The Foodie Bible, Levitical Edition (or, Michael Pollan meets King James)

You have heard it said,

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Here is wisdom,

Let one who hath understanding explain its secrets.

 

Behold the list of ingredients!

Canst thou comprehend it?

If thou know not what thou art consuming,

How shall its purpose in thy body be determined?

 

The parts of your dish shall number four, or six,

or several more if they be but spices,

But lo, you shall know their names,

And shall be able to speak them aloud,

And shall keep them at hand in thy dwelling.

 

Of all the leaves of the plant,

and its stem and its roots in the ground

You shall eat;

But among them you shall not eat that grown in the tampered soil,

for it is unclean;

And you shall not eat of the potato as flakes,

for it is unnatural.

 

And of all the fruits of the trees and shrubs

and which grow on the vine,

you shall eat your fill.

But the forms in which you shall not eat them

are such: as candies, as gummy, as flavoring,

nor even as Jello-O or Kool-Aid.

Eat them whole and clean,

for that is how I the Lord have given them unto you.

 

And you may eat of all that are in the waters,

But anything in the seas or streams

which is not swimming freely,

or of which kind there are not sufficient numbers,

you shall regard as destestable,

and of their flesh you shall not eat.

 

And of the animals from which you eat,

flesh or milk or any other issuance from their bodies,

They shall roam upon the earth,

and feast upon its gifts,

and shall not be prevented from the blessings of this world.

For I, the Lord, hath ordained their natural ways

and thou shalt not prohibit them.

 

Do not break apart your food into its component parts,

Nor concern yourself with its nutritional data.

For it is good and holy

as I, the Lord, hath created it

to nourish you in its perfect state.

 

Thou shalt not eat of the Crisco,

nor of its kindred,

the margarine and the spread.

For they shall cause your days to be short

in the land which I shall give unto you.

 

All things must meet their end,

But the Twinkie, it hath no end.

And so it is an abomination.

 

Eat not from the box that saith “Helper”,

For G-d alone is your Helper.

 

His handiworks far exceed those of humankind,

So feed upon the works of the hand of the Lord,

And lean not upon human creation,

For lo, you are my people

And I have given unto you all that you need.

The Five Minute Pitch

Last night a woman asked me about this blog and what I write about. It gave me the opportunity to practice my “five minute pitch” – that is, the distillation of the ideas you’re considering for a book that can be given in an elevator ride. Technically I realize five minutes is too long. But once I get going I tend to keep people’s interest. 🙂

Anyway I failed at being very coherent last night (granted, there was wine involved, which I felt the need to imbibe while speaking so as to underline my points about eating well), so I thought I’d better get this figured out on here and then I will hopefully have a better spiel for next time. And Tina if you read this, hope it clarifies things for you!

Many Christians want to integrate their faith into all aspects of their lives, but often don’t think about how to do that with their choices around food. Yet the way that we shop and eat is so deeply important to our ethics and our general approach to life, and absolutely can and should be a spiritual act. To make it simple, I take as my starting point the three tenets of the Slow Food Movement: food should be good, clean, and fair.

Food being “fair” means that the processes by which it is produced respect the dignity of all creation. This starts with treating the earth well: not poisoning it, tending it with patience, etc. It means allowing animals to be the creatures they were made by God to be: so pigs, for instance, will root in a forest, not be crammed into a crate. It continues up the chain to human beings: paying the farmer a price that reflects his or her work, ensuring that slave or near-slave labor does not continue, and supporting legislation that lifts up the individual, hardworking people who labor to bring us food. Respect and Fairness also means giving all created beings, including the land,
the Sabbath rest it deserves.

Food being “clean” goes right along with this. Christians can think of it as purity, as not polluting our bodies with inventions masquerading as food or poisons that may give a moment of pleasure but contribute to a lifetime of illness. It means having a clear idea of where your food has come from, and connecting to the people (and animals, if you like) who are part of the process. It means personally knowing your farmer and even visiting the farm, showing your children the beauty of the earth and its abundance. Again, it can mean supporting certain types of legislation. And the best way to ensure you’re eating clean food is by growing it yourself: a wonderful way to connect to God’s creative work in the world.

