Category Archive: Feasting
In a recent blog post entitled “Free Range, Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus,” my friend Toby Sumpter raised some concerns — one could even say: leveled some charges — with regard to the widespread interest in things organic, gluten-free, and so on, touching along the way on yoga, cross fit, and essential oils. His primary charges are that all of this interest and discussion is evidence of an idolatry problem, including the worship of Health and of Peers, and that it is a waste of time compared with what is really important (fleeing fornication, loving your family, etc.).
Consider this a friendly push-back.
While I certainly agree that Health is one of the major American gods today and that what Toby says is more important than discussions of organic food really is more important — that is, it’s more important, for instance, to love your wife than to eat free range chicken — I don’t find the essay helpful.
First, I wonder about the charge of idolatry. It certainly seems to be the case that there is a lot of talk about organic, gluten-free, non-GMO food today. But does that necessarily imply that there is idolatry going on? I can imagine a church community where the people talk a lot about hospitality and feasting and good food and drink and living the good life and experiencing joy around the dinner table. They’re starting gift stores to promote celebration, coffee shops and pubs and restaurants to share good food and joy with people. They’re having people over, sharing articles about food on Facebook, crafting cookbooks. They’re really into this stuff. Would that necessarily imply that there was Bacchus-worship going on here? There might be, but surely the answer is: Not necessarily.
Besides, in such a community, even if someone in that church community was involved in a sort of Bacchus-worship connected with the love of good food and fellowship around the table — and even if you could say that the existence of so much discussion about this stuff was evidence of some sort of idolatry (!) — that still would not mean that Mrs. Smith who posts a new recipe on Facebook and Mr. Thompson who talks about what a great time he had at a new restaurant in town are somehow involved in idolatry. So, too, even if there is some Health-worship going on in the world, it doesn’t mean that when a particular person posts something on Facebook about gluten-free flour, she’s participating somehow in that idolatry.
Second, Toby spends some time on “science” or, more precisely, on “science says….” I certainly agree with him that people have justified lots of strange things in the past by saying “science says.” But it seems to me that while, on the one hand, Toby goes after this easy appeal to what “science says…,” on the other hand, he criticizes homeopathic medicine or the interest in organic food because it isn’t backed up by science, real science, he says, with “proof” — as if that kind of science isn’t precisely the sort of thing that is manipulated all the time (e.g,. the tobacco company that funds research that proves that tobacco, additives and all, isn’t bad for you; the cancer society that funds research that proves that tobacco is bad for you).
Meanwhile, what’s wrong with sticking a piece of garlic in your child’s ear to heal an ear infection because you heard a couple friends say it worked for them? Do you need to wait for guys in white lab coats to tell you that that’s okay? Do you have to trust those labcoat guys when they say not to use garlic but to use their antibiotics instead, the sale of which is paying their wages so that they have a strong motive to promote their product? Or is it the case that we’re free, as Christians, to use the antibiotics or not, to use the garlic or not — and to post about it on Facebook if we feel like it, and to love each other regardless?
Third, it’s certainly true that it’s more important to flee fornication than to flee GMOs and that it’s more important to love our spouses than to love free-range chicken. But can’t one do both? Can one not believe that fornication is sin and believe that cramming a thousand chickens into a space smaller than my office and feeding them junk isn’t likely to produce eggs you’d want to eat (and isn’t kind to the chickens either)?
Sure, some people who discover that when they eat bread they bloat up and feel terribly uncomfortable and when they drop gluten they feel better may talk about gluten-free stuff a lot. Does that mean they have warped priorities? Does a Christian guy who loves Tolkien and wants to talk your ear off about The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s abominable take on The Hobbit have warped priorities? Does he not know that it’s worse to commit fornication than to mess with Tolkien’s story? Doesn’t he know that it’s better to love your wife than to love reading?
