant, a foreigner, an outsider.
A number of years after arriving in the village, Babette wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery—an amazing amount of money at the time—and asks the sisters for permission to prepare a special dinner for their small community, to mark the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. With some hesitation and with deeply mixed feelings, the sisters agree. But when all the wines and delicacies start arriving from France by ship, they begin to regret their decision, fearing that this great feast will lead to gluttony, and pilot the entire village directly to the Devil! And so, the members of the community decided secretly among themselves, that they will go to the feast, our of deference to Babette and to honor the memory of their founder—but that they will pay no attention at all to the food and drink that is placed before them; that to them, it will be just like bread and water, nothing more.
On the day of the feast, a guest arrives—a nephew of one of the villages, a general in the army, a very worldly, well-traveled sort. Of course, he is invited to the feast as well. As a young man, the General had been smitten but one of the sisters, but he realized that her dedication to her father and their religion left no room for a suitor. It also happens that in the course of his military travels, he had gone to Paris, and had eaten in the restaurant where Babette was chef. As the meal progresses, the General recognizes some of the dishes as being very special indeed, with ingredients and wines that only a wealthy person could afford:
“Incredible!” he told himself. “It is Blinis Demidoff!” He looked round at his fellow-diners. They were all quietly eating their Blinis Demidoff, without any sign of surprise or approval, as if they had been doing so everyday for thirty years…”
When a later course was served, the General turned to his neighbor on the left, an old man, and said to him: “But this is Cailles en Sarcophage!” The neighbor looked at him absent-mindedly, then nodded his head, and answered, “Yes, yes certainly. What else would it be?”
Try as he might, the General cannot get his guests to recognize the extraordinariness of the meal they are being served. But on a deeper level, they are themselves aware—not because of the food so much, as because of the experience of sharing it. Dineson writes: “Most often the people in [the village] during the course of a good meal would come to feel a little heavy. Tonight it was not so. The convives grew lighter in weight and lighter of heart the more they ate and drank.” Toward the end of the meal, the General rises to make a speech and finds himself, to his own surprise, talking not about the food, but about God’s grace. Grace, he asserts, which we assume to be finite and so scarce, is in effect, infinite when we share it with one another, and that the things which really matter in life—those things we truly love—never die.
That grace is, truly, at the heart of Babette’s feast: all of those present rediscover something that they had thought they had lost forever. Because of the lottery winnings, Babette is able to practice her artistry one more time; the General realizes that his love for the sister was not in vain and was never lost; and the members of the community, who had been bickering and at each other’s throats for years, discover the power of reconciliation and the love and hope that had brought them together in the first place.
All because they had shared a feast together—a feast not so much of food, really, but of love.
“All the food you cook must be made with love,” the old Grandmother tells her granddaughter Tita in Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. For those who eat your cooking will taste the emotion you bring to it: If you are sad when you cook, they will taste your tears; if you are happy, they will taste your love. So, most of all, the wise old Grandmother says, bring love to your cooking, to your meals.
Or, as Beethoven once said: “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
We are what we eat. But we are how we eat, too. And if we eat all of our meals on the run, in the care, slapdash, hurry from one place to another—then what does that tell us about our souls? On the other hand, we can eat the most healthy food in the world, but if we do so without thanksgiving for the Hand of Life which brought it to us—thanksgiving for the living creatures sacrificed that we might live—then they died in vain. We have the healthiest, most wholesome macrobiotic diet possible—but if we eat without joy—without wondrous amazement at the miracles of creation that brought these precious gifts of the Earth to us—without full engagement of our sense and our bodies—then we spite the very Creator of life from whom all blessings flow.
What use is nourishment if our sense of “duty” sucks all joy—and all taste—from it? “Face it,” said the actor Robert Redford, “health food may be better for our consciences, but Oreos taste a hell of a lot better!” Food isn’t just about nourishment—it’s about joy and just plain old fun, too. It’s about feeding the senses—opening them up wide-- and not taming them. Do we “eat to live” or do we “live to eat”? Why does it have to be an either/or? Why can’t it be both? It is both, it seems to me, if we are living our lives fully, and expectantly, and joyfully.
As Suzelle Lynch has written: “Food is a gift that nourishes and sustains our bodily lives, and, if we will eat it with awareness—first offering our thanks for it, then opening our senses and savoring it, eating slowly and appreciatively, and being present also to whose with whom we share our meal—if we can begin to eat with awareness, I believe we can begin to heal and grow our spirits, and move outward into our world to create lasting change that will improve the lives of others, and [help to heal] our planet.”
Every meal can be a holy ritual. In every morsel, we can taste a bit of God’s love and Life’s deeper joy.
So, Bon Appetit! my friends. Guttes essen! Blessed be. Amen.