Storied food

I’ve been pondering one of the reasons that I think food is so important recently, it has been bubbling away in the back of my mind while I continue my studies at uni and my teaching (and my cooking at home!). The last few weeks at uni have been on the way that food and religion intersect. As I have mentioned before, I have been completely fascinated by the readings we have been given that link religion and food, finding a recent one from Ken Albala in his Food in Early modern Europe really enlightening. What he was able to do was discuss the evolution of the food habits associated with the practice of Christianity, relating these to historical events and social changes. Below are a few points he made that I have commended on.

The command by Jesus to repeat the “taking of bread and wine” as He did at the Last Supper saw the belief of transubstantiation emerge – as it was perceived that “the[er was the] real presence of Christ in the bead and wine” consumed. “By consuming the body of Christ, it was believed that the communicant would gain merit and would be infused with grace …” (Albala 2003, 194).
As a Protestant Christian, I love some of these ideas but don’t understand them the same way that perhaps my Catholic friends would. Jesus gave us these physical symbols as reminders that He is (and will remain) present with us and that we can be filled and satisfied with His grace. We don’t need to gain His favour, His arms stretched wide on the cross were enough to prove that He loves us despite of our significant lack of merit!

He speaks of “other sacraments, or holy rituals, which signaled passages in life from one state of being to another. Baptism initiated the infant into the community of believers … Marriage officially recognised passage from single status to that of inseparably bonded …  [even to] extreme unction, the last rites of the dead. Surrounding each of these important life events, there was naturally a celebratory feast” (Albala 2003, 194).
I continue to wonder about celebrations. Do we celebrate specifically and regularly with deep reverence and thankfulness for different life stages – all gifts from a good God who can bring glories in the beautiful and fragile? How would our mindsets need to change so we could do this?

With the reference to the precursor to holidays – ‘holi-days’ (Albala 2003, 194) … I ponder what it means to set aside, appropriately recognise and celebrate regular (weekly, monthly, even annually) days that are set apart, sacred, special. To offer these times especially to God, while also sharing them with our family and communities. What discussions need to happen so that we celebrate well, marking the days, the seasons and the years? Historically, the church has marked these with both fasting and feasting; Lent and Advent, Easter and Christmas … what stories could our eating tell as we gather to remember?

Albala also notices the split between the Catholic and Protestant behaviours to do with food; the Catholic tradition seemed a little prone to extremes – on one hand valuing good food and wine, while other believers lived lives of extreme asceticism. The Reformers’ ideas about food mirrored their theology in other areas; “the gospel gives us complete freedom in everything” so just as the “early Christian’s had no food prohibitions at all”, personal spiritual exercises to do with fasting and feasting were up to the discretion of the believer (Albala 2003, 200). At sometimes, the diligence of a saved life has made for a bland existence, and unfortunately the so-called ‘Protestant work ethic’ has even worked its way into our eating habits. This article from the Guardian online shows the way a Catholic heritage that reveled in the goodness of food has is benefits!

“In the US the dominant conception of food is nutritional,” Fischler explains. “Feeding oneself is above all a matter of making rational decisions to satisfy bodily needs. In contrast the French have a culinary conception of food, putting the emphasis on flavour and pleasure. In our surveys we asked French and American people to say what they associated with various words. When we suggested ‘chocolate cake’, the Americans thought of ‘guilt’, the French, ‘birthdays’.” (Chemin, 2004)

… and here in Australia, we tend to be more like our friends in the States than those in France – we have lost our ability to revel in gratitude and without greed, one thing I look forward to in Eternity – feasting without the dark side that so often accompanies our eating now. The misplaced hunger, the worry about weight, kilojules, scales, empty stomachs in other areas, the ethics of the production of the food, the echoing emptiness that follows a meal which whispers of a deeper need.

And finally, Albala, like so many other authors, insists that “eating the bread [at the Lord’s table] is still an important ritual” (2003, 201) but that, for Protestants, it is nuanced differentently than the Eucharist celebrated by their Catholic cousins. Oh man, it so is still important. Somehow the bread calls ‘deep unto deep’ and it makes me long to grow into a deeper longing for communion in every way that the Lord’s Supper offers; with my God, with my faith community, with the historical church. I long to practice it with big, nourishing pieces of bread and big nourishing bits of theology that fill me and help me to look ‘onwards and upwards’ to where this meal leads.

Anyhow. A few thoughts about the way that religious practice and food practices have been woven together to tell stories at different times through the ages. We are still telling these stories, some we are repeating, others we have developed, and there is still room to tell new stories, or old ones in new ways.




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