Well, maybe he doesn’t. But you have no reason to think so, just because of what he loves to talk about. In fact, it would be a little condescending — a little unfriendly — to bring these things up unless you had good reason to do so. If you knew that he was committing adultery but when you got together with him, he wanted to talk about Christian symbolism in The Hobbit, you might well ask how he can enjoy that symbolism while rejecting Christ and His commandments. But if you knew nothing of the sort but just thought his frequent talk about Tolkien was evidence of some sort of a moral problem, that wouldn’t come across well.
Which brings me to my fourth area of concern, which is the tone of the whole essay. It often comes across (at least to me) as condescending, sarcastic, and just plain unfriendly. In the opening paragraph, we already have the word “weirder,” which suggests that Toby thinks all the things he’s just been mentioning — “gluten-free” foods among them — are weird. Which suggests that if you’re interested in these things, you’re weird. But if you are gluten-intolerant, there’s nothing weird about it, anymore than it’s weird to want nut-free food if you’re allergic to peanuts.
Midway through the article, he talks about “magic beads” for teething children. At least one school of thought thinks the beads aren’t magic but that the amber somehow helps with teething pains. But suppose that’s not the case. Even if the beads are “magic,” aren’t they magia bona, something Reformed ethicists have given their approval to in the past (see here). Why should it be a problem if someone wants to try them because he’s heard they might work?
Then we get that bit about kissing icons of Darwin and Freud. Please. And people who are into organic food don’t have laughter in their eyes and joy in their hearts? Gimmeabreak. Sure, I grant that some don’t. And some who are opposed to organic food don’t either. But some in both camps do.
By the end, the implication seems to be that if organic food does give you joy and make your heart sing, then you have a false gospel, because you’re trusting in something other than Christ. (Ditto, I suppose, for Guinness, Tolkien, baseball, duck hunting, or anything else you might enjoy.) Again, is someone out there idolizing organic food? Maybe so. Stop it. Do some people push organic food as if it was sin to eat anything that isn’t organic? That’s sin, too. Stop it.
But does Mrs. Johnson love to find gluten-free recipes that don’t result in breads that are like dense sawdust and to share those recipes on Facebook? Does Mr. Jones love to be able to get freshly-picked organic apples delivered to his town or to be able to go to a farmer’s market and get to know some of the farmers and buy some of their fresh produce that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals he’d rather not ingest? Does that make his heart happy? Then let them enjoy God’s bounty in this way. There’s no need to think it’s idolatry or a false gospel or even a warped priority.
The other day, I was driving somewhere and heard a woman on Christian talk radio explaining her discoveries in relation to dieting. She said that her strategy works like this: We have to go back to the Bible and see what food is for. God created food for fuel. And so for the first several weeks, we want to take the enjoyment out of meals and plan our meals only as fuel for our bodies. After that time, when we have this perspective firmly in our minds, we can begin to add in some of the ingredients that make our food more enjoyable, but the fundamental thing we have to remember is that food is fuel.
Well, who can deny that food is fuel? But is that all food is? Is that all that the Bible tells us about food?
This blog entry is hardly sufficient for a complete biblical theology of food, but notice that in the Bible food is first presented without any reference to fuel at all. It is simply given to Adam and Woman: “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Gen 1:29). I suppose one might argue that God gave the herbs and the fruit to Man and Woman as fuel, but notice that that’s taking a step beyond what is actually said. Yes, fuel is part of what’s in view here, but we cannot conclude that it’s the only thing in view.
Similarly, in Genesis 2, we hear that God filled His Garden with “every tree … that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (v. 9). Does “good for food” mean that the fruit is good as fuel? Undoubtedly that’s part of it. But notice how the context emphasizes enjoyment: These trees are “pleasant to the sight.” And that suggests that the goodness of their fruit as food includes not just their ability to give us the energy and nutrients we need, but also their ability to give us pleasure as we eat them. Fruit tastes good, and Genesis 2 doesn’t warrant approving the sugars in fruit for their ability to give us energy while disapproving of the way those sugars taste in our mouths.
