Some links on food, ethics, and religion

Brian McLaren writes about a pray-in at a Publix in Florida, supporting the rights of and improved working conditions for, migrant farm workers: We’re connected by what we eat . – Brian McLaren.

In a similar vein, Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle, talks about their Food with Integrity program (all of their pork is raised sustainably, for one thing):

If you look at the last nine years since introducing Food with Integrity ingredients and having to make modest price adjustments along the way, during that time, we had double digit same store growth, year after year, while bringing these quality store ingredients. So yes, I think it’s something that customers are starting to want more, and I think the demand is going to go up as they continue to understand the ramifications of not having a sustainable food supply. Not only on the taste of our food but also on our health.

In a similar vein, Mark Bittman argues that the cost differential between conventionally-raised and organic or sustainable production would vanish if subsidies were removed and the cost to the environment included.

The Other Journal continues to post conversations about food.

Stephen Webb’s essay, “Against the Gourmands: In praise of fast food as a form of fasting” is a lengthy attack on those who seek religious meaning in what and how we eat. It begins provocatively: “Food is fuel in much the same way that wood is fuel,” and goes on to take potshots at Babette’s Feast and William Cavanaugh.

Of course food is fuel, but it is also so much more. Cavanaugh’s response is here. He points out that

Webb denies that food is sacramental and subscribes to a kind of dualism in which, as he says, “fine dining is to the tongue and nose what a sexual orgy is to other bodily organs. In both cases, sensations have to be carefully paced and systematically parsed if satiation is to be postponed.” We can agree that overindulgence of the senses is certainly problematic, but I don’t have the same qualms about a sacramental view of food or the world in general. In principle, at least, it is entirely scriptural to see all creation as an icon of God and a potential window to God’s grace. Gluttony is a sin; Webb is surely right to say that Christians should not elevate the self-indulgent aesthetic appreciation of fine cuisine into a virtue. Just as surely, however, there is a distinction to be made between a properly sacramental point of view and an idolatrous one that simply collapses the divine into the material.

Perhaps even more importantly, Cavanaugh offers a scathing rebuttal to Webb’s conflation of the gourmand with social justice and concludes:

If Christians are attentive to our economic practices, we can help to create eucharistic spaces on earth that prefigure the fullness of the Babette’s feast that God has prepared for us. This does not mean gluttony. Insofar as Webb’s essay warns us against self-righteousness and self-indulgence, it is a salutary piece. Insofar as Webb encourages us to disregard the theological import of our practices of consumption, he is out to lunch.

Sam Rocha is somewhat more sympathetic to Webb than Cavanaugh but his criticism is much the same:

Webb’s tortured conservatism aside, his biggest mistake is to try to speak of food without recourse to the phenomenological experience of food and eating. (Babette’s Feast and fried catfish both immediately come to mind.) And what about the body? Surely we are not cars that run on fuel, surely our bodies are not combustion engines. For Webb, there is little difference. He invokes platitude after platitude about this thing called “food” to the point of making the laughable claim that, since the only non-utilitarian meal is the Eucharist, we might as well eat McDonald’s the rest of the time.

Odd Wisconsin

Is the title of ongoing changing exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum (just a few doors up from Grace Church). We’re coming up on the second anniversary of our arrival in Badgerland and some things about Wisconsin remain strange. Many of those oddities have to do with food. We’ve heard mention of the fact that for many years it was illegal to sell margarine in the state and never quite believed it. But here’s an article reflecting back on that piece of history. And now there’s a movie about it!

On another Wisconsin food matter–Andrew Sullivan had several threads about Limburger cheese this week. The only remaining manufacturer is in Monroe Wisconsin. I knew the reputation and was hesitant when selecting my lunch at the Paoli Bread and Brathaus but decided to take a chance and ordered the Stinky Bratburger. Here’s a picture:

The burger itself was delicious and the cheese (which I don’t recall having ever tasted) remarkably complex and not all that aromatic, certainly nothing like the ripe  (Alsatian) muensters I’m fond of.

First Monday in July

In July, our First Monday fell on the 4th. We entertained about 70 guests with bluegrass music, brats, sauerkraut, and poundcake with ice cream. Thanks to all of our volunteers, and to the vendors. The brats and buns came from Mad Dog’s Eatery on N. Henry St.; the sauerkraut came from Porchlight Products, and the ice cream was from Sassy Cow Creamery.

Thanks to everyone who helped out and those who were willing to volunteer but weren’t needed. See you next month!

Here are pictures:

Food and Faith: Some links

Scott Korb in Latham’s, on the moral ambiguity of eating, especially the question of meat-eating v. vegetarianism:

After spending time on a Virginia hog farm with Edna Lewis, it seems clear that deep and proper participation with plants and animals means raising them well and then living well by eating them. Plants and animals need us as much as we need plants and animals. Indeed, in this world dominated by industrial agriculture, the lives and needs of animals could not be more desperate.

Walter Brueggeman on the “food fight” in Scripture: A battle between “aggressive accumulation” exemplified by Pharaoh’s stockpiling in advance of famine and “grateful abundance” that includes the concepts of creation, doxology, and Sabbath.

