Friday, February 20, 2015
The Spirit of Food and Eating
Food and eating are basic elements of human survival; mundane, quotidian acts that provide the nutrients required for all life. Yet all humans—even the most detached secular humans—participate in rituals surrounding food and eating. The birthday cake, the Thanksgiving turkey, the fork on the left and the knife on the right are all examples of food rituals. The fact is, however, that food and eating, perhaps because they are so essential a part of life, provide an opportunity for connection to a reality that far transcends our mundane, quotidian lives.
Have you ever watched a show on The Travel Channel called “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern”? The host is an overweight foody whose tagline is, “If it looks good, eat it!!” Nonetheless, I have seen Zimmern eat some things that don’t look at all good.
I happen to be a devotee of Jewish dietary regulations known as kashrut, or “keeping kosher,” so I don’t actually subscribe to Zimmern’s adage. At one point in my career, I was working with a number of colleagues on developing a certification for ethical kashrut. We wanted to supplement the biblical and rabbinic rules for kashrut with ethical considerations such as worker rights, environmentalism and animal welfare. In those days, and even since, I’ve spent a good deal of time and energy thinking about food and food rituals.
The fact is that no matter what your religious, national, or ethnic identity—even if you’re an atheist blue blood American—my bet is you participate in food rituals. Just try having a birthday party without a cake. Tell the owners of your local sports arena that hot dogs and beer are not good for you, so they shouldn’t sell them. Try serving a pot roast on Thanksgiving, or better yet, vegetarian lasagna.
It’s not only the food items themselves, but the rituals that surround the eating of these food items. Why does the fork go on the left and the knife on the right? Try having a dinner party and reversing that order; see what your guests have to say. I can never forget a scene in the movie “Avalon,” a story about a Polish-Jewish family that settled in Baltimore. One Thanksgiving eve, one of the brothers was delayed. With the children fussing for dinner, the other brother began to carve and serve the traditional turkey. In walks the prodigal brother who exclaims, “What!?!?! You cut da toikey widout me? You’re supposed to wait fa ya bruda before you cut da toikey!” There was plenty of turkey for everyone to enjoy, but it was carved before this important guest had arrived. That’s not kosher; it's a serious violation of an important food ritual.
These examples demonstrate one important dimension of food and its accompanying rituals. Eating is a social event. Have you ever been in a restaurant and seen someone sitting alone? It’s something of a sad sight. The important social function of eating is also one of the reasons that sociologists often decry the disappearance of the family meal. Eating is an important symbol of social cohesion.
In that regard, eating not only binds families, but whole societies as well. That's probably why we have ethnic food. Culinary traditions serve as important marks of social identification. Any number of commentaries on Jewish dietary regulations have pointed to this function. One of the formulations regarding permitted and forbidden animals in the Bible explicitly makes the connection between ancient Israel's distinct group identity and the distinction between so-called "clean" and "unclean" foods; animals that could be eaten and animals that could not (see Leviticus 20:25-26).
Even the early Christian church struggled with this issue despite the Gospel literature's suggestion that Jesus had eliminated these distinctions (see Matthew 15:11-20; Mark 7:14-19). The apostle Paul describes a dispute he had with his colleague Peter over an issue of what is referred to as "table fellowship," namely, with whom one may eat. Not only what you eat, but with whom you eat has significance for group identity (see Galatians 2:11-13).
Yet, all of this begs the question. Why are so many important rituals centered around the act of eating? I am intrigued by the fact that in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, a passage that presents a remote and transcendent God who simply designs and commands, God’s only interaction with humans involves two simple instructions: to procreate and to eat—specifically what to eat. I’m equally intrigued by the fact that in the third chapter of Genesis, the famous Garden of Eden story, the major breach between the human and the divine occurs over an act of eating. Clearly, eating and procreation are essential to human survival, so it is no wonder that these are essential divine instructions. It is also clear that procreation, as a private act between two intimate partners, is not conducive to socially cohesive ritual (at least not in my social circles), while eating is.
Indeed, within the western religious traditions, food and eating become central to some of the core ritual events. The Passover seder, a ceremony that reenacts the seminal moment of national liberation and the emergence of ancient Israel as a nation, is a clear example. The narrative of the Seder, the haggadah, is essentially the libretto that accompanies the drama of a ritual meal. The haggadah itself makes clear that much of the narrative is subservient to the essential requirement of explicating the symbolic meaning of and then consuming the ritual food items.
Likewise, the core Christian ritual is the Eucharist, or Communion, whereby the celebrant enters into an immediate relationship with the divine through an act of eating. A passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems to suggest that in the early church, this ritual was not simply the consumption of a wafer and wine as part of a larger religious ceremony, but that it was, in fact, a full ritual meal that represented the dominant and essential feature of Christian worship (see I Corinthians 11:20-34).
There is an element of this that was brought home to me by the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author tells me something important about eating—indeed, about all human activity—that may help to explain the way food becomes connected to ritual. In fine Zen tradition, the author encourages what he calls “mindfulness” in all human behavior. What happens when you eat with mindfulness? He cites an example of eating a tangerine. Most of us would eat a tangerine section by section, of course enjoying the sweet juice and savory pulp of the tangerine. But most of us would also be simply popping the sections of the tangerine into our mouths, ripping the next section apart before finishing the previous one so that we are prepared immediately to pop that next section.
What if we slowed down? What if we lingered on each section? What if we contemplated where that tangerine came from; the workers in the grocery where we bought it; their lives; their families; the truck driver who brought the tangerine to the market; the farmer who grew it; the tree on which it grew; the grove where that tree grew; the sunshine and rainfall the fed and watered that tree; the insects that pollinated the flower?
The fact is, eating is a sacred act. In the course of eating, we essentially ingest the energy, the divine life force of the cosmos, into our bodies and transform it into our own life force. Eating connects us to the energy of the cosmos and to every other living being on earth. In that regard, eating is the ultimate act of communion.
Perhaps this is where kashrut enters, the Jewish ritual of food and eating with roots in the Hebrew Bible. That initial divine instruction to the first humans in Genesis restricts all animals, including humans, to veganism. It is only with the recognition of human violence and corruption in the days of Noah that humans are given permission to eat meat, with the caveat that the life force of the animal contained in the blood is not to be eaten. Reacting to a biblical injunction against boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk, rabbinic tradition went further, enjoining the eating of meat and dairy together.
No doubt, these rules can become fetishes, observed for their own sake with no thought of the transcendent purpose. The truth is, meat is a symbol of death, a nod to the violent, bloodthirsty aspect of human nature. Milk is a symbol of life, a product that nurtures the young lives of mammalian infants, including humans; a product that an animal gives us in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. To keep them separate is an act of mindful eating, a way to remind us of the sanctity of life, which is violated in the act of animal slaughter.
Food rituals allow us to transform a mundane, quotidian act of survival into something sacred and transcendent. They afford us the opportunity to eat mindfully, conscious of the way eating connects us to the cosmos and to all of creation. When done mindfully, each act of eating is an opportunity for communion.