Jumping ahead in Scripture, we find that food, far from being only fuel, is also reward. After Abram conquers an army of invaders, Melchizedek gives him “bread and wine” (Gen 14:18). In fact, if you want to work this out further, you can think of food (following James Jordan, who has written extensively about this) as Alpha Food, the kind of food that gives you fuel and helps to strengthen you, and Omega Food, the kind of food that gives you rest and pleasure after your labors. Bread is a good Alpha Food: you start the day with bread. But wine is Omega Food: if you try to start the day with a couple of glasses of wine, you’re not going to get to work, but at the end of the day, wine and the relaxation it brings is a good reward. Interestingly, Scripture also tells us to give wine to certain people for comfort (Prov 31:6-7). We shouldn’t think that there’s something bad about “comfort food.”
The use of food in connection with offerings in the Bible teaches us something else about food: Food is communion. Think, in this connection, of how Paul presents the Lord’s Table and the table of demons — that is, the food eaten at the table of the idols. In both cases, communion is taking place as one eats and drinks, either communion with the Lord or communion with the demons who are “behind” the idols. Food is communion: When you eat together, you commune together.
There’s a lot more that could be said about food, but already we see that if we really go back to Scripture to learn about the purpose of food, we won’t conclude that food is merely fuel. Food is also for enjoyment, for rest, for comfort, for reward, for communion. While it may be necessary for some Christians to diet, it seems to me that an approach to dieting that depends on eliminating all these other aspects of food in favor of presenting food only as fuel is wrongheaded.
Around the same time that I heard this advice on the radio, my bedtime reading with my children was Valenti Angelo’s The Hill of Little Miracles, which contains some great passages about food, passage like this one, describing the festa after the main character’s little sister is baptized. The Italian family is gathered around the table when the Irish policeman stops by:
The group shouted with joy when a huge platter of rice, cooked to a golden brown in a rich sauce of olive oil, mushrooms, tomatoes, chopped onions, and chicken livers, was brought in. Soon after that, a large round platter of fritto misto, a mixture of chicken, zucchini, celery, young artichokes, eggplant, all fried in egg batter, took the place of honor on the table. So Patrick stayed a little longer, just to praise Mamma Santo’s fritto misto. Incidentally he washed the fritto misto down with another glass of zinfandel. The Santo house was filled with friendliness, and everyone praised and enjoyed the good food….
Papa Santo sang happily as he went down into the cellar. He returned with three bottles of wine. And Patrick stayed just a little longer. The fritto misto had disappeared. The salad was brought in. Romaine lettuce with chopped red onions, sliced tomatoes, stalks of young celery, sprinkled with black olives and fillets of anchovies, with dressing of olive oil mixed with vinegar and garlic. After each plate was scraped clean of chicken bones, everyone took a large helping. Salami and soft white cheese, called Monterey cream cheese, was placed on the table. A ponderous pot of black coffee sent out a steady thin stream of steam from its spout (49-50, 51-52).
Now, isn’t that a good and biblical way of looking at food? Loads of it, tasting good, with family and friends all rejoicing around the table. I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I finished the chapter and turned out the light, only to hear my kids say, “I’m hungry!” (Incidentally, a lot of the great books for children in the past were full of glowing descriptions of food, and the best essay on the subject can be found in Annis Duff’s “Bequest of Wings.”)
The restaurant may have “Cajun” in its name and the dish may have “Cajun seasoning” on it, but would a Cajun recognize it? In the novel I’m currently reading, Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance, Paul Thibodeaux has moved from Tiger Island, Louisiana, to Los Angeles….
Paul had found a job with a machine shop and boiler-repair business in Van Nuys, and after cramming for a week in the company library, he had tested out into a position that paid double what he had made at LeBlanc’s…. He decided to get used to Los Angeles, and his first attempt to do so was to locate a place he could eat on a daily basis, as he had in the Little Palace back home. The first time he walked into a restaurant, he asked for a poor boy, and the waitress looked at him as though he had lost his mind. She handed him a menu, which showed no red beans, gumbo, or étouffée. He looked up at the tanned waitress, feeling stupid and alien. He ordered a cup of coffee, then stared through the weak brew to the bottom of the cup, feeling naked without his food.
