America could use a good meal.
Everything was fine, and so was the dressing ... And before we tasted it we all as one (and that is an important fine thing to happen at least a couple of times in anybody's life), we all as one bowed our heads in thanksgiving.
- M. K. Fisher "One Way to Give Thanks"
In spite of what Perry Como suggests, any seasoned traveler can tell you that Thanksgiving is when most Americans head "home for the holidays." On the fourth Wednesday of this month, every airport, train station, and toll plaza from the Atlantic to Pacific will be congested with millions of us trying to get home to family and friends.
And the purpose of this annual mass migration? A meal. Americans brave gridlock traffic, interminable delays, and holiday fares just to gather around the dining-room table with the people who are important to them. And whether the main course is turkey, lasagna, or fajitas, whether the side dishes are hominy, fried rice, or those awful marshmallow-encrusted sweet potatoes, many of us will - like M. K. Fisher - begin this meal with a prayer thanking God for the food, family, and friends collected around the table. And more than a few will remember to come to the table after first sharing some of their bounty with hungry and homeless neighbors.
I sometimes think this meal, which seems so deeply embedded in our national psyche, just might be the holiest moment in the American calendar; indeed, it could even be the American sacrament.
Maybe it's because of this that I was so struck when New York Times film critic Suzanne Hamlin asked whether Americans were ashamed of eating. In her July 1994 article, "Le Grand Exces Spices Love Poems to Food," Hamlin notes that while Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman" is the latest in a growing corpus of foreign films, such as "Babette's Feast" and "Like Water for Chocolate," in which food and meals play a starring role, "American films are woefully bereft of good food and great meals that bring people together in any kind of sensual, multifaceted way."
Complaining that our fascination with antiseptic kitchens, junk food, and fad diets has left us without a life-giving food culture, Hamlin comments that "what Americans don't seem to have is food important enough to even momentarily flash on the screen. Are we ashamed of eating?"
Hamlin's article asks more than whether Americans are embarrassed by the sensuality of great food. She wonders if Americans have lost their sense of the sacramental character of meals. Does the absence of food in U.S. films mean Americans have forgotten what it means to break bread with one another?
The appetizers, entrees, and desserts served up in "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Babette's Feast," and "Like Water for Chocolate" don't simply entice and seduce these savory delights coalesce into blessed feasts spilling forth humanity, passion, and grace. Broken open and shared, these banquets transform strangers and aliens into companions and families. Are American movies telling us that we no longer feel the power of such meals?
Michelle Stacey's recent book Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate and Fear Food (Simon & Schuster, 1994) echoes Hamlin's concern about food and meals. Increasingly torn between a Jekyll obsession with nutrition and dieting and a Hyde addiction to junk foods that are fast, fried, or frosty, Stacey sees Americans as missing out on both the delicious pleasures of good food and the humanizing powers of great meals.
American chef and anthropologist Mark Miller reports to Stacey that the Puritan background and clinical approach to nutrition has isolated Americans from the rich textures and "soft tissues" of food. Miller points out, "Food would make you sensual, it would make you real, it would make you alive." But, he argues, we are so concerned with eating efficiently and living longer that we sacrifice a food culture that might make us alive.
Stacey's argument is that Americans' increasing fascination with nutrition and weight loss has so skewed their relation to food and meals that dieting is becoming the "normal" way of eating for most Americans. Stacey says, "obsessing about food is more than a national pastime: it's on its way to becoming a national disorder." With one clinician suggesting that 80 to 85 percent of American women experience eating disorders at some point in their lives, and other researchers arguing that "normal eating now requires periodic dieting," it increasingly sounds like we are living in Diet America.
Self-control has become the "key to our new way of eating." Eating well no longer means enjoying the pleasures and companionship of a good meal, Stacey says, but rather exercising some ascetic self-control that will allow us to be thin and disease free. Food, which now has a moral quality based on its fat content, nutritional value, or recently discovered medicinal properties, has been "transformed from a source of sustenance and pleasure to a test of resolve and a wellspring of power, moral superiority, and even class status." In Diet America more people are reportedly trying to control their eating so they can have flat abs, long life lines, and a certain moral advantage over the heavyset.
In spite of this obsession with dieting, many are losing control of the ways they eat, and their fasting is all too often the flip side of their bingeing. With the numbers of anorexics and obese Americans increasing all the time, it would seem that both Jenny Craig and McDonald's are making a fortune off us. With attitudes and eating patterns such as these, it's no wonder we might be a bit ashamed of food.
Diet America looks even more dysfunctional when we pull back a bit from our individual servings and take a look at the meals we are sharing - or not sharing - with others. In a nation characterized by a growing disparity between the tables of the wealthy and the impoverished, and in a world where millions go to bed each night hungry, all this fuss about low-cal diets seems particularly out of place.
With clips of Somalia, Rwanda, and Ethiopia being served up regularly on the evening news, it seems a bit bizarre that, as one columnist noted ironically in a 1990 New York Times article, "the best-educated, most affluent people in America want to pay top-dollar to eat a third-world diet."