Finally, food should be GOOD! It should taste good, it should make our tongues and our tummies happy! That means we eat real food, not foodlike substances (it means we throw rules out the window now and then, too). We take time to cook and honor the recipes of our ancestors. We use premium ingredients from around the world, that remind us just how varied and exciting God’s handiwork can be.

And it should be good for you, not just in the physical sense, but in the emotional, social, and definitely spiritual senses! Pondering your apple while you eat it will settle your mental state and put you in a place of gratitude and connection with your world. Eating with other people will bring you close together and cement community. And there is a great reason why the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of Christian discipleship: it is through daily bread that we return thanks to our Creator for sustaining our lives, and it is through wine that we return thanks for the grand enjoyment we are given in life! Blessing God for the gift of food makes us priests before him, sharing and stewarding, correcting the selfish error of Adam and Eve who took for themselves alone.

Good, clean, and fair food connects us to our families, our communities, our God, and our best selves. And that is why eating well is, inherently, a spiritual act.

(ok that is probably over five minutes….like I said, I really get going. It’s a work in progress!)

Eating as a Spiritual Act, Part 2

Remember when I said I would write up more of my notes from the panel I attended on this topic? I’m finally getting to that! Here is Part 1 in case you missed it.

So, the last thing I said was how eating opens us up to a number of realities: ecological, agricultural, social, and so forth. Dr. Wirzba maintains (and I concur) that religious traditions are an excellent key to helping us think through these realities. He said, “The opposite of religion isn’t atheism, it’s negligence.” In other words, by shirking our responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s creation, we are denying our very connection to God.

The fact that the creation story takes place in a garden is significant: the Deity of Christianity (and all the Abrahamic faiths) is not violent and powerful, but a farmer, who picks up and uses the soil to create life. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak. “God loves the soil first, because without loving soil, there is no you or I.” The creation is ultimately an act of hospitality, wherein God “makes room for another to be…to become what they are most able to be.”

I would add that the story of Christianity ends at a great banquet – the telos (a word meaning ultimate destination, destiny, fulfillment of purpose) of the garden is this hospitable act of celebration and communion. The Sabbath was the culmination of creation (it was seven days, not six: humans aren’t the final word, but rather REST and appreciation).

Our life now is the growing, in the garden; our afterlife is the harvest, the enjoyment of the growth we have allowed and fostered in our lives. We are not meant only to sustain life together, but to celebrate it. To be hospitable: helping others – and ourselves – become fully who we are.

How would our worldview and self-image change if we thought of God primarily as a farmer or a gardener (or a vintner)? If we thought of the world we inhabit as a garden (and not a “resource”, another word for “superstore” in consumerist mentality), and of ourselves as the plants God is tending? A gardener understands virtues such as attention, patience, long-term commitment, the value of hard work, and the vulnerability and fragility of life. If we modeled our lives after God’s in this way, oh how our eating habits would change.

To drive this point home, Wirzba asked, “What if we thought of food as ‘a Gift'” – pointing out that the name we give to food is important. For example, thinking of a plant as a weed, or a flower, or a vegetable gives us different ideas in our mind of what that plant’s use is and how to relate to it. So with food: we relate to it differently if we think of it as fuel, or a commodity, or a Gift. “Naming something is the act of establishing a relationship with it.”

When we vote for “cheap” as our primary value around food (voting being what we’re doing with every dollar we spend – particularly on the Dollar Menu), we are not honoring the life that food represents (remember the quote, “for any of us to eat, others have to die”). We want to be able to say grace before meals with a clear conscience.

I wonder, how can we spend ridiculous amounts of money on our pets, or put up huge fights about abortion, but not honor the life that is represented by what is on our plates?

So how do we honor it? Here is Wirzba’s short list of suggestions:

1. Grow something (or if you’re like me, try and fail and appreciate your farmers that much more).

2. Know the people who grow what you cannot grow yourself.

3. Participate in your local food economy.

4. Share food with others.

5. Grow your food imagination: for instance, ponder the miracle and achievement that is a single loaf of bread.

6. Say Grace before meals – make eating a mindful act. Make that a time set aside to think about economy, politics, celebration, gratitude, mercy, and honor of the other lives sitting before you, which you are about to consume.

