Archives For Food

We had a great conversation with Dr. Normal Wirzba for the podcast recently. We’ve not edited the audio to post, but I thought I’d give you a peek at the video. In this conversation, Dr. Wirzba talked about food and drink as the means God has given us to experience the Triune life, sacrifice and eating, and scripture as an agrarian book.

Dr. Wirzba is a Professor of Theology at Duke and is the author of many books including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.

 

33526_1549442418229_3208720_n     This week I’m in Guatemala with a service team from my church. We’re beginning work on a multi-year sanitation system for a Maya community, Chuicutama, in the Highlands. Our reflections for the week center on the theme of Jubilee, the biblical commandment mandates forgiveness of debts and economic restoration as part of God’s New Creation.

     Jubilee is what Jesus announces as his Gospel in his first sermon in Nazareth in Lk 4; one of the implications of the Jubilee, according to the Torah, is that the Jubilee year be marked by letting fields lie fallow. The land itself rests on the Sabbath year, which itself is an act of faithful trust that in that year the Lord will provide.

     To complement this theme, I’ve asked Laina Schneider, a friend and college student at Virginia Tech to post her thoughts on Jubilee. Laina studies agriculture at Tech and has served as Aldersgate’s mission intern in both Guatemala and Cambodia. Perhaps more importantly, as a college student her wrestling with questions of faith and life are just what the Church needs to hear. I’d encourage you to subscribe to Laina’s blog here.

Food unifies us. Humans, animals, plants. All life requires sustenance. Food is many different things to many different people. To some it is a cheeseburger, to others a bag of chips, and to many more a portion of grain. Our culture is one, which for some decades has widened the gap between food and dirt. Yet soil is the source of life. It is that blackish brown stuff you walk on everyday, literally supports our world, and is the medium in which all food is grown. Yet many people seem to think that the interaction of food and dirt, literally and associatively, is “gross”.

This separation is a symbolic representation of the disconnect apparent in our industrialized commercial food system. How many people know where their food comes from? Or the conditions or methods used to produce it? How about the energy required to process and ship it? Most people don’t know any of those things. Even in the middle-upper class movement towards “organic” or “local” food, most people shop based on assumptions of standards behind labels, which are often misleading. Not all countries operate this way however.

There are many cultures, like those you may encounter in Guatemala or Cambodia, comprised of people whose lives are centered on growing food for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. This life is, all at once exhausting, infuriating, exciting and rewarding. It is necessary and systematic, a physical and emotional struggle to ensure the existence of those you love. In our society, the breadwinner in a family provides the money to purchase prepared foods in a grocery store down the street, but in an agrarian lifestyle, the name is a bit more literal. Try to imagine the crushing realization that the rains are late, and your store of rice will run out long before the next harvest comes in. Imagine having to look at your children and knowing that you cannot give them the nourishment they need, and that your hands are supposed to provide.

     Christ’s idea of jubilee is directly related to farming.

Biblical stories are constantly using agricultural metaphors or themes: sowing seeds, grape vines, harvesting, gleaning, the list is endless. But the stories were written this way, because it was relevant. Everyone could relate to those stories, because they were all growing food and understood the fundamentals of agriculture. Jubilee was a time to rest and let the fields lie fallow. In fact, they were supposed to let the fields lie fallow every seventh year. This means that no new crop could be sowed, the fields could not be plowed, and that everyone would have to eat only what was in their store. This is an impossible request. Imagine being asked to not go to the grocery store for a year. You could eat whatever was in your pantry, but could not buy anything new.

Maybe God asked this because he had an intricate understanding of soil chemistry and fertility and wanted the land to build up some organic matter to recharge the humus layer of nutrients….maybe. Or maybe God commanded this so there would be a year of rest, for people to take a break, and appreciate the beautiful blessing that is His creation.

As usual, what God wants isn’t easy, but we can identify how hard it is for us to sometimes do what God commands, with this idea of the fallow fields.

