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Issue Six / Essay
“In other words, we are what we eat”

Eating Reverently

Words by Nikaela Marie Peters Photograph by Heidi Swanson

It’s important to be awake to the sacred reasons people gather around food, to sacred histories of food, if we want to best appreciate and care for our traditions and best approach our gatherings with grace and reverence. 

Because food is tradition (flavors hold our memories and our pasts) and because food physically is the source of life, the ways of imbuing it with spiritual significance are as varied as human experience itself. It is important to acknowledge this in order to properly appreciate the bounty of our own tables, and the traditions of our own kitchens. Although many of the ways food and gathering retain spiritual significance are religious, some are not necessarily so: salt preserves; olive oil anoints; tea steeps; the crop in the field hopes. There is a Spanish proverb that reads, “Bread is relief for all kinds of grief.” These most basic ingredients in our gardens and cupboards have the power to preserve and anoint and steep and relieve and hope. Intrinsic to food and eating, therefore, is thankfulness and magic, whatever the beliefs of the eater.

The world’s largest religion began with a meal. There was a large enough room for the people invited. There was a jug of water. There were bowls and loaves of bread and cups and vessels of wine. There were prayers and speeches; there was a song and an argument. The night before he was killed, Jesus ate supper with his friends. One might argue that there was born a sacrament so central to Christianity, that the Church itself was born that night. The Eucharist, many Christians believe, reenacts both that meal and the sacrifice Jesus made on humankind’s behalf—offering forgiveness and collapsing the divide between God and humanity. For Christians, during communion, all distances are crossed, all boundaries blurred. Life unites with death; spirit with body; meaning with fact; the profane with the sacred; the host with the guest. But also, as perhaps non-Christians more likely observe, the ritual is simply bread and wine. There might be a tablecloth or a candle, there might be a prayer, but the bread comes from the same place as does our morning toast, baked by the same young baker who works at the bakery down the street.

Ryan is that young baker. He talks about bread the way he talks about philosophy. His voice is nostalgic and curious. He talks with his hands. He jumps, in the same breath, from Thomas Aquinas to a recipe for bread to the Book of Exodus. It is sometimes hard to follow. And while he talks, he prepares to bake bread for his local parish’s Eucharist the following day. He ties his apron on, he pulls out his rolling pin, and covers his head with a hat. He lines up three forks next to a bread cutter. These actions are the opposite of his capacious sentences; they are deliberate, even meticulous. They are easy to follow.

“Every time I bake, I am searching for a certain sameness,” he starts. “Sameness is interesting because it is about unity. About the many becoming one.” He offers that baking bread is more of a guiding or a training than it is a making: “You can control all the outside variables of baking bread, but at the center is something you cannot control. The yeast lives on its own. There is a mystery there.” In other words, baking is part question, part answer. Like philosophy, baking is inquiry: something uncertain (questions, ingredients) becomes something definite (an answer, a cake). The answer is so whole and complete, the question is unthinkable. But we do not know all the pieces of the question or the answer. There is mystery in our asking, and even more mystery in our answers. We do not control everything in the baking process, just like we do not control everything in faith: we ask questions, but at a certain, we have point have to give up reason—control—to get faith.2 And, according to Ryan, baking, like any search for truth, requires faith.

When I ask Ryan how baking bread for the church is different from baking multigrain for sandwiches, he responds simply. “In many ways, there is no difference. The bread becomes a part of you either way.” In other words, we are what we eat. This is physically true. It may or may not, depending on what you believe, be spiritually true.

The approach we take to feeding one another in our individual homes, the manner in which we gather around the table, the unspoken dividing and sharing of responsibilities, the inarticulate daily habits, are all bound by ritual and rich with ceremony. Like religious practices, these details reveal hidden graces and express our repeating and consistent gratitude. They can reflect the general peace of a household, or be the cause of divide and discord. These “ways of doing things” are not without controversy because they are specific and savory. Just like religious sacraments, their power to include, to ground and form our identities, to draw an imaginary line around our households, is as profound as their power to exclude. In our house, we are unified by the way we give and receive acts of comfort, the timings of our comings and goings, the type of milk we buy, the type of cereal. At their most basic, these housekeeping details are a simple system of kindnesses holding together the fabric of our families. At their most complicated, they are an intricate web of histories and beliefs, as paradoxical and tangled and esoteric as any religion. To grow bored of our tables and foods, therefore, would not only be sad and unhealthy, it would be, in every sense of the word, irreverent.

“Only food—all necessary, visible, divisible, an external object which becomes internal, and which then turns into the very substance of the eater—could give rise to such a clear yet mysterious and effective ritual.” Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Food

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