The next day he was driving on the beach highway south of the city when he saw a gold-lettered sign for a Cajun restaurant. He warily pulled into the parking lot, his appetite hopeful. Inside, he was seated in a dim, crowded dining room under a drooping net that held a few dried starfish, animals he had seen only in pictures. When the waiter brought the menu, Paul opened it and frowned.
“Do you need help with our selections?” The waiter was a healthy blond kid.
“What is all this stuff? I thought this was a Cajun place.” Paul looked past the boy at a tank of lobsters.
“Yes, sir, we have have authentic dishes from the bayou state. Today’s special is blackened swordfish.”
Paul stared at him blankly. “I never seen a swordfish in my whole life.”
The waiter motioned to the man at the next table and bent close. “It’s what the gentleman next to you is eating.”
“It’s all burned,” he cried.
“Not burned, sir. Blackened. It’s the most traditional way of cooking seafood among the Cajuns.”
“Someone’s been pulling your leg, man.” Paul went back to the menu and read the descriptions of bayou lamb, Cajun barbecued liver, and escargot de Lafayette. He found the word gumbo on the back page and ordered a large bowl. A half hour later his waiter brought a small cauldron of bitter juice so hot with Tabasco that after the third spoonful, Paul broke into a sweat.
His waiter glided past and asked, “How’s the gumbo?”
“Man,” Paul said, “you people must have spilled Tabasco in this stuff. My tongue’s been killed dead.”
The waiter laughed. “It takes time to develop a true Cajun palate.”
Paul pushed away the steaming bowl. “Let me tell you, it sure don’t take much time to ruin one” (80-81).
Another reason to read Patrick O’Brian: Wonderful passages like this, in which Stephen Maturin, the naturalist and ship’s doctor, is talking to a colleague from Boston about American politics and the American language. The conversation takes place during the War of 1812, though the first part of it looks forward to another conflict within America itself. But it’s the comment about grits, though, that made me laugh out loud and I now repeat it every time I make grits for breakfast.
Stephen said, “Your republic, now, Mr Evans: do you look upon it as one and indivisible, or rather as a voluntary association of sovereign states?”
“Well, sir, for my part I come from Boston, and I am a Federalist: that is to say I look upon the Union as the sovereign power. I may not like Mr Madison, nor Mr Madison’s war — indeed, I deplore it: I deplore this connection with the French, with their Emperor Napoleon, to say nothing of the alienation of our English friends — but I see him as the President of the whole nation, and I concede his right to declare it, however mistakenly, in my name; though I may add that by no means all of my Federalist friends in New England agree with me, particularly those whose trade is being ruined. Most of the other officers aboard, however, are Republicans, and they cry up the sovereign rights of the individual states. Nearly all of them come from the South.”
“From the South? Do they, indeed? Now that may account for a difference I have noticed in their manner of speech, a certain langour — what I might almost term a lisping deliberation in delivery, not unmelodious, but sometimes difficult for the unaccustomed ear. Whereas all that you say, sir, is instantly comprehensible.”
“Why, sure,” said Evans, in his harsh nasal metallic bray, “the right American English is spoke in Boston, and even as far as Watertown. You will find no corruption there, I believe, no colonial expressions, other than those that arise naturally from our intercourse with the Indians. Boston, sir, is a well of English, pure and undefiled.”
“I am fully persuaded of it,” said Stephen. “Yet at breakfast this morning Mr Adams, who was also riz in Boston, stated that hominy grits cut no ice with him. I have been puzzling over his words ever since. I am acquainted with the grits, a grateful pap that might with advantage be exhibited in cases of duodenal debility, and I at once perceived that the expression was figurative. But in what does the figure consist? Is it desirable that ice should be cut? And if so, why? And what is the force of with?”
After barely a moment’s pause, Mr Evans said, “Ah, there now, you have an Indian expression. It is a variant upon the Iroquois katno aiss’ vismi — I am unmoved, unimpressed. Yes, sir” — Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War, 138-139.