 

IMG_0599I’ve often said before that if I weren’t a man of the cloth I’d be a chef…or at least a line cook somewhere. Cooking calms me after a hectic day and, I’m convinced, the discipline and creativity required by good food is analogous and training for good sermon writing. We eat at home together most nights, eating something I’ve spent time cooking with the kids. They’re, we’re, the better for it I think.

Here’s an echo to that point from New English Review.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” ― Julia Child

There are four clear threats to the modern family and possibly civilization at large; cell phones, video games, the internet, and junk food. We allow the first three because they are cheaper than tutors, private schools, and nannies. Indeed, games and gadgets support a kind of electronic autism where neither parent nor child speaks to each other until the latter is old enough to drive. With junk food the threat is more complicated; a fusion of chemistry and culture. In combination, internet social networks and poor diets seem to be conspiring to produce a generation of pudgy, lazy mutes with short attention spans.

Culture begins and ends on a plate. A proper wake is followed by good food and drink for good reason; a testament to life even without the guest of honor. We eat to live and then we live to eat. From the earliest times, food played a key role in the spiritual and literal growth of families and a larger society. An infant bonds with its mother while nursing; families bond when they share food. We define hospitality with friends by inviting them to break bread – or share a refreshing adult beverage. Alas, eating plays a central role in both civility and civilization.

The day that food sharing moved beyond the immediate family was surely the beginning of a village. The day when a family produced an extra piglet or an extra baguette was surely the beginning of bacon and bakeries. Villages and markets grew to become centers of culture that we now know as places like Athens, Rome, Paris, London, and the Jersey Shore.

The original Greek symposium was a meal at home where the host would provide food, conversation, and the occasional pole dancer. Romans had similar traditions. Even in the Dark Ages, communal societies such as monasteries took their meals together. Monks and nuns might take vows of silence, poverty, and chastity; but, at mealtime they clustered to eat. Silence, sexual tension, and a good multi-grain may be the secrets to introspection and celibacy.

As civilization progressed, we advanced from eating to dining. Indeed, dining is the one activity which ancient guilds and modern clubs have in common. The act of eating became a kind of social cement where the table was used for things beyond nourishment. The ‘groaning board’ thus evolved into a variety of utilitarian instruments including desks, conference tables, and, eventually, surf boards. The places where people sat to eat became and remain the building blocks of family, commerce, and civil society.

Over time, we lost touch with the first, the “family” part of the equation.

A few years back, Hilary Clinton illuminated a typical outlook by sneering: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.” Her attempt to defend pant suits at the expense of aprons sent a chilling message to parents everywhere. Yet, that regrettable kitchen metaphor is fairly typical of the dismissive attitudes towards all things domestic – especially cooking for and eating with children. If you ask some careerist “what they make at home” today; the answer is likely to be: “reservations”!

Ironically, most of the alternatives to eating at home are pretty grim: grazing, takeout, or off-ramp tramping.

Grazers are families who eat separately at home where preparation, menu, or timing is irrelevant. Grazers usually feed their kids like pets – on demand, from cans and packages. The takeout crowd tries to maintain some sense of ritual, but the “dining” is usually limited to the time it takes to strip mine bags of fried everything or boxes of rubber pizza. Off-ramp tramps usually motor to the nearest chain restaurant where the menu invariably features some mix of sugar, salt, grease, and carbohydrates.

At fast-food joints, eating is not the main event anyway. For kids, the true lure of junk food emporiums lies with prizes, playgrounds, and creepy clowns – or the ubiquitous gumball machine. The latter is often the healthiest choice on the menu. Private junk food is complemented by the public school trough, where to qualify, parents must admit that they cannot or will not feed their children at home – or take the trouble to pack an edible lunch box.

