catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 21 :: 2010.11.19 — 2010.12.02


Jesus eats

Food is all over the gospels.  Jesus provides abundant, quality wine for the wedding feast at Cana.  Thousands are fed through miraculous multiplication of bread and fish.  The disciples eat grain right from the field (on the Sabbath, no less).  Jesus regularly shares meals with society’s rejects. And the food is never just food — it’s a medium for relationships, for love, and it’s always symbolically charged.  How much we eat, with whom, what the elements mean — it all matters, including the conversation and storytelling that shared meals engender.

So what happened?  Certainly we have more food options available to us today than the folks in first century Palestine, but I’d argue that, in the fallout from the past century’s domestic science movement, we’re embodying less-with-more.  We eat by number, carefully counting calories or food groups or cost.  We swing wildly between indulgence and denial on a pendulum of guilt.  We participate in food systems that gut our soil, harm our animals and make us sick.

The intentions of women’s liberation that launched the domestic science movement were laudable.  In order to advance learning that would get women out of the kitchen more often and set them free for other pursuits, homemaking was elevated to a science and food science was elevated to a moral imperative.  Consider the text from this 1911 Quaker Oats ad, quoted in Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century:

We made a canvass of sixty-one poorhouses in thirty-one states, for types of unsuccessful.  We found that ninety-three percent of the inmates were not brought up on oatmeal.

As Quaker would have us believe, oatmeal was not just a healthy breakfast grain, it was a warm, gelatinous savior topped with milk, raisins and a little sugar.  Wasn’t it, then, every good mother’s responsibility to make sure her children ate oatmeal every morning, so as to avoid becoming an “unsuccessful?” 

Taking a cue from the scientific method, domestic scientists concluded that America’s sloppy, earthy eating habits needed to be cleaned right up, for God’s sake.  Too much pleasure, too much chance could ruin the formula for perfect health and moral stability.  Shapiro writes,

The naked act of eating was little more than unavoidable, as far as gently raised women of their era were concerned, and was not to be considered a pleasure except with great discretion.  Domestic scientists were inspired by the nutritive properties of food, by its ability to promote physical, social, and, they believed, moral growth.  The flavors of food were of slight, somewhat anthropological interest.  They did understand very well that many people enjoyed eating; this presented still another challenge.  Food was powerful, it could draw forth cravings and greedy desires that had to be met with a firm hand.  Their goal as a group was to transubstantiate food, and it didn’t matter a great deal whether the preferred method was to reduce a dish to its simplest components or to blanket it with whipped cream and candied violets.

And transubstantiate food they did, nearly literally down to Christians’ most central feast.  As Shannon Jung writes in the “Feasting Together” chapter in Sharing Food, “[The Eucharist] has become so attenuated that we sometimes overlook the fact that it involves drinking and eating at all.  What kind of poor feast is it that consists of a thin wafer or bit of Wonder Bread and a thimble of wine or grape juice?”  What is a symbol of victory for food science is a tragedy for a robust theology of the body and as we accept poor substitutes at both the communion table and the dinner table, we forget who we are.  Shapiro writes,

Of course, the domestic scientists, a relatively small group of females, did not re-create the American way of eating all by themselves.  On the contrary, they enlisted, and were enlisted by, some of the major institutions of their day: the universities, the public-school system, the government, and the food industry.  This combination of influences helped Americans to forget what they once knew about food and to content themselves with convenience, which has long been indistinguishable from progress.

Though Shapiro is writing mostly about the first half of the twentieth century, when the domestic science movement was growing rapidly in the fertile soil of modernism, we still bear the legacy of the movement in all sorts of ways.  Witness the Halloween treats someone brought into our office: white gummy skulls with red goo inside billed as “fruit snacks.”

However, given the rapid growth of community gardens and farmer’s markets and slow food movements, is there change afoot?  Shapiro cites a 1902 ad for Heinz baked beans that stated:

A dainty dish for a luncheon!…  The most scrupulous care and absolute cleanliness are observed in every process of preparation of this, as well as every one of the other “57 varieties” of Heinz Pure Food Products.

Like many of its advertising peers, Heinz displayed nearly phobic avoidance of any references to agriculture and the fact that its beans, so absolutely and scrupulously clean, came from dirt.   Compare this approach to the new slogan gracing bottles in the center of the dining hall where I frequently eat: “Grown not made.”  Surely this is a positive sign of things to come.

Well, yes and no.  Slapping that slogan on the label of a product that spent more time in a lab and a plastic squeeze bottle than in a field is misleading and most of us can see right through that gimmick.  But Heinz is appealing to a growing DIY, ecological sensibility when it comes to the origins of our food.  I do believe that many who are currently moving toward organic, locally produced and humane foods will head right through this trend and on to the next one.  However, I also have hope that many of us will put down roots along the way and stay put in a more ecologically sound place that’s more reflective of our deepest values.  Such rootedness takes reflection, commitment and practice.  Jung writes,

Our food practices are shaped by large corporate and societal forces.  We do not intentionally choose our eating practices at first so much as we are inculcated into them.  We can become mindless by following cultural norms.  We can be inculcated into destructive and narcotizing habits and also into habits that are health and grace-filled.  But we need not simply follow our visceral reactions as though social training were destiny.  We have the capacity to become aware of and to reflect on our habits and patterns.  We can choose to follow practices that communicate the grace of God to others and to ourselves.  We can become mindful.

Jung goes on to quote Stephanie Paulsell from Honoring the Body: “Without practices that help us seek God’s presence in the ordinary moments of our lives, we will miss countless opportunities to draw near to the God who made us.”  And then Jung proceeds to elaborate on such practices, including saying grace, sharing, hospitality, feasting, preparing food, fasting and taking communion.  The emphasis is not so much on radical transformation that requires significant effort all at once, but on gradual change in the way we do everyday things that can bring us closer to God.

Most relevant to this time of year is the practice of feasting.  Jung quotes Alexander Schmemann saying that “feasts belong to the very deepest, most primitive layer of human life and culture…; what remains constant is the need to celebrate.”  How might we begin this year, in some small way, to shape our feasts not according to the legacies of science or thrift, but according to the legacy of the gospel?  Perhaps we can already enumerate several ways in which our feasts work as fitting celebrations of gratitude and hope, but until the great feast that is to come, there is always room for imaginative improvements.  Do you have a neighbor who needs a place to celebrate, even if she is obnoxious in large groups?  Invite her.  Is there a food or beverage you know would delight your guests, but that you don’t usually provide?  Invest in it.  In defiance of the ways our food culture has been stripped by science, do something that doesn’t make sense, and while you’re at it, defy stinginess with extravagance.  We are, after all, on the cusp of Advent, waiting with bated breath and hungry hearts for the good news of the upside down Kingdom in which the oil jar is always full and abundance is realized through radical giving.  Be an agent of surprise.

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