The Spirit of Food

I hate tapas! There, I’ve said it. I can’t stand the current Melbourne obsession with multiple share-plates of miniscule ‘tastings’ that leave me nothing but frustrated and hungry. If I’m gong out to eat I want a meal I can sink my teeth into, as well as my mind. I want substance and depth, not a culinary tease! If I order the ‘hand-filleted Cantabrian artisan anchovy on crouton with smoked tomato sorbet’ I know it will be gone in seconds and leave nothing but the most fleeting memory. Why bother?

To be honest, my aversion to tapas goes beyond food. It’s the same with theology. And it’s exactly why I’ve avoided Leslie Leyland Fields’ The Spirit of Food for close to two years. When I see a book on a subject I care about—and food is definitely one of them—with the sub-title Thirty-four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, I struggle for a good reason to read it. If 34 authors share 257 pages, that means each one will have just 7.5 pages to make their point. That’s called theological tapas.

Don’t get me wrong. Just like items on a tapas menu take just as much skill and attention to create as more substantial fare, many of the essays show a compelling depth of engagement. But in such a brief form there is little space to develop an argument, make a case or even tell a story. So I’m not a fan.

Confession made, I concede my personal bias is not commonly shared. There are many who love tapas, and just as many–less gastronomically constipated than me–who will love the approach of this book. Fields has gathered a diverse collection of perspectives on the role food plays in nurturing faith and spirit. About a third of the essays come from other sources, including classics from Robert Farrar Capon and Wendell Berry. The bulk of contributions are written for the book.

The theme that holds the essays together, each concluding with a recipe, is Fields’ contention that food is sacrament—a daily, tangible expression of grace. The essays illustrate this with varying degrees of success. To be honest, a small handful could have been left off the menu altogether. Others are of a theological and personal depth that leaves you wanting more. Denise Frame Harlan’s And She Took Flour, Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma’s Choice Cuisine, and Jacqueline Rhodes’ The Soul of Soul Food are among those. Gina Ochsner’s Filled to Brokenness and Suzanne Wolfe’s This is My Body are both aching but intelligent stories of eating disorders, and Wolfe’s alone is worth the cost of the book.

As an aside, I often grieve the fact that the voices of those who work professionally in the kitchen are startlingly absent from collections like this. To her credit, Fields has included two of them. Sadly, neither of them shines. In fact, Reynaud’s In Praise of Hollandaise is close to a theological embarrassment but perhaps I’m expecting too much.

All in all, if you like tapas, there’s a good chance you’ll love this book. It certainly takes eating seriously and does so with moments of extraordinary insight. At its best, it entices, challenges, touches the heart and inspires the mind. I’ll just have to go elsewhere for the main course.

[This is a review written for an upcoming issue of Zadok Perspectives.  The book is Leslie Leyland Fields (ed), The Spirit of Food: Thirty-four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010]

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