I probably shouldn’t have to say this, but because there are readers online who wonder if this is indeed the correct etymology, I will: Stephen is playing with Evans here, pointing out a perfect example of the sort of phrase Evans claims is never found in Boston, and Evans is trying to save face by coming up (“after barely a moment’s pause”) with a fake etymology.
This afternoon, I began rereading Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful For the Life of the World. Since I had just blogged about food as communion, I thought it would be good to pass on these quotations from the first chapter:
“Man is what he eats.” With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man. For long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible. In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.
Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to man to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat….” Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom” (11).
Later on, Schmemann goes further:
“Man is what he eats.” But what does he eat and why? These questions seem naive and irrelevant not only to Feuerbach. They seemed even more irrelevant to his religious opponents. To them, as to him, eating was a material function, and the only important question was whether in addition to it man possessed a spiritual “superstructure.” Religion said yes. Feuerbach said no. But both answers were given within the same fundamental opposition of the spiritual to the material. “Spiritual” versus “material,” “sacred” versus “profane,” “supernatural” versus “natural” — such were for centuries the only accepted, the only understandable moulds and categories of religious thought and experience. And Feuerbach, for all his materialism, was in fact a natural heir to Christian “idealism” and “spiritualism.”
But the Bible … also begins with man as a hungry being, with the man who is that which he eats. The perspective, however, is wholly different, for nowhere in the Bible do we find the dichotomies which for us are the self-evident framework of all approaches to religion. In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God.
The world as man’s food is thus not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (14, last paragraph break added).
Recently, I’ve been reading Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which has been occasionally illuminating, not only for reading literature in general but also in terms of reading the Bible. (I hasten to add that the Amazon reviews point out a number of genuine problems with this book, too.)
Reading literature (including the Bible) is not like doing math. When you do math and come up with a certain solution to a problem, you can go back and prove your solution so that anyone else who understands math can follow along with you. But “solutions” in literature aren’t often that way.
Sometimes, of course, you can point to a particular passage that spells out your point. Sometimes you can appeal to the grammar (“That verb is past tense and so it must be talking about something that happened in the past, not something that’s still happening today”) or to history (“The Scarlet Pimpernel is set during the French Revolution, which went through various phases, and therefore…”) to establish your point.
But sometimes you can’t. When a writer sets a scene in the winter and describes the bleakness of the setting, is that symbolism? Well, it sure feels like it sometimes, especially if what happened just before winter arrived is that the main character’s beloved left. When a writer includes a meal — think of the extended meal scene in the movie Babette’s Feast — is that a form of communion? You might think so, but it would be difficult to “prove,” because reading is not a science.
Foster’s book is intended to help readers spot things they otherwise might not. Food as communion is just one of the themes he spends time on, and his comments in that chapter are quite helpful, shedding light on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (sometimes a meal in a story can substitute for sex), Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Heartbreak Restaurant (why can’t the mother get the whole family to sit down together for a meal, until the end of the book?), and James Joyce’s “The Dead.” About the latter, Foster writes:
No writer ever took such care about food and drink, so marshaled his forces to create a military effect of armies drawn up as if for battle: ranks, files, “rival ends,” sentries, squads, sashes. Such a paragraph would not be created without having some purpose, some ulterior motive. Now, Joyce being Joyce, he has about five different purposes, one not being enough for genius. His main goal, though, is to draw us into that moment, to pull our chairs up to that table so that we are utterly convinced of the reality of the meal. At the same time, he wants to convey the sense of tension and conflict that has been running through the evening — there are a host of us-against-them and you-against-me moments earlier and even during the meal — and this tension will stand at odds with the sharing of this sumptuous and, given the holiday, unifying meal. He does this for a very simple, very profound reason: we need to be part of that communion. It would be easy for us to laugh at Freddy Malins, the resident drunkard, and his dotty mother, to shrug off the table talk about operas and singers we’ve never heard of, merely to snicker at the flirtations among the younger people, to discount the tension Gabriel feels over the speech of gratitude he’s obliged to make at meal’s end. But we can’t maintain our distance because the elaborate setting of this scene makes us feel as if we’re seated at that table. So we notice, a little before Gabriel does, since he’s lost in his own reality, that we’re all in this together, that in fact we share something.
