The Spirit of Food Introduction

The season’s first salmon hang headless in my daughter’s hands, one fish in each, as she walks them up the hill to the house. From the front steps, I can see their heft and length, the shine of their silvered scales, their shimmering backs. I am anxious to hold them myself. It is the first week of the commercial salmon fishery, a profession my children and husband have worked in nearly since birth. For me, it’s been thirty-three seasons here on this remote Alaskan island.

I grasp their tails from my daughter on the porch; slide their arm- length bodies onto the counter-sized cutting board. With one hand firm on the skin-thin armor, I begin to steak out the fish with the other. The first cut almost makes me gasp as though I have cut my own finger— the flesh is deep carmine, so bright—is this my own blood? I know this color, can see it, even taste it in the sleep of memory. How many salmon have I gutted and cleaned and portioned on the shore of my island, on this very cutting board these thirty-three years? I keep slicing, the dissection so enlivening my senses I do not measure or make any attempt at uniformity. How shall I cook it, this fish we have been waiting for all winter? Shall I grill it with melted butter, minced garlic, and white wine, my favorite flavors? No, for the first fish, something new, something untried and spontaneous, fitting this exact moment and these precise two fish. I begin with melted butter and minced garlic then riffle through my cupboard pulling down brown sugar, a spicy pepper blend, parsley . . . formulating as my hands consider each potential spice, a slow idea of what I would aim for, yes, this time a sweet and spicy crust. Even now, I couldn’t say how many minutes to grill the fish. I don’t follow a clock when grilling. I am not interested in creating a numerical formula for the safe and simplified replication of my attempts at perfection. I stand and watch, testing the juices, whisking each piece off when the flesh begins to turn translucent. Each piece on its own schedule.

I carry the platter of steaks to the kitchen. The mood at the table today is jubilant. Everyone has just come in from a morning on the ocean, picking salmon from the nets. My four older children, who run their own boats, report a good catch. The northeast storm forecast for this morning had mostly passed. Everyone is still fresh in the season, before the long weeks of work drain their strength and anticipation.

I set the salmon on the table, the steaks assembled in a glass dish. Around it, I arrange bowls of steamed broccoli, rice pilaf, fresh fruit salad, ciabatta that I finished making this morning. Meals later in the summer will include wild mushrooms from the pasture, fresh halibut and cod from our front yard waters, deer from our own mountainside, salmonberries from the meadow, leaf lettuce from our garden—if the voles are merciful.

While the food steams on the table, eight faces look at me expectantly, waiting for the signal for prayer. “I’m going to do something a little different today,” I say hesitant, knowing that multiple appetites are rumbling under the table and knowing how puny the spirit can feel before such need.

“This is the first salmon of the season. You all know the tradition that fishermen kiss the first fish. Anyone do that today?” my oldest son rolls his eyes, wanting only to eat. I hurry on.

“I’m going to read something before we start.”

I pull my Bible onto the table, and before anyone can resist, I begin:
“This is from the book of Job: ‘But ask the animals and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.’”
Everyone listens, watching the food. Then I pray aloud for all of us, that this season we will not forget this. I want to say far more, to deliver a sermon, but I stop, knowing the wafers of fish on our tongues will deliver its own message.

We eat. Faces are too close to the plates, forks are shoveling, heads lift with butter smeared on cheeks and crumbs lodged in beards. Everyone talks with their mouth full; we tease each other; someone will have to yell to get the salad; at least one cup of iced tea will be spilled, and we’ll run out of bread. These are our glorious, blessed feasts.

Like many in our culture today, I am fascinated by food—the whorl of purple cabbage as I slice, each head a distinct pattern as unique as any fingerprint; the crust that forms on a loaf of whole wheat sourdough; the elasticity of a skein of hand-rolled pasta hanging in my hands before the drop into a boiling pot. Not just the handling and preparation of food, but its history, its science, the art of arranging its astonishing colors and textures.

