The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Cascade Books, 2010) is a wonderful collection of essays by an all-star cast of gifted writers on the connections between food and Christian faith.
The book reminds me of one of those summer food festivals that feature samplings from all the best restaurants in town. I remember growing up with the annual Bite of Seattle. We would pay an entrance fee to get in and then tent by tent we would make our way around the festival stalls, gobbling up appetizer-sized portions of gourmet mu-shoo pork tacos and blackened salmon. In the same way The Spirit of Food invites the reader in to sample the gourmet writing of Lauren Winner, Wendell Berry, Ann Voskamp, Amy Frykholm, Alexander Schmemann, Robert Farrar Capon, and Leslie Leyland Fields who edited and coordinated this event/book. Interspersed among the more well-known authors are unique perspectives from dozens of others, all organized around the themes: On the Way to the Table, In the Kitchen, The Ways We Eat, Fasting, At the Table of the Lord, and Feasting.
Given the nature of the book I'm going to approach this review like it's a conversation in the car with a friend driving home from one of those food festivals. Let's call it "Bite of the Kingdom."
Friend: So how did you like The Spirit of Food/Bite of the Kingdom?
Me: I don't think I've ever read so many tasty morsels of food writing. (yes, the puns are irresistable) Just when I was savoring the offerings in one chapter I was drawn to the next. They did a really good job representing different perspectives on how food intersects with faith. I like that each author was given the freedom to engage the topic from their experience. I could tell that the authors really enjoyed writing on the subject and that came through in the reading of the book.
Friend: What was your favorite chapter?
Me: I'm a sucker for Berry, Schmemann, and Capon but I'm familiar with their work so their chapters were like comfort food that is flawlessly prepared, and tasty as usual, but its familiarity makes me look elsewhere for a favorite. I really enjoyed Amy Frykholm's treatment of Orthodox fasting rituals in which she writes about her experience as an exchange student in Russia where she "witnessed a fuller understanding of the body and soul in communion." I resonate with her desire for this kind communion. Suzanne Wolfe's description of her struggle with an eating disorder was wonderfully honest and served up just the right combination of the sweet hope of hunger satisfied and the sour despair of irreconcilable hungers.
Friend: But which was your favorite.
Me: Okay, if you're going to make me choose I'd have to say Lauren Winner's reflection on her experience with Kosher food laws as a Jew and the ways her experience with kashrut, as she calls it, might inform her foodways as a Christian. I was intrigued by her statement, "While Christians are not bound by the particularities of Deuteronominic dietary laws, we still may want to pay attention to the basic principle that underlies kashrut: God cares about our dietary choices." In summing up the provocative potential of Kosher food laws for Christians she says, "At its most basic level, keeping kosher requires you to be present to your food." She cites the "logic of kashrut" as she sketches the contours of a food ethic that includes paying attention and seasonal eating. She writes, "Food is part of God's creation. A right relationship with food points us toward him."
Her chapter really got me thinking about what other practices in the Bible and the history of the church might inform Christian approaches to food. It seems like an under-explored area in many church circles.
Friend: Yeah I enjoyed her chapter too. It sure is hard to choose a favorite.
Me: The only downside to The Spirit of Food is that you only get a small portion at each stop on the journey. Many of the chapters left me wanting a leisurely 10-course meal of reading to follow-up on the tantalizing appetizer.
Friend: But it's nice that the authors provide a recipe to accompany each chapter. I bet you could make a nice 10-course meal from the recipes in the book. My only complaint is that their wasn't a beer garden.
I think food may be the next big topic among American Christians and The Spirit of Food is the most accessible guide yet to the potential of food to shape Christian faith, and a convincing argument that it should. It would make a great Christmas present for your foodie friends. Buy it here.
See Eating as a Spiritual Practice: Is Food the Next Big Spiritual Discipline for American Christians for more on this trend.