The thing we share is our death. Everyone in that room, from old and frail Aunt Julia to the youngest music student, will die. Not tonight, but someday. Once you recognize that fact (and we’ve been given a head start by the title, whereas Gabriel doesn’t know his evening has a title), it’s smooth sledding. Next to our mortality, which comes to great and small equally, all the differences in our lives are mere surface details. When the snow comes at the end of the story, in a beautiful and moving passage, it covers, equally, “all the living and the dead.” Of course it does, we think, the snow is just like death. We’re already prepared, having shared in the communion meal Joyce has laid out for us, a communion not of death, but of what comes before. Of life (13-14).
I don’t know that Foster is right to say that all meals in literature are communion in one way or another. If a writer says, “I was grabbing a burger at Joe’s when the trouble broke out,” the burger isn’t likely to be communion. Food serves other roles beyond just communion. Food can be fuel; it can also be reward.
But it does seem likely to me that any extended meal in a story is going to be significant (why else write about it?) and that shared food — or even, as Foster mentions in the chapter, shared cigarettes — forges bonds between people, not just in stories but in real life. Of course, as in the example from Joyce, meals may also be taken in isolation or may be times of hostility, not communion, and the lack of communion in such cases may be significant.
The point, then, is not to take every meal as “communion” but to have communion on your mind when you come to the meal and to ask “Why is this here? What’s really going on? Are these people being bonded by the food they’re sharing? If not, what else might the author be showing us?”
God has designed food as a form of fellowship. Think of the dietary laws in the Old Covenant and how they symbolize the bonds that Israel may or may not form with the Gentiles. Think of the sacrificial system, where the worshiper is represented by his offering, which is then consumed in the fire on God’s altar as “food for God.” That’s what we want to be, and symbolically that’s what’s happening to the worshiper. Think, too, of the times people prepare a meal for the Angel of Yahweh, sometimes without recognizing Him, and He refuses to eat with them. You don’t usually eat with people you’re angry at, and neither does God. And think, of course, of the Lord’s Supper in which we partake of Jesus, the great sacrifice, and are nourished by Him, but in which also we become one bread, one body, with one another.
Without committing ourselves completely to Foster’s dictum (“food is communion”), his chapter ought to alert us to a common function of meals in the stories we read and especially in the Bible. If you’re interested in pursuing more food theology in the Bible, I’d highly recommend Peter Leithart’s Blessed Are the Hungry.
Cheese is a thing of sublime European importance, if only because of its antiquity. I do not intend any idiotic joke in speaking of the antiquity of cheese. Cheese and wine are the two things of which we can read in the remote pastoral poems of the Romans. And in connection with such really ancient matters there is a curious thing to be noticed. The older things are the more they are really fresh and free and varied, the more they differ really from town to town and from valley to valley. The new things are entirely the same wherever they go.
Bears’ soap in the Hebrides is the same as Bears’ soap in London. There is not some dark and delicate variety of Bears’ soap suited to the stormy islets in the ultimate sea. The men who use Bears’ soap do not find it smell faintly different; the children who eat Bears’ soap do not find it taste with an exquisite difference merely because it is experienced in that fringe of indeterminate and rainy island where, as Mr. W. B. Yeats would say — “Time and the world and all things dwindle out.”
The people in the Hebrides either know Bears’ soap or they do not: their enemies say not. But if they know Bears’ soap at all, it is Bears’, not theirs. It is the same exact and excellent article that is sold in a shop in Regent Street. But it would not be thus if the soap were cheese. If the people of the Hebrides had a cheese it would be an awful, shadowy, Hebridean cheese. It would taste of the terrible headlands and the hopeless sea.
It is so, I say, with all the old things, and with cheese especially. Cheese changes from county to county. Cheese can even change, like wine, from valley to valley. It is exactly because it is very old that it is always various and surprising; and it is exactly because humanity (with one dreadful voice) demands cheese, that cheese is always different…. It is precisely the things that have been most continuous that are able to be most diverse. The more old a thing is the more full of life it is. — G. K. Chesterton, “On Local Cheeses,” Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907 266-267 (I’ve divided this into paragraphs for easier reading).
