On a theology of food

As the wife of a farmer, much of my life revolves around the production of food for human consumption. Conversations around my dinner table follow an obvious seasonal arc.  Winters are for debating the relative merits of planting peas, lentils, barley or wheat or for seed contracts and crop prices.  Springs are for worries about rain (not enough or too much) and fertilizer or insecticide discussions.  Summers are for harvest talk: this machine broke down, that field had incredible yield, which kid fell asleep on the way home from an overnight harvest shift.  Falls are for planning for the next year, planting seeds and preparing for the circle to start again.  It’s funny, as much as food production consumes my family’s life, I rarely think about the ways food connects us to each other and to God.

I just finished reading To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming and Community by Lisa Graham McMinn.  The book delves into the idea of a theology of food, something that I am deeply interested in.  The author argues that our need for food “reminds us of our utter dependence on something outside of ourselves for our existence” and because of that mindful eating habits can have deep impact on our spiritual lives.

This book isn’t so much about what we eat as it is about what it all means.  I am particularly taken by her idea of eating together as vehicle for reconciliation.  She quotes Norman Wirzba who said, “Eating is an invitation to enter into communion and be reconciled with each other.”  There is no doubt in my mind that food is a relationship builder.  I can think of so many examples in my own life where a particular dish calls to mind a particular relationship.  One of my husband’s favorite treats is a particularly 1960s style strawberry Jello and Cool Whip “salad” that he calls Grandma Jello.  Every time we eat that salad we sit at the table and talk about Chris’s grandma, a woman my children and I never had the pleasure of meeting.  Yet even without meeting her, whenever we eat this dish that brings her memory to the mind of Chis, we are experiencing relationship with her.  I can think of so many other examples of this type of mystery: Blacky’s Brisket reminds me of a larger than life man who was only a part of my family’s life for a short time, Almond Roca brings my grandma to mind, my mother in law’s expertise at frying chicken has been a relationship builder for her and I and now also for my kids.  And I could go on and on.  I’m guessing you could too.

My husband and I are getting together with several friends to start up a supper club.  We are all so excited about it.  Sometimes I think about it and my hopes are just so high: I want this group of people to become people of significance in our lives.  I want these to be the people who we turn to in good times and bad.  I’m hoping this adventure turns in to something true and long-lasting.  It’s a lot to ask of a dinner party.  Or is it?  Lisa Graham McMinn says, “Eating isn’t simply a functional pleasure. We are created with potential to enter each other’s lives as we break bread together, to give and receive and enjoy pleasure as we partake in food that keeps us alive.  The mystery of communion is that we eat in order to live more fully.  We eat with others, with Jesus in our midst, that we might live better, love better, and be grateful.”  The whole chapter about communion with one another and with God around a dinner table rings true and lends the weight of truth to my hopes for our little supper club.

I’ll tell you the truth, the very section that gave me such hope for supper club also made me pause in thinking about our daily family dinnertime.  Usually when I think of Communion, I think of that particular part of every Sunday’s worship service where the bread and juice are taken to remember Jesus and His sacrifice.  But what if Communion with God were something we tried to cultivate daily (even hourly and minute by minute).  In her book Eat With Joy (also a fantastic book on this subject and I highly recommend it), Rachel Marie Stone argues that things that happen around the table can’t happen anywhere else. “Perhaps more than anything, it’s the place where children absorb the message: These are my people, and I belong here.” What if we treated the family dinner table as a time of Communion, with each other, sure, but also with God?  I confess, our family dinner time doesn’t often feel like a time of communion and I wonder what changes on my part would be necessary to make it that way?

I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of the thoughts To The Table has sparked in me.  Questions like: who is involved in producing my food and what responsibilities do I have toward them? Questions about making sure animals are raised humanely and even soil treated in ways that fosters its health.  Thoughts about being more intentional in my gratitude for the thrice-daily miracle of sustenance.  These kinds of questions should beget many kinds of intentionality.  If I believe God is creator and provider of all things then the way I interact with His creation and provisions is an expression of my faith in Him.