Maybe it was the social turmoil of the 1960’s or just the bong resin of feminism; nonetheless, many men, and especially women, have come to see family or the kitchen as a kind of bondage. Parenting has been reduced to a proof of plumbing; have a couple of kids, then get on with your life. Dinner and lunch out – was in. An entire junk food industry matured around convenience, the modern euphemism for selfishness. Adult wants became more important than children’s needs.

The scientific causes for obese, dull, or obnoxious kids are surely complicated. Yet, empiricism has yet to rule out environmental factors like poor parenting and bad nutrition. Indeed, each may be two sides of the same cookie. The idea, that bad nutrition and poor socialization are unrelated to much of the pathology that afflicts children today, is an illusion.

Literature on food production and retailing usually has two villains; industry or government. Rachael Carson and more recently, Margaret Visser and Michael Pollan are significant contributors to this popular genre. Unfortunately, critics are seldom candid enough to place responsibility where it belongs; on shoppers and parents. Self-indulgence and limited attention spans have come home to roost – in eating habits and the way we care for children.

There are probably a dozen or more reasons why we believe we can not cook for, or eat with, our families. Yet, none of the excuses are as persuasive as the common sense for dining at home: economy, health, and education.

A single 20lb sack of rice is a testimony to the economics of home cooking. This ten dollar investment provides 220 servings at a nickel a portion. Chicken might be had at the same store for as little as .99 cents a pound. A chicken (8oz portion) and rice dinner, at home, costs .55 cents. If you boil the bird, you have the makings of soup. Throw in a vegetable and fruit for dessert and you have a five course meal for less than a US dollar.

Your cat or dog chow is more expensive! No junk food joint can beat the price of home cooking. Your kitchen has an added value; the kids get to watch, participate, and learn.

Nutrition is the biological bonus of home cooking. The key ingredients in packaged, fast food, or take-out are: calories, fat, salt, sugar and all the chemicals required to prevent the awful from becoming inedible. Conversely, home cooking gives you total control of your family’s diet and nutritional health.

See those beautiful, healthy bodies on magazine covers at the supermarket checkout line? With a little carotene and roughage, that could be your family.

The penultimate virtue of cooking and dining at home is education. Yes, education; not just about food and nutrition, but education about everything else under the sun. Parents are the first and best primary teachers. Some formal schooling might be necessary for a diploma or a credential, but those critical early years are only a job for the deuce that produced.

All learning begins with the process of separating wants from needs – moving from me to thee. With this, all kids need help; that’s why we call them children. True home schooling might be something simple as an hour at the market, an afternoon in the garden, and a meal together, once or twice a day.

By the time kids reach their teens, all that parents have left is influence once or twice removed. If those early opportunities are missed, we waste our lives and damage theirs. Kitchen and dinner tables are the earliest and best school desks to educate and socialize children. If we’re too busy for this, we have to ask ourselves; what’s more important? If parents have no answers, those ‘at risk’ monsters should not be a surprise. ‘At risk’ kids are surely the sons and daughters of clueless and neglect.

Every parent assumes that a child might learn to behave from good example, but few consider that kids are just as likely to be influenced by poor role models – at home.

Parallel epidemics of electronic autism, childhood obesity, hyperactivity, and attention deficit disorders might not be entirely coincidental or unrelated. Sometimes the most obvious solution hides in plain sight. How hard is it to say: “Turn the damn thing off, eat your chicken soup, and sit there; talk or listen until you’re excused?” If the food is good and the table manners are crystal clear, family dinning is a nourishing ritual for body and soul.

The process of education, as Socrates noted over two millennia ago, is simply a dialogue; one or more civil people exchanging embarrassing questions. Ideas are thought to be contagious in a congenial setting; a place like the dinner table, where the participants are fed well and therefore well bred.

Yes, Maggie, much does depend on dinner. Alas, the kitchen still might be the most expensive, yet least used, room in any house or flat. Lest we forget, the kitchen is the tiled room – the one with a stove, without a commode.