Perhaps I would love food no matter my own life story, but I love it all the more for having discovered it on my own, as an adult. While growing up, food was a grim necessity that I mostly avoided. Breakfast for my entire childhood was leftover twelve-grain cereal, the same pot of cereal heated over and over each day until it was gone. Lunch was a single sandwich in a bag, always the same. For supper, we ate canned mackerel mixed with mayonnaise, lettuce, and raisins, or boiled soybeans, or chicken necks and rice. There was little or no food between meals. We did not cook from recipes—no matter the recipe, we didn’t have the ingredients. Cooking was more a matter of assembling whatever we had and heating it, if desired. But we grew massive gardens, and our winter paucity was eased by an overflow of vegetables that assured at least a fresh salad every summer night.

When I left home at seventeen, I did not know how to eat. The whole world became one giant cafeteria filled with new dishes and foods (real spaghetti sauce!). I saw that food could be beautiful and sensual and spiritual. I wanted to eat everything, and nearly did, trying to fill that long, deep hunger. Overeating was followed by starvation, beginning years of struggle to find a way to approach food without fear, lust, or guilt.

I have been healthy for a long time now, and I have found that the food that once threatened me contained its own seeds of healing. I feed myself and many people every day, and I labor joyfully and passionately to feed them well with homemade jellies, grass-fed beef and deer, whole grain hand-made breads.

I am hardly alone in my various food pursuits. We’ve become a nation of foodies, whether the food is junk and fast or organic and slow, whether boutique fare or dinner fare, comfort food or haute cuisine, whether we’re gaining weight or losing it.

Eating out is a national pastime. Cooking in and hosting supper clubs and dinner parties is popular entertainment. Culinary schools are full. And food isn’t just for eating anymore—we are watching more cooking shows than ever. At least one network is devoted entirely to food. Even radio shows bring us tales from the kitchen. A widening array of books on food stacks the best-seller lists and the shelves of local bookstores: cookbooks, food memoirs, exposés, histories, biographies.

This national attention to all things food-related is needed and overdue. Perhaps we are revolting against the age of information that harnesses us to desks and computers for most of the day, our bodies forgotten in this bodiless realm. Many writers, growers, nutritionists, and theologians are calling us back from a kind of forgetfulness and inattention to our physicality, our appetites and our food, a neglect that quite literally threatens our health. We eat far too many meals one-handed, the other on a steering wheel. So many of us eat too much of the wrong foods too fast. Family dinners are threatened by our all-consuming schedules. We all know the consequences: rising rates of obesity and diabetes, the pandemic backlash of eating disorders, the projected costs to our national health, the growing toxicity of our soil and food supply.

In the midst of plenty, we have forgotten how to eat, it seems. Our kids have grown up in a world where ketchup and french fries are counted as vegetables, where soda is the beverage of choice, and where meat and a gooey dessert is expected at every meal. I see schoolchildren eating diced hot dogs and slurping salted, fried noodles from Styrofoam cups for lunch everyday. Meal bars are increasingly replacing plates of steaming dinners and hot breakfasts. We are in the midst of a “national eating disorder” pronounces the New Yorker magazine.

There’s a lot at stake besides our personal health, though that is serious enough. Increasingly, we are understanding the wider costs of our food choices: the impact on our God-created environment as we have shifted from family farms and ranches to Agri-businesses, where efficiency overrules integrity and environmental stewardship. Genetically modified foods raise a number of biological and ethical questions. The inhumane treatment of animals that provide us with meat, dairy, and eggs cause us to question our compassion and responsibility. With frequent breakouts of food-borne illnesses, we wonder about the safety of our food supply.