Perhaps this is another reason Hamlin senses that we are ashamed of eating in America. We haven't just lost our sense of food. We've lost our sense of meals.
After reading Hamlin and Stacey, however, I found myself wondering about the Eucharist and its place in Diet America.
How ought Christians to go about understanding and celebrating this most sacred meal against the background of America's growing obsession with dieting as a means of personal salvation and the widening gaps between the tables of the rich and poor? How should we break bread in Diet America?
The Eucharist is the central sacrament of the Christian faith. Christians need to seek out the implications of the Eucharist for their daily lives, both personal and public. They must ask how the sacrament of breaking bread calls them to live in the midst of Diet America, which is itself in the midst of a hungry planet.
What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food?
What does it mean to celebrate Eucharist as the Body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables? How are we to understand the Eucharist as a table or banquet at which we are united and reconciled with enemies and aliens in the breaking of bread if our national and global tables are fragmenting more and more?
Perhaps if Christians can learn to honor and celebrate their food, their bodies, and their mealtime gatherings, they can become more attentive and responsive to the presence of Christ in the world.
In suffering hunger, people are reminded not only of their connection to those who provide and prepare our food, but also to those who hunger with them. This experience should awaken them to their shared humanity, and evoke a sense of trust, gratitude, and compassion. Wendell Berry notes in "The Pleasures of Eating" that eating is "perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world."
It is an agricultural, economic, political, and religious act; in eating people are connected to the earth and its seasons, to the farmers and pickers, to the canners and truckers, as well as to the hungry and sated, and - in all of this - to God's creative hand. Indeed, Berry says that when we eat with real awareness, "we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."
Unfortunately the American way of eating in this century has cut most people off from the "religious" or relational meaning of food. They are ignorant of their dependence on or connection to others, and they certainly have little sense of participating in mystery. Our modern means of food production and delivery have so alienated American consumers from the agricultural, economic, and political processes of eating that food might as well be made by elves.
Although Americans are proud of the variety and abundance with which supermarket shelves are regularly stocked, they have little or no idea where the "products" they drop into their carts come from, who planted, grew, and picked them, or what has been done to them along the way to the store. In all our rush to transform food into an efficiently manufactured, packaged, and delivered product, we have lost its "soft, connective tissue." It ties us to nothing and no one, and we do not feel its blessing.
Georgetown theologian Monika Hellwig argues in The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World (Paulist Press, 1976) that our diet has cut us off from those millions who continue to struggle with hunger. "Our hunger is satisfied so quickly, so easily, so continuously that we can easily forget that hunger is there at all; it does not intrude itself."
Nor does America's national obsession with dieting help recover the religious character of food. After all, when is the last time a diet book recommended grace before meals or sharing food with the hungry? Dieting in America is about self-control, and this narrow focus doesn't produce compassion for the heavy or the hungry. As Joyce Carol Oates points out in "Food Mysteries," "our relationship to food makes us human, and our repudiation of that relationship (in dieting) is a repudiation of our humanity as well. We come to imagine ourselves as superior to others - those with appetites!"
The Eucharist (which comes from the Greek word for "gratitude"), however, reminds Christians how food ties them to the earth, their neighbors, and God, and calls them to trust, gratitude, and compassion. In the Eucharist, Christians remember the daily portions of manna with which God fed a generation of Hebrews (Exod. 16) - bread they were not to hoard or store up but depend upon and share. Christians recall the holy feasts of Israel celebrating the harvest - and God's command to leave a portion of that harvest for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10).
In this meal Christians are reminded of Jesus' warnings to his disciples that they were not to be so worried about what they were going to eat or drink (Matt. 6:25) but to trust in God. And we hear his criticism of religious leaders who thought that they could be saved by their rigorous diet (Matt. 15:10) or that such diets made them better than others. And, of course, this meal also calls to mind John's narrative of the miracle of the loaves (6:115), in which thousands of hungry people were fed by God's graciousness and a generous child. The Eucharist reminds us, as the poet William Carlos Williams writes, that, "there is nothing to eat, seek it where you will, but the body of the Lord. The blessed plants and the sea yield it to the imagination intact."
Contemporary Christian theology also tells us that to be human is to be embodied - not just to have a body but to be a body. Among other things, being a body means that we are sensual; that we touch, taste, smell, hear, and see other bodies; that we rub up against them, savor them, take in their scent; that we enjoy them and suffer with them. As theologian Sally McFague argues in The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Fortress, 1993), being a body means that we are linked to all the other bodies in the world - to their joys and sufferings, pleasures and pains, growing up and growing old, being born and dying. And this means that we take bodies seriously - ours and others - that we honor and celebrate them, that we bless and attend to them, "in sickness and in health."
In the Eucharist we partake in the Body of Christ. Indeed, we are fed by and transformed into that body. As Saint Paul tells us in First Corinthians, we are the Body of Christ. It means remembering that the bodies of slave and free, Jew and Gentile, men and women - different though they may be - are all made in the image and likeness of God, and all partake without distinction - in the risen Body of Christ. Taking the Eucharist seriously as the Body of Christ, then, means being opposed to every form of discrimination, oppression, and injustice. Unfortunately this is a lesson Christians are still trying to learn.
