this (food) is (God’s) body

Week after week,  I shuffled through the pantry with friends and acquaintances who had come for food, begging them to take the beans.
“As many dry beans as you want – kidney beans? white beans? chickpeas? as many as you want, all free! Throw ’em in some chili, stretch that ground beef you’ve got there. Casseroles… beans and greens… yummy soups…”
I was totally annoying. People would sometimes look a little sorry for me before grabbing their maximum four cans of ravioli.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with them. I don’t cook anything.”

click for a yummy crockpot recipe!

My food pantry days flooded back to me as I read two essays on food and theology this week, from the book Creating Ourselves: African Americans and Hispanic Americans on Popular Culture and Religious Expression. I would argue that the food the authors speak of doesn’t belong to the realm of “pop culture” (mass-produced and mass-consumed) but to “folk culture” – the product of a people and a place, locally consumed, non-commercialized. Still, I think some of the best works of pop culture hold something in common with folk culture; and food is the perfect subject for coming to terms with those things our cultural products mean to us that we just can’t explain.

Dominican friar Angel Montoya compares doing theology to making the Mexican dish mole, which combines complex flavors into new flavors, and can be made in hundreds of variations; yet to be mole, it must always contain chiles and chocolate. Christian theology, too, combines many sources and subtle variations, but it must contain crucial elements to maintain its own character. Beyond this simile, though, Montoya compares theology with mole in another aspect: he names the subtle, complex, mysterious flavor of mole “a mobile signifier beyond the signified”. Mole is not just “chiles and chocolate”. It is something else entirely – you cannot know it without tasting it. You cannot describe it, and you cannot even make it from a written recipe if you do not already know it (“one learns in the making of it”). So theology. We try to use words to share knowledge and experience of God that, by God’s nature, cannot really be described; we fumble to practice what we have learned, because the recipe is not the food.

Montoya pushes his readers to think of Eucharist once again as food. God comes to us in this incredible intimacy, meeting us and teaching us through our sense of taste, beyond verbal processing or “knowledge”, into our very being. As the Christian community is nourished by the same meal, we become, in some tiny scrap of each self, quite literally composed of one substance – Christ’s body and blood.

Food is a (maybe The) great human leveller. All people need to eat. People, regardless of class, country, or culture, have powerful memories and deep loves associated with food. Food is as sacred of an everyday practice as there can be, maybe comparable only to music. And like music, it has tremendous power to bring diverse people into community with each other. The second essay on food, by Lynne Westfield, reflects on Westfield’s mother’s life as a political organizer for public schools in Philadelphia. For Nancy Westfield, “her speeches, letter writing, and marching were not the most significant and influential practice she employed. Instead, she claimed, her most effective practice for community organizing was to invite people to her home to share a meal.” By putting immense care into her cooking for others, she turned politicians and other power players into friends – not just for the sake of public education, but for the sake of hospitality, love, and friendship itself.

Lynne Westfield insists on seeing this as a subversive “political” practice and not simply a “Christian” practice (although she is still willing to find wisdom in her mother’s point of view that “Christian friendship” was a more important goal than political change). It seems that Westfield wants to resist viewing her mother as being in any way complicit with old “Aunt Jemima” (347) images of black female cooks. However, I join Montoya in disagreeing that theology or Christian spiritual practice can be dichotomized from politics in such a way. In his response, he points out that the church must act as a political body in the public sphere, but that in Eucharist we act as a transformative presence in societal relationships. Friendship expressed in food is therefore a powerful “theopolitical” act of transcending antagonism and walls between people, in order to foster justice in society.

In fact, this is the conclusion of Montoya’s own essay, which seeks to combine theology and food in fundamental ways: “I envision alimentary theology as a practice of power that is noncoercive, communal, and rooted in nurturing loving care for one another and imitating God’s own radical gesture of love” (emphasis mine). We “taste and see” God’s goodness in the food that we share – and it is because of this that Montoya’s theology necessarily includes the praxis of opposing hunger. Hunger is one of the most fundamental injustices in the world, robbing humans of humanity in multidimensional ways. This, again, requires profound, active transformation on personal (greed) and societal (broken food systems) levels.

Montoya’s beautiful essay profoundly illuminated a food pantry experience I had almost every day of my year working there. I have been almost uncomfortable articulating this in the past; but I could never shake the feeling that the injustice that so many poor people have no skills or time to cook (and innumerable other structural injustices contributing to this situation) extends far beyond the fact that metric tons of free beans go to waste while they struggle to live on a minimal budget. It is just as terrible to me that they cannot experience the simple nourishment of bean soup on a howling winter’s day, or the satisfaction of a chili well made and well shared. Even in times of scarcity, these are immense, humanizing, and God-revealing pleasures. A food system and an economy that does not waste so much is a most basic matter of justice because good food, made and shared in love, connects us to our own cultures, to others, and to God.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Beautifully written!

    Reply
  2. Bryan Stone

     /  December 14, 2014

    Lindsay, thanks for this thoughtful reflection. What is really weird is that tollhouse chocolate ad is running at the bottom. I’m glad to have been introduced to your blog in the bigger picture as well!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: