Monthly Archives: March 2012

On food fundamentalists

It’s no secret … I like food. In fact, there’s little else I would rather do than cook and eat. And in between to think and read about it. I love recipe books and restaurant guides, food markets and cafes. Tragically, I even relish weighty books on the anthropology, psychology and theology of food. But one thing I cannot stomach is a diet book. Reduce food to a regimented system or nutritional table and I’d rather put my head in the microwave.

I have a friend who has made a life choice to live according to a particular diet. And I respect his choice.  But I learned long ago that, for the sake of our friendship, I should not eat with him. He’s downright evangelical about his dietary lifestyle and feels compelled to share his faith at every opportunity. For me, the joy of eating turns to nervous anxiety.

Not long ago I read about the advent of ‘orthorexia nervosa’, a rising pathological fixation on eating the right foods (‘ortho’ meaning straight or correct). According to the dietician Steven Bratman, where the bulimic or anorexic focuses on the quantity of food, the orthorexic is obsessed with its quality and the analysis of its nutritional content: ‘All three give food an excessive place in the scheme of life. The transference of all of life’s value into the act of eating makes orthorexia a true disorder.’

Recently an ex-vegan-raw-foodist and ex-evangelist for the Natural Hygiene movement in the US, Ward Nicholson, suggested clear correlations between religious and dietary zealots. ‘Everything you can get out of a theological religion, you can get out of a dietary religion,’ he said; ‘Guilt, redemption, salvation, heroes and heroines to emulate, a supreme end-state perfection to strive for, being one of the chosen, a behavioural morality to judge oneself and others by, a worldview that explains evil—why people become sick and die—and how to conquer that evil. You can even be a guru and save your friends.’

While I’m not suggesting my friend is an orthorexic, if there is such a thing, I do grieve the rising obsession with food as an element of life to be managed rather than enjoyed. Certainly healthy eating is a critical issue for human wellbeing, but I think good eating has much more to do with relationship than it has with rules, systems or calories. A food obsession disconnected from community is just bad news. I reckon.

Sara Miles’ ‘Take this Bread’

No doubt, one of the best reads for me in the past two years was Sara Miles’ Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion. I can’t claim it a life changer, but as a memoir of conversion centered at the table of God, it’s a book that’s affirmed for me so much about faith, eucharist and church, and in the most compelling way.

Miles, a left-leaning journalist, political activist and atheist, was not the most likely candidate for conversion to Christian faith, yet stumbling into a celebration of communion in an Episcopal church in San Francisco, Miles found an experience of profound change. In this act of ‘eating Jesus’, she discovered the beginning of a radical turn-around in everything that mattered to her. And nothing in Miles’ life, nor in the life of her congregation, would be the same again.

The beauty of Miles’ book is that this is more, far more, than a story of personal conversion. It’s about the out-working of that conversion in the feeding of the poorest and most marginalized in her home city. It’s the story of food pantries blossomed all over San Francisco, ministries of hospitality that have extended the table of the church far beyond the bounds of the sanctuary. But it’s also an honest story. For the most part, Miles avoids the idealized and overly romantic haze that can surround stories like this and the result is a much more grounded and empowering book for those who read.

In Miles’ words, her story is political as well as personal:

At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary ideological crusades, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action. What I found wasn’t about angels, or going to church, or trying to be ‘good’ in a pious, idealized way. It wasn’t about arguing a doctrine — the Virgin birth, predestination, the sinfulness of homosexuality and divorce — or pledging blind allegiance to a denomination. I was, as the prophet said, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the poor, the despised and the outcasts are honored.

It’s a compelling read and I recommend it.

Ruhlman’s ‘The Soul of a Chef’

UnknownSeriously, how could I not? With the title The Soul of a Chef, I didn’t much care what was in it. The title was enough to warrant a prominent place on the shelf. And the thought that this might truly be a serious exploration of spirituality in the professional world of the kitchen … the possibility was good enough for me.

This is not Ruhlman’s first literary stirring of the pot.  In fact, those who’ve read his previous books — most notably The Making of a Chef — will note some repetition.  Still, you can’t sniff at Ruhlman’s energy or insight, and certainly not at his writing style.  This is a good read!

