Whole foods, slow foods, back to the garden, back to the earth, come to the table, eat-pray-love, organic, green, natural, local, farm-fresh, grass fed, cage-free, food for Africa, food for China, food for Haiti, food for my starving children. And on the list goes. Food is ubiquitous today.
In her essay “Is Food the New Sex?“, Mary Eberstadt suggests that the tremendous excess of food in the West has raised our awareness of food and led a new and obsessive food culture. Food has become one of the modern modes of self-expression as both young and old make how and where they shop, cook, and eat a substantial part of self-definition. Meanwhile, our increased consciousness and excess of food are matched by our awareness of the shortage of food in the rest of the world. As food grows culturally fashionable, it is increasingly charged with political, social, and economic urgency.
The issues arising in this food craze are as diverse as they are controversial. Is organic better? Are processed foods and preservatives to blame for the rise of obesity, cancers, and allergies? Should animals be given more rights in their breeding, care, and slaughter? What are the social and ecological impacts of large industrial food conglomerates? How are these companies helping and hurting the fight against poverty and starvation in the third world?
However complicated the new food era may be—however trendy and politically divisive it may have become—its arrival is welcome, for it pressures us not only to wrestle with the issues themselves but, even more, to think in holistic ways about the relationships between the political, cultural, nutritional, and spiritual nature of food. Three lines of thought can help lead us in this more integrated direction.
Political meets popular culture
Food will, of course, dominate the popular and political horizon for decades to come, involving a rapidly growing number of governmental, corporate, and international bodies. The individual eater has a major role to play in this public scene too. Carlo Petrini, a renowned Italian food expert and founder of the Slow Food movement, says in his book Slow Food Nation that “our decision about what to buy and consume, in a world where everything is geared towards profit, is the first significant political act we are able to make in our lives.” Petrini understands the economic and political power we have in our daily activity at the market. Even if we cook and eat with social, nutritional, or even survival ends in mind, every stop at the checkout still shapes the future of the food industry.
Not stopping at the checkout line also shapes the industry and politics of food. Gardening is political and economic in this way, as it invests capital and labour in natural and local resources. It also makes a public statement about the way people relate to life and eating. And it signals that there will be some limits to what people will have imposed on them by the market. At the same time, gardening, as anthropologists and sociologists recognize, also plays an enormous role in physical and mental health, as well as in shaping self-understanding and notions of human purpose and identity.
No doubt many people are put off by the time, expense, and challenge of gardening, and composting offers an increasingly popular alternative. Like gardening, it involves our hands and bodies in the natural environment where we live. As it does, it puts us at the heart of a local, visible fertilizer industry that provides nutritionally balanced food for lawns, shrubs, or whatever grows around us.
Composting is perhaps overlooked for its role in the political and economic arena, yet it significantly reduces the quantity of household waste and, in turn, lightens our dependency on oil to fuel the trucks and machines that process that trash. And, in saving money we might spend on products like Miracle Grow and Scotts, it frees up resources which can then be reinvested in everything from savings and donations to gardening supplies, local foods, and trips to the farmers’ market.
While industrial food is here to stay, the emergence of local markets is a vital part of the food future. The average family meal travels 1500 miles (2500 km) from farm to table; we have all helped to build a food industry that consumes one fifth of all oil used today. Local markets provide an environmentally-friendly alternative. They also put us face-to-face with our food and the people who produce it, leading to the growth of communities who share their knowledge, gifts, and needs.
Culture meets human identity
Our holistic thinking must also attend to food beneath and behind this public face, for food informs and shapes every dimension of life. Consider just the human significance of eating. Each day, our food reminds us that we are creatures, made to be dependent and hard working. Jesus’ command to pray “give us our daily bread” calls us to remember our dependency upon the giver of good gifts. Food teaches us to be attentive to beauty and invites us to become creatures of pleasure and delight.
Food is also our most basic cultural commodity—contrary to those who argue that language plays such a role. Without language it is hard to nurture, create, and provide for more culture; without food, it is impossible.
Eating is the most natural cultural context for relating to people, not only in the joy of friendly gatherings but also in generosity to the outsider. Jesus ate with tax gatherers and sinners as a sign of cultural acceptance. In The Hungry Soul, Leon Kass insightfully argues that “it is the vulnerable stranger who reminds us of providence, who makes us acutely aware of our own (relative) blessedness, who inspires us, in gratitude, to imitate and improve on nature’s beneficence with our own gracious deeds of hospitality.” The presence of food transforms both guest and host.
Food thus allows us to gather and share our ideas and stories. But even when we lack a common language, we can still cross cultural barriers with food. The tradition of international State Dinners is no accident, growing out of the need to drop our guard, cross unfamiliar boundaries, and enter a welcoming context for diplomacy.
Finally, food is the most formative means to enhance family, cultural, religious, and national memory. Carlo Petrini points to the strong scientific evidence that “the gustatory-olfactory memory [is] the most persistent kind of memory in all human beings: there are flavors and smells that take us straight back to periods of our life that we had forgotten.” Aesthetic presentation and methods of serving also become agents of tradition. Whether it’s the lamb at Passover, the turkey at Thanksgiving, or the BBQ in summer, food rituals restore our sense of familiarity, belonging, and permanence in the midst of a changing life and world.
Food meets God
Along with the political, social, artistic, aesthetic, and communal nature of food, we must develop an appreciation for the spiritual implications of food. Food is a gift, a mystery, a delight, and always an experience of the divine.
Christianity celebrates the food-laden rituals of the Old Testament as they come to their full maturity in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper: harvested wheat of the field gathered like the people of the church into one mysteriously inhabited body; wine, patiently fermented from ripe grapes to become the life and blood of Jesus for his people. The Book of Common Prayer glories in the metaphorical power of this experience: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” In eating his body we become his body. In Rituals of Dinner, Margeret Visser rightly says that this meal
spans all of the meanings of eating at once—from cannibalism to vegetarianism, from complete fusion of the group to utterly individual satisfaction, from the breaking of the most fearful of taboos to the gentlest and most comforting restoration. All this and more is contained, expressed and controlled by ritual: dramatic movement and structure, song, costume, poetry, incense, gesture, and interaction; every one of the five sense is employed in the service of mystical experience.
The symbols and traditional prayers in this meal lead us to reenact and affirm the foundational truths of our faith. We remember that we are creatures of sin and rebellion. We proclaim Jesus as our Savior and extol him as King over all creation. In the Spirit we are joined to God and united with the whole company of his saints. And we are transformed into his political body, having been sanctified to represent his kingdom in the world.
Thus when we gather and eat we bring all of our beliefs and practices into an integrated whole, be they political, cultural, social, religious, or aesthetic. It is food, above all else, that settles us at the divine table and then nourishes and equips us to return to our life in the world.