In Willard Gaylin's On Being and Becoming Human (Penguin Books, 1990), the noted psychiatrist and ethicist argues that one of the characteristics of being fully human is that, unlike lions or wolves, we don't just eat - we dine. Humans are the only creatures who fashion and form their food into a meal, transforming it from raw fodder into a work of art. And anyone who has ever had to ask a head waiter for "a table for one" knows that the full experience of dining isn't just a matter of good china, linen, and candles, but of companionship. Echoing the sentiments of Mark Miller, Gaylin describes how in the rituals of breaking bread with others we express and enrich our humanity. Our tables are the altars on which we celebrate the communion of our shared humanity.
These tables are not only the places where we share our food and drink, they are also where we bring our stories, raise a toast to our dreams, thank God for our blessings, welcome new family members, and remember old friends. And they are the places we bring the food that has been grown, harvested, and delivered by others, as well as the places where we bow our heads to recall those without tables. They are places for sharing, for making sure that everyone has enough and that no one hoards all the good stuff, for it's a tough thing to enjoy a meal next to someone who's hungry. They are places for reconciliation, for forgiving and making peace with a simple toast or a piece of bread, since it is much too hard and stilted a thing to sit around these tables and eat with enemies. And they are places to bring new acquaintances and fashion them into friends or family because dining is not something we can do well with strangers. If there are things more important than how we behave at these tables, there aren't many of them.
Likewise, Hellwig notes that "the simple, central act of the Eucharist is the sharing of food - not only eating, but sharing." At the heart of this sacrament, then, is the fact that this is a meal Christians are sharing with one another, and that the quality of this sharing is going to make all the difference in the world. That seems right to me, for although Jesus was criticized as a glutton and drunkard for failing to follow dietary regulations about clean and unclean foods, in the end it wasn't what he ate or didn't eat that really got him into trouble but whom he ate with.
Jesus didn't leave us liturgical directives about eucharistic fasts, communion wafer recipes, or the alcohol content of sacramental wine, but he certainly set a radical standard for table fellowship. Again and again it was his willingness to break bread with public sinners, strangers, and enemies that got everyone's attention and set folks' tongues to wagging. So maybe it's not so surprising that after his death and resurrection, Jesus' friends and disciples remembered and recognized him "in the breaking of the bread" or that these meals became the central sacrament of the Christian community.
In the Eucharist we remember the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham (Exod. 18) welcoming hungry strangers with a lavishly sumptuous meal; and we recall the generosity of Boaz (Ruth 2) offering a meal to the impoverished widow and alien, Ruth, In the breaking of the bread we are reminded of the abundant mercy of the prodigal's parents (Luke 15:11-32) celebrating a sinner's homecoming with an embarrassment of riches, and we recoil at the rich man Dives' murderous indifference (Luke 16:19-30) by failing to offer even table scraps to the beggar Lazarus. And in this sacrament we are reminded how Paul was scandalized by the awful table fellowship of those Corinthian Christians who hoarded food while others went away hungry (1 Cor. 11) and how the early Christian community of Acts 2 not only "shared their food gladly and generously" but also "sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed."
As the table of the Lord, the Eucharist celebrates Jesus' radical table fellowship and calls Christians to find in the "breaking of the bread" the central Christian sacrament of Reconciliation. And the Eucharist demands that Christians make peace with foreigners and foes and tear down the walls of injustice separating the rich and poor. As M. K. Fisher noted, at this meal we are to "all sit down as one."
Even in Diet America there are still times when Americans remember that food isn't just a matter of carbohydrates and calories and that it shouldn't be eaten in a rush or alone. The Thanksgiving meal is one of those moments. Gathered around those well-laden tables with family and friends, Americans bow their heads briefly to say thanks for meals that are full of rich blessings and graces, graces tying us to the mystery of God, the bounty of creation, and the rest of humanity.
It's in moments like this that we realize how inadequate Diet America's food culture is, and how little our cultural batch of nutrition labels tells us about the daily bread we are breaking and eating. So let me close by playfully suggesting what kinds of things we might put on "Thanksgiving Day" or "Eucharist" food labels. To start, they would remind us that our food and drink is 50 percent the fruit of the earth, 50 percent the work of human hands, and 100 percent the grace of God. Second, these labels wouldn't just list the nutritional contents of our cereals and produce but would tell us the percentage of sweat poured into them by farmers, migrant pickers, and factory workers. And third, they would inform us of the daily recommended doses of nurturing, pleasure, and companionship supplied by these meals.
Finally, these labels might tell us what percentage of the world's banquet we are eating and remind us that all our meals are to be part of a ''balanced diet" for the whole planet and that we are not to sit down at the table until we are sure everyone has something to eat.
Imagine getting that kind of label passed through Congress! Still, imagine what kind of Eucharist community we would be transformed into.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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