An essay from The Other Journal on the church potluck:

That’s why I groan, finally, over the church potluck. If anyone is going to feed me, I want Jesus to do it. I want him to be my host. I want to be his guest. In the meantime, I have the casserole queen and the pot­providence elder and the brownie-mouthed children, all of us desperate for the same thing. We are doing, each of us, what we can to host each other and to be each other’s guests. At the church potluck, all distinc­tions between guest and host are gone. We are neither. We are both. We need more than we can say, more than we can give.

The Other Journal issue on “Food and Flourishing” begins with an interview with Norman Wirzba on his recent book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating:

At the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan has this party scene where he, along with his friends, puts together a meal where everything has been either hunted or gathered. They’ve spent a lot of time preparing this big feast, and as they’re sitting around the table, he says that he was longing for a language that wasn’t at his disposal. It was the kind of language that he would call a religious sort of language, the sacred. And I think Pollan’s right in suggesting that this is the direction that you have to go if you’re going to talk about food in its real depth. I respect and have learned a lot from Pollan—I think he’s got a lot of very important things to teach us—but I think you have to go further, you have to go in the direction of theology, because you have to be able to deal with the fact that eating is a matter of life and death.

First Monday at Grace–May

The menu was ham (again from Weber’s Meats in Cuba City–They’re the best!) and macaroni and cheese (one guy said it was the world’s best, another said it was better than his momma made), biscuits, green beans, and pound cake with strawberries. Music was provided by the Kat trio. They were great!

We served about ninety last night. The total number of shelter guests is down because of summer hours, but we had a line of people waiting for dinner who weren’t staying in the shelter. Many of them had eaten with us in previous months and remembered the good food and the good times.

What’s especially exciting to see is the emergence of real community among the volunteers. We’ve got a core of folks who come every week, some of them from Grace, some of them from the community, and as we work together, we are developing camaraderie and deepening relationships. That’s picked up on by newcomer volunteers who want to come back after their first time.

Here are a couple of photos:

That’s the Kat Trio

The joy of last night was tempered this afternoon when a guy came by the church looking for me. I don’t remember if he was at the meal last night, but I know he was at last month’s, because he was drunk and maudlin and asked to talk with me privately for a time. Today, he was drunk again, and he wanted me to help him get to detox. He said he hadn’t eaten in two days. I called the cops to transport him and off he went. I hope it goes well for him.

The Myth of a faith-based social safety net

The Episcopal Cafe addresses the question whether churches and other non-profits can fill the gap caused by budget cuts: The Myth of a faith-based social safety net. It points to a piece by Mark Silk. Here’s the study by Chaves and Wineburg to which both the Episcopal Cafe and Mark Silk refer: Chaves_Wineburg_FaithBasedInitiative&Congregations.

I point this out because I attended an event this morning organized by the Roundy’s Foundation, at which Roundy’s distributed food and money to a number of food pantries and other agencies. Grace’s pantry was one of the recipients. In the course of the program, Chris Brockel of Community Action Coalition cited the increasing numbers of families in Dane County seeking food assistance in the last several years. In fact, the statistics are shaking–a 50% increase in number of families and total number of individuals, seeking food assistance, and a 50% increase in numbers of prepared meals served between 2007 and 2010. Given the level of proposed budget cuts, both on the state and federal level, one can only imagine what the numbers will be like in a couple of years, and the decreased ability of social service agencies to respond to the need. We get much of our food either from the Community Action Coalition (at no cost) or Second Harvest (where we pay only $.18/lb). Of the former, a great deal comes through federal programs.

Here are a couple of photos from the event:


Thanks to Roundy’s for their generous donation of food (over 2000 lb) and a check for $500 intended to go for the purchase of perishables.

Foodies and the sacred

B.R. Myers goes on a tirade against foodies in the March The Atlantic. Having read a number of recent books on the theme, he got enough ammunition for some cheap shots:

So secure is the gourmet community in its newfound reputation, so sure is it of its rightness, that it now proclaims the very qualities—greed, indifference to suffering, the prioritization of food above all—that earned it so much obloquy in the first place. Bourdain starts off his book by reveling in the illegality of a banquet at which he and some famous (unnamed) chefs dined on ortolan, endangered songbirds fattened up, as he unself-consciously tells us, in pitch-dark cages. After the meal, an “identical just-fucked look” graced each diner’s face. Eating equals sex, and in accordance with this self-flattery, gorging is presented in terms of athleticism and endurance. “You eat way past the point of hitting the wall. Or I do anyway.”

But his attempts at put down are often little more than cheap shots. For example:

And when foodies talk of flying to Paris to buy cheese, to Vietnam to sample pho? They’re not joking about that either. Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts.

But he does point to something in his essay, foodie culture as a search for meaning, even spirituality (but that’s my wife’s project):

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as “gods,” to restaurants as “temples,” to biting into “heaven,” etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”

His essay repeatedly cites examples of food writers grasping for spiritual language to interpret their experiences and their lives. Of course, he is critical of such efforts, but it seems to me that the use of such language is an attempt to make meaning. At its best, he foodie quest is above all, for authenticity and meaning. Given the prevalence of religious language in the movement, it seems also a quest for the sacred.

His essay is here: The Moral Crusade Against Foodies – Magazine – The Atlantic.

For a rejoinder, read Patrick Lam’s takedown in Salon.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, there’s the Episcopal Foodie Network.