If we follow the news, the best-selling books, the latest diet trend, the debates and exposés of our national food practices and production, we can feel overwhelmed. Guilty. The table we stand before is no longer a banquet table offering sustenance; it’s a minefield threatening our own destruction or the destruction of the planet. With our plate in hand, our stomachs rumbling, and our well-informed minds on alert, we survey the offerings as we walk the length of the table: that appetizer is full of trans-fat; that plate of fruit is bathed in pesticides; that salad exploits migrant workers; that noodle casserole is nutritionally bankrupt; that stroganoff comes from abused animals. We are paralyzed. What do we choose? How do we eat? How do we respond as people of faith? And if we make all the right choices, will good food rightly procured and produced then save us?

Even as I ask these questions, I know something is missing. Something our grandmothers and mothers knew at their church potlucks, as they carried to the communal tables Velveeta broccoli casseroles and Jell-o salads greener than any fruit dared to grow. In our zeal for purity and right living, we may have forgotten something other generations and cultures knew. That food is more than politics; food is more than economics; food is more than culture, entertainment, nutrition, even justice. As important as each of these is, none of them singly identifies or describes all that food is and does and is meant to be.
Food is nothing less than sacrament. All food is given by God and is given as a means to sustain not just our bodies, but also our minds and our spirits. In all of its aspects—growth, harvest, preparation, and presentation—food is given as a primary means of drawing us into right relationship toward God, toward his creation and his people. Even its intentional absence, through fasting, pulls us toward a deeper dependence on God and one another.

As I turn to the scriptures now, I am amazed at the centrality of food in its pages. God’s redemption story opens in a garden, where some of God’s first words to the first man and woman were words about eating: “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed . . . and every tree . . . to you it shall be for meat.” The whole world is presented to them as their table. “Every bite of food, given by God himself, is to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God,” Alexander Schmemman writes in For the Life of the World (14). But the world fell into sin soon after those loving provisions. Our dependence on food, air, and water became a tightly enclosed circle, where these elements became an end in themselves, the source of both life and fulfillment. Into the midst of this lifeless cycle, Jesus came. He came as “living water,” as the “bread of life,” and he spent much of his time feeding the hungry both truth and loaves of barley bread. He taught us to pray for “our daily bread.” He ate and drank so freely with friends and sinners he was accused of gluttony and drunkenness. He fasted as well, demonstrating his physical and spiritual dependence upon his heavenly father. He chose to spend his last hours on earth at a dinner with his disciples, where he chose homely bread and local wine to mark his death and ongoing life within us. When he returned, after death, he proved his physical presence among his friends by sharing a meal with them. While we sup on the bread and wine of the eucharist, we wait hungrily for the marriage supper of the lamb, when we will drink and feast to the nowness of the kingdom of God, its presence made real and present to us through its wondrous food.

In that feast and after that feast, we will do far more than simply sit at a banquet table, eating food God has made holy. Zechariah, my new favorite minor prophet, who surely loved food, tells us that at the end of time, when heaven comes down to earth, a throng will gather on a pilgrimage to the new Jerusalem, to worship God and celebrate the feast of Tabernacles, an eight-day festival of eating and worship. Zechariah ends his entire book with this image of heaven:
On that day Holy To The Lord will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them.
Every pot will be holy to the Lord. Mine. Yours. And every soup and vegetable and grain and fish and casserole and soufflé and crepe prepared within them will be holy to all who partake, and holy to the God to whom it all belongs.

Perhaps we’re not to wait for this day. Perhaps we are to begin now, growing, harvesting, cooking, serving from pots made holy by our work, our love, our worship. I don’t pretend to understand or even to practice all of this now. I am only beginning to implement ways to better attend to the spirit of food in my life. But I have found lots of help. I have gathered around myself a company of adventurous and inspiring writers and cooks who have opened their gardens, their kitchens, and their tables. With theology as enriching as their food, they illuminate the many ways that food has drawn them toward God, toward his creation, toward his church, and toward their neighbors. In a time of great interest and equal confusion over the place of food in our lives, this rich collection will delight the senses, feed the spirit, enlarge our understanding, and deepen our ability to “eat and drink to the glory of God.” Take, eat, and be blessed!