In our practice of hospitality and our desire to create a culture characterized by joyous feasting together, we need to watch out for some pitfalls, the kinds of things that give hospitality a bad name. One is the sort of hospitality that keeps score: “We had you over last month, and now it’s your turn to have us over.” Another is the sort of hospitality that turns having people over into a competition, where the food is so abundant, and so amazing, and so elaborately presented that you can almost hear the host and hostess saying, “Top that!” Yet another, closely related to the previous one, is the sort of hospitality that really doesn’t care about the people or delight in the food itself but seeks the admiration of the guests.
In Outlaw Cook, John Thorne has a chapter on Martha Stewart. According to Thorpe, Stewart’s approach to “entertaining” is the farthest thing from genuine hospitality. Instead of wanting to have people over to enjoy spending time with them, you have them over to impress them. Instead of them coming to see you, you aim for them to see things: the impressive display you have created, the books you have artfully arranged on the shelf, the origami-like complexity of your napkins. Behind it all, Thorne detects self-pity and a strong desire to be admired and liked.
This approach extends even to the recipes she provides:
Food writers have accused her of appropriating their recipes without due credit. This, whatever the truth to it, is a peculiar charge, for apart from her gala pastries they’re rarely of much interest. This, too, I think, is by intent. It is a truism of catered food that it can only appear unique — caterers know that what their clients want is risk-free originality: arresting dishes that never fail to please.
All too often, in fact, her solution is simply a knee-jerk recourse to richness. In Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook, she gives a menu for four that starts with a salad dressed with one-half cup of blue cheese and two-thirds cup of olive oil, features thick-cut pork chops served with a side dish of turnips into which a quarter cup of butter and one-and-a-half cups of heavy cream have been mixed. Dessert is vanilla ice cream over which is poured a chocolate sauce made of twelve ounces of melted chocolate and three-quarters cup of heavy cream.
Our reaction to all this migiht be different if we could imagine Martha Stewart herself digging into such a meal, but there is something disquieting about the killing richness of such food and the slender appearance of the person who insists we take some. To do so is to feel as if, on accepting an invitation for a piece of pie, your hostess cuts you a slice and then sits down to watch you eat it … all too eager to serve you more.
“I made this to make you happy,” her books all say, not “I made this for us to share” (271-272).
More from Michael PollanÂ on nutritionism, the approach to eating that focuses on the invisible “nutrients” that only experts can identify instead of on actual foods:
Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that, focused so relentlessly as it is on the nutrients it can measure, it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions among foods.Â So fish, beef, and chicken through the nutritionist’s lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of different fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients happen to be on their scope.Â
Milk through this lens is reduced to a suspension of protein, lactose, fats, and calcium in water, when it is entirely possible that the benefits, or for that matter the hazards, of drinking milk owe to entirely other factors (growth hormones?) or relationships between factors (fat-soluble vitamins and saturated fat?) that have been overlooked.Â
Milk remains a food of humbling complexity, to judge by the long, sorry saga of efforts to simulate it.Â The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another: Liebig missed the vitamins and amino acids, and his successors missed the omega-3s, and still to this day babies fed on the most “nutritionally complete” formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.Â Even more than margarine, infant formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris. â€”Â Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eaterâ€™s Manifesto, pp. 31-32.
As eaters we find ourselves increasingly in the grip of a Nutritional Industrial Complex â€”Â comprised of well-meaning, if error-prone, scientists and food marketers only too eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus.Â Together, and with some crucial help from the government, they have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the “nutrient”; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health.Â Because food in this view is foremost a matter of biology, it follows that we must try to eat “scientifically” â€”Â by the nutrient and the number and under the guidance of experts.Â
If such an approach to food doesn’t strike you as the least bit strange, that is probably because nutritionist thinking has become so pervasive as to be invisible.Â We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity.Â Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity.Â As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.
