You Are What You Eat

Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Nielson, and Nora L. Rubel eds. Religion, Food, and Eating in North America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Shabbos SaladTake half a banana and place it upright inside a pineapple slice sitting on a lettuce leaf, put a cherry on top and drown it in mayonnaise, and you have what the Junior Jewish Cook Book (1956) called a “Shabbos Candlestick Salad.” Together with recipes for Noah’s Ark Cookies, Queen Esther Salad, or Draydel Salad, the cook book hoped that this salad would help educate a new generation of Jewish children about their religious traditions. Their parents wanted them to learn about Judaism even if they themselves weren’t going to Synagogue any more, and fun recipes were an ideal way to do so. One of the big points that Religion, Food, and Eating in North America makes is that a wide variety of people practice their religions through what, how, and when they eat. An astonishing 60 percent of American Jews fast on Yom Kippur, for example, while only 47 percent belong to synagogues. Similarly, most Americans are likely to know that Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians or that Mormons don’t drink coffee even if they know next to nothing about the doctrines or other practices of these groups. Some new religious movements, such as the Peace Mission Movement, define themselves primarily in terms of their eating habits. When the Reverend M. J. Divine established the Peace Mission Movement in Harlem in 1919, he focused on the Eucharist as a “love feast” in which believers ate rich, bounteous foods that one would normally only touch on Thanksgiving or Christmas. The abundance of Father Divine’s table was the first thing visitors always commented on, and it reflected the prosperity gospel of material blessing that he promised to his followers.

GumboFood does not always express doctrine as clearly as it did in the Peace Mission Movement, but this volume is interested in how “foodways connect with religious ideas to support a religious culture.” Sometimes the ways religious people use food does not seem very religious at all. Derek S. Hicks’ article on “Gumbo and the Complex Brew of Black Religion,” for example, emphasizes how members of his family ate gumbo as if it was sacred. “In performative expressions of ethnic identity and culture [such as eating gumbo],” he writes, “blacks disclose and exchange values, styles of communication, and meaning through religion and rood.” Food creates identity in similar ways that religion does, but it is not clear from this article that gumbo is, or ever has been, a religious dish. This doesn’t necessary matter, Benjamin E. Zeller argues, because foodways such as vegetarianism and locavorism are like religions, even quasi-religions, in that they have “rituals, conversions, central texts, and ideas about saving the individual and the world.”

Ochun AltarElizabeth Pérez’s sophisticated argument about sugar in Afro-Cuban religions shows that slaves ate and valued sugar as well as growing it. She describes how plantation owners experimented on sick slaves to see whether sugar or honey might cure them, and followers of Lucumí or Yorùbá traditions believe that their gods have sweet tooths. Most offerings are of cakes, biscuits, or honey. Pérez reflects that devotees “feed the orishas in order to preserve themselves, and to nourish a vital source of oppositional identity and community. Sacred meals become mnemonic devices, facilitating the recollection of myths shot through with the countermemory of Afro-Atlantic historical experience erased or omitted entirely from the official record. It may well be that the power of sugar in Lucumí resides not so much in its sweetness as in the sweat and tears of coerced labor that sucrose crystallizes, and that devotees invite the spirits to share.”

Eating often serves much more practical goals inside American religions. Patrons of the Hallelujah Acres Lifestyle Centers, for example, go there because they are very sick, often with colon cancer, and are looking for a holistic raw food diet that will improve their health. They’re not after faith healing, but they do prefer an Evangelical focus more than organizations with secular or New Age philosophies. Similarly, whereas Mindful Eating is traditionally a Buddhist practice grounded in monastic communities and emphasizing a detachment from and disinterest in the body, many of its promoters in North America ignore its Buddhist roots entirely, presenting it as a way to enrich your life in this world, cherish your body and figure, and to “fall in love with the ordinary.” Jeff Wilson concludes that Mindful Eating is “a religious technique that has been largely stripped of its original religious context, then repackaged as a universal panacea that delivers all sorts of practical benefits, especially ones relating to health issues. Because mindfulness is said to deliver practical benefits – such as weight loss and better health – it is enthusiastically picked up by Buddhists Mindful Eatingand non-Buddhists alike, making a significant Buddhist contribution to American eating habits while changing what Buddhism itself is about. Thus the venerable pattern of domesticating Buddhism by using it to convey worldly benefits has been repeated once more, this time in the diet-obsessed culture of the contemporary United States.” Similarly, whereas most people have seen the dietary idiosyncrasies of the Nation of Islam as a rejection of “slave food,” Kate Holbrook makes the interesting argument that replacing sweet potatoes with carrots was actually about making Muslims healthier, because Elijah Muhammad believed that carrots were healthier than sweet potatoes. When Nation of Islam schools feed healthy food to their students or parents deny candy to their children, this is a way of incorporating “middle-class Protestant values into a new Islamic framework as a method of empowerment.” Healthy Muslims will be successful Muslims, and Jabir Muhammad, the founder’s son and Muhammad Ali’s trainer, claimed that the famous boxer’s personal cook had developed bean pie as a substitute for sweet potato pie as a way to keep the boxer healthy.

Concerns about social justice permeate both eating habits and religious values, and the inspiring final section of this volume is dedicated to “Activist Foodways.” Todd Levasseur’s chapter on Koinonia Farm tells the story of an intentional community of evangelical Christians in Georgia that uses collective farming and a dedication to self-sufficiency to promote “racial and gender equality, immigration acceptance, providing opportunities for the poor and the uneducated, care for the environment, finding alternatives to materialism and militarism, and TaqwaKoinonia’s unique history of Christian hospitality.” America’s Muslims are also concerned about sustainability, and Sarah E. Robinson studies the Taqwa Eco-Food Cooperative in Chicago, which says that it “aims to restore Islamic ethics in the raising of livestock and poultry. It does so by replacing inhumane farming practices with healthy and ecologically respectful techniques, thereby improving standards of food production.” Shireen Pishdadi (pictured), one of the founders of the Taqwa coop, argues that “Halal is not just about how you slaughter the animal, right? I mean, if you are exploiting people, right, enslaving people to grow your food, how is that halal?!” At a time when Muslims were under attack by the American media, Taqwa called them to take Islam more seriously and to apply its ethical concerns to everyday food and lifestyle choices. Even though Taqwa’s leaders are all laypeople and lack the authority of imams or Islamic scholars, they still issue a powerful challenge to America’s Muslims, one that more and more people are starting to take seriously as they think about how their religion and their eating intermingle.

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One thought on “You Are What You Eat

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