As the title promises, Ruhlman sets out to discover what it is that lies at the soul of a great chef.  What it is that motivates, energises and inhabits such a person?  What is it about his spirit — and Ruhlman’s focus is clearly on the male experience — that propels him to become the best in an all-consuming and unforgiving profession?  Most importantly, where does the obsessive and relentless drive for perfection come from?

In pursuit of answers, Ruhlman spends eight days observing the self-selecting group undergoing the gruelling Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam at the Culinary Institute of America.   He follows this with extended observations of Michael Symons of Lola in Cleveland — one of the rising stars of the American culinary world — and the internationally renowned Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley.

In the end, Ruhlman is defeated by his own intentions.  I’m not sure he even understands what he means by that slippery word ‘soul’.  Still, he has done far more and far better than me!  And along the way he does provide significant insights into what makes these unusual beings tick.  Perhaps it’s his exploration of the work of Thomas Keller that provides the greatest promise.  Keller, a self-described (with tongue in cheek) ‘Buddhist monk in search of perfection,’ is undoubtedly one who embraces his profession as a spiritual practice and his movement toward excellence as a pilgrimage of meaning.

There is much here that adds a new depth to the appreciation of great chefs and the contribution they make to the world.   I recommend it!




Hotel Babylon

Honestly, it’s such a tawdry read I’m almost embarrassed to say I read it. But I did and it has some redeeming features.

UnknownHotel Babylon is an atrociously voyeuristic account of a 24-hour period in one of London’s luxury five-star hotels. The storyteller, we are told, is an employee working a double shift on the reception desk. Though it’s more likely an accumulation of experiences over a much longer period of time – condensed in this form for the sake of a good read – it still provides insight into the high end of the hospitality industry. You just have to sort through the embellishments from the facts.

Where the book shines is in the glimpses it provides into the experience of hotel workers, especially those who inhabit the back end of these establishments. At one point, the author sits in the staff cafeteria amongst a group of ‘chambermaids’ on their lunch break. What he observes is telling.

These women all work hard and, for some reason, they seem to take pride in what they are doing.  Why they would take pride in putting a chocolate on someone’s pillow or placing a facecloth at the correct forty-five-degree angle from the basin, is anyone’s guess.  But apparently they do.  I take a bite of my bread, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to deal with skid-marked sheets for a living.  At least, I have the possibility of moving on and up in my job — to duty manager and possibly to manager.  Working in a hotel is all I ever wanted to do from the age of six.  I swear it was a childhood dream of mine, to work my way up and maybe have a hotel of my own one day.  But these women sitting opposite me can’t even dream.  It’s terrible: they are destined to clean up after other people forever.  Chambermaids don’t get promoted; they just get fired.  Even the head housekeeping job is usually given to some girl on a management traineeship.  Chambermaids start cleaning up toothpaste, and they end cleaning up toothpaste.  They get their four and a half pounds an hour, their two to three meals a day, and the occasional fiver from some passing American.  It makes me depressed just sitting here.

Anonymous and I. Edwards-Jones, Hotel Babylon, New York: Penguin, 2004.

Halligan’s ‘The Taste of Memory’

resized_9781741143126_224_297_FitSquareIn my view, Marion Halligan is one of the most intelligent food writers on Australian shores.  While her second food-related memoir, The Taste of Memory, will not suit all palates, I found it a mesmerising and gentle read.

As a writer, Halligan is insightful and easy to be with. More importantly, she is wise—a moderating voice in a genre often given to pomposity.  For Halligan, food is a conversation, a relationship, a way of being in everyday life.  Its beauty is in its simplicity, its connection to the earth and its rhythms and seasons.  Halligan understands food.

This little book is part philosophy, part literary review, part story, part cultural critique and part recipe book. It’s an evocative and intimate recollection of the significant ways food is a part of our spirits, individually and communally.

I’ve often thought that one day I’d like to write something about food.  Yet too often the confession sticks in my throat.  Are there not more pressing issues?  For me, Halligan’s approach is inspiring and permission-giving. Perhaps it’s an honorable aspiration after all.