That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea â€”Â destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well.Â Indeed, no poeple on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans do â€”Â and no people suffer from as many diet-related health problems.Â We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
The scientists haven’t tested the hypothesis yet, but I’m willing to bet that when they do they’ll find an inverse correlation between the amount of time people spend worrying about nutrition and their overall health and happiness.Â This is, after all, the implicit lesson of the French paradox, so-called not by the French (Quel paradoxe?) but by American nutritionists, who can’t fathom how a people who enjoy their food as much as the French do, and blithely eat so many nutrients deemed toxic by nutritionists, could have substantially lower rates of heart disease than we do on our elaborately engineered low-fat diets.Â Maybe it’s time we confronted the American paradox: a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily. â€”Â Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, pp. 7-9.
The shift from “food” to “nutrients,” which Pollan documents more fully in the first chapter of the book, interests me, especially because it leads to the second myth Pollan identifies, namely, the idea that we need scientists and experts to teach us how to eat.
That development, mind you, applies just as much to people who are into “natural foods.”Â You’ll meet people in those camps, too, who talk at length about nutrients, about how they have to eat this and that and avoid the other, about whether this is the “right” sort of butter or salt or milk or water, about why raw food is best, about the all-important missing nutrient that someone has just discovered to be a veritable fountain of youth, and so forth.
But in all of these discussions,Â food is reduced to its biological role and is seen as a conglomeration of nutrients, so that weÂ depend on someone â€”Â whether a scientist or a dietician or the author of the latest “alternative” book to come out, but always someone who presented as an expert â€”Â to tell us what to eat.Â
That someone, mind you, is never your mother or your grandmother.Â And that, Pollan suggests, is because Americans, for the most part,Â unlike the Italians or the French or many others in the world, lackÂ deep-rooted, long-standingÂ traditions of food and eating and so we are blown hither and thither by every wind of “nutrient” doctrine.
Joel Salatin asks: “What is the biggest impediment to your being able to eat farm friendly food?”Â It’s not that there aren’t enough organic supermarkets, he says, or that Wal-Mart doesn’t carry food fresh from the farm.Â It’s not that there aren’t enough government grants to support alternative programs.Â Here’s his answer to his own question: “government regulations that deny farmers and food buyers from doing business without passing the transaction through a gauntlet of prohibitive requirements” (Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, pp. 102-103).
He gives some examples:
1.Â You can go deer hunting, shoot a deer on a 70 degree day, toss it on your gas guzzler as a hood ornament and parade around town all afternoon before returning to the back stoop to dice it up and feet it to your buddies and their children anyway you choose, but you can’t dress a beef steer and sell one T-bone to your uncle (p. 103).
2.Â You can eat sushi in a landlocked state and buy it from anybody, but you can’t buy raw milk from a neighbor’s cow even when you stand and watch it being milked (pp. 103-104).
3.Â Â Scallions can be washed in non-potable water and sold in fast food restaurants, but a neighbor can’t sell you canned tomatoes at the farmers’ market (p. 104).
He sums up:
The bottom line for me is this: If you want to come to my farm, ask around, look around, smell around, and make a voluntary informed choice to patronize my product, it’s none of the government’s business.Â Period.Â But how did we get to the point where such sensible freedom would be denied in the land of the free and the home of the brave? (p. 104).
There’s some answer to that question in the rest of the chapter, and I suspect there’s more in Salatin’s newest book, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, but it’s certainly a question worth pondering.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I like breves, coffee made with cream. Sometimes, I’ll add sugar to coffee, and I do enjoy the occasional bit of hazelnut or vanilla.
How mild these additions seem in comparison to the way coffee was served in the past, say in eighteenth century England:
The “bitter black drink,” as Pepys used to call coffee, was made in various ways, all equally peculiar. Usually served black, it was boiled with egg shells, and sometimes mixed with mustard or sugar candy. Some concoctions included “oatmeal, a pint of ale or any wine, ginger, honey or sugar to please the taste . . . butter might be added and any cordial powder or pleasant spice.” — Claudia Roden, Coffee: A Connoisseur’s Companion, p. 29.