And one final word of wisdom from Dr. Wirzba: “The point is not to become the food police…the point is to become more merciful with each other.” We learn how to do that by paying attention to the incredible mercy God offers us through our daily bread.

Amen.

A Foodie’s Prayer

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities.

Give us this day our daily taste.

Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice.

Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity.

Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard.

Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations.

Above all, give us grace to live as true [humans] – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand.

Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.

Amen.

– Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

Eating as a Spiritual Act (Part 1)

These are the first of my notes from a wonderful presentation I attended yesterday, entitled “The Spirituality of Stewardship, Sustainability, and Food”. It was held at the holy Rothko Chapel and featured Dr. Norman Wirzba of Duke (author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating) as well as some Texan farmers and one pastor who are advocates for sustainability. But it was Wirzba’s talk which garnered the bulk of my note-taking, since he & I are simpatico.

Dr. Wirzba

If one does not eat mindfully, as Slow Foodies like myself advocate, one is reduced to being a “food consumer”, as opposed to being intentionally involved in some step of food production (be that growing, processing, preparing, sharing, etc.). That person labors under the misconception that food is something that can be purchased – that it is a commodity that he consumes.The first question Wirzba asked was: What are we doing when we are eating? He suggested that “eating is a holy mystery,” giving the example of Shakers who spend two full minutes in silence prior to eating any meal (not easy when you’re hungry!). This is to bring their minds to the present moment and to the food before them, so they will not eat mindlessly (he also mused, “Does eating mindlessly lead to living mindlessly?” – or I would say it could go the other way around, too).

But here is the difficult truth: “For any of us to eat, others have to die.” Not only animals, but plants; and then microbes in the soil, yeast organisms, even our own flesh which feeds the grass which begins the cycle over again. So the real question when you sit down to a meal mindfully might be: “How do you make yourself worthy of another’s life and death?”

In our culture, we are obsessed with eating yet we are ignorant eaters. As pointed out by Eric Schlosser in the seminal Fast Food Nation, we witness our values to the world by the way that we eat. Wirzba made a wonderful connection from this to the “99 cent value menu” – when we order from this “value” menu, right there we are broadcasting “value” all right – our values, placed on efficiency, price, and speed.

Who knew the 99 cent value menu had deeper meaning? But it’s just so appropo!

He pointed out too that the idea that we can talk into a box and then a hamburger magically appears before us reveals our supreme worship of all things convenient (and I would add it’s a wee bit sci-fi).

Living in a Fast Food Nation also means we lose the connections food can make for us: to place, to the earth, to animals, and even to other people. We wind up going “through” life instead of going “into” it; always passing “through” instead of “entering into”; living in touch with machines (like the squawk box) rather than human beings.

Connecting to people through food isn’t just about who we cook or eat with; it’s also about being aware of the people who produce, grow, butcher, process, and in all other ways make our food available. We are only 2-3 generations removed from a time when nearly everyone was a farmer, but today much of the world’s population lives in cities, and relates to the world entirely “through computers and credit cards.”

We also have what he termed “ecological amnesia”: that is, we don’t think about how ecology affects our ability to eat – how very vulnerable and fragile food actually is. In fact, we have a “food superstition” that “money produces food” – which is patently ridiculous (any farmer will tell you money can do very little to make food happen).

Wendell Berry described it another way, as “one night stand” eating: we want it cheap, we want it now, we don’t want to ask questions about its past partners or where it came from (no backstory, please), and after we’ve enjoyed it we’d like to move on without considering the future impact to our lives or bodies that this union might result in. (this is so incredibly apt – one of my favorite food metaphors ever!)

The anonymity of our current society (particularly fed by the Internet) contributes to this amnesia: we see a big beautiful red strawberry in the supermarket in January, and we don’t want to know how that’s possible (let me ruin it: it’s created by a mixture of poison and slaves). We don’t want to shatter our enjoyment of the moment of consummation with the strawberry (I added that part).

“Every time you eat you bite into ecological realities, you bite into agricultural realities, you bite into social realities…realities of greater or less justice, greater or less care, greater or less mercy.” And it is in religious traditions, Wirzba argues, that we can find help thinking through these realities.

I’m going to finish this in another post, since it’s getting long. Stay tuned!