Monthly Archives: July 2012

Soup and democracy

I like soup.  During these cold winter months I make a large pot every weekend–pumpkin and ginger, corn and asparagus, chicken noodle, lamb and veggie, lentil and chorizo.  For me there’s nothing as comforting, no meal as intimate or satisfying as a bowl of soup served with a good sourdough.  It warms the soul as well as the tummy.

I also like kitchen stories. One of my favourites is Ian Kelly’s wonderful biography of Antonin Carême, Cooking for Kings.   Carême lived and worked in 19th century Paris. Arguably the world’s  first celebrity chef, he was one of the founders of haute cuisine.  At his peak Carême cooked for the who’s-who of European aristocracy, from Napoleon to King George IV, from the Ramonovs to the Rothschilds.  Integral to his fame and influence were his best-selling recipe books.  By marrying food and glamour, taking readers to the kitchens and dining rooms of the rich and famous, Carême raised the profile of cooking and established the benchmarks of professional cookery for generations to come.

Despite inhabiting the world of culinary excess, Carême held tenaciously to the view that every meal, no matter how lavish or ordinary, must begin with soup.  In Carême’s mind there were two reasons for this.  Firstly, eating soup was a democratic act.  The great leveller of social standing, a bowl of soup served to both pauper and king was the most tangible daily expression of community and equality.  Secondly, Carême believed that soup was a healing food, good for body and soul.  In fact, the earliest French eating houses served nothing else, for going to a restaurant was considered, quite literally, a restorative (restauratif) act.  Soup was the only food necessary.

Conceivably, Carême’s passion for soup had something to do with  his beginnings.  Born into abject poverty in the early 1800s—child number fourteen of twenty six children—he was abandoned by his father as a young child on the streets of Paris.  Eventually, he began his working life as a modest pastry chef and from there began his meteoric rise in the world of gastronomy.  Perhaps along the way, the humble soup was a reminder of who he was and where he had come from.

I’m not sure my reasons for preferring soup are quite as noble as Carême’s, but I do reckon the humble pot of soup deserves respect.  Perhaps this weekend I’ll ferret out the faux-silver terrine and make it look a little grand!

Jung’s ‘Food for Life’

I prattle on a lot about eating as a spiritual act, and I believe it. But to say it’s a spiritual act does not claim eating as eternally positive. Halos and cornflakes don’t always go together.

To claim eating as spiritual is to affirm it as an act of meaning. As the oft-quoted culinary philosophy goes, we are what we eat: that is, what, where, how and with whom we eat speaks volumes about our most primary values. Those values may be life- and community-affirming, or not. But they are values all the same. Such is our spirituality—the most daily expression of what we truly believe, both positively and negatively.

The contemporary proliferation of eating disorders is a tragic illustration of the point. An eating disorder is eating gone wrong, evidence of deeper values and beliefs that are themselves disordered. How such disordering happens or where it originates is complex. Regardless, disorders like these point to a disordered spirituality, but a spirituality no less.

Theologian L. Shannon Jung wrote the book Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating out of his own struggle with an eating disorder and his consequent battle with obesity. Though he doesn’t dwell on his own story, his willingness to name it adds immeasurable worth to his writing.

In Part 1, Jung affirms eating as a profoundly joyful act, one through which we delight in God’s goodness in the most tangible way. But that joy is diminished, he argues, when the act of eating is a disconnected one: disconnected from its source, the Giver of life and sustenance; and disconnected from relationship with our fellow human beings and the earth itself.

For Jung, food is gift: first it’s the gift of delight: a daily and routine reminder of the providence of God. Second, it’s the gift of sharing: the commitment to hospitality, mission and justice that flows naturally from genuine delight. According to Jung, disordered eating is eating disconnected from one or both of these gifts.

In Part 2, Jung very helpfully places personal eating disorders in the broader context of communal or societal disorders. He lists four categories of disorder, each violating eating as gift.

1. Systemic / Global Disorders: According to data from the World Health Organization, at least 1.1 billion people worldwide get too few calories to ward off hunger, while another 1.1 billion take in too many. Referring to the world supermarket of food distribution, Jung writes: ‘The values that dominate … are designed to promote a level of consumption and greed that will produce the greatest amount of profit and market share. Rather than design a system that will provide food for everyone (which is manifestly possible) and will delight all, the system is designed to produce food that is upscale, convenient, processed, and cheap for the consumers who can afford it.’

2. Lifestyle Disorders: We live and eat in a context in which consumption rather than relationship is now the key to participation and validation: ‘The food industry spends billions of dollars each year on advertising and promotion to create an environment that constantly pressures us to consume.’

3. Interpersonal Disorders: For some, the long-term deprivation of interpersonal relationships results in a fear of relating to others or the complete loss of the skills to do so. Food becomes an activity of solitude. ‘Often it is easier to eat alone that face the threat of relating.’ More fundamentally, ‘we have abrogated responsibility for each other and, at the most tangible level, responsibility of caring for each other physically and materially.’

4. Personal Disorders: Jung describes the ‘popular salvation myth’ that encourages us to fixate on our bodies and, in some cases, engage in disordered eating patterns as a result: ‘Eating disorders are the result of distorted desires for wholeness and salvation that cannot be fulfilled short of God’s grace. … They are hungry ghosts who can never be filled, but whose craving and grasping and self-conscious emptiness violate our happiness and put us on the treadmill of concupiscence.’

In all of this, Jung says, we are caught … caught in our complicity with unjust global food systems, and in our perversity, loving those very things that are not good for us. What’s more, we are driven by an underlying cultural belief in scarcity, ‘thus we think we have to grab the goodies before they are gone.’ Addressing this complicity and perversity in the kitchen is both a personal and communal challenge.

In the final Part 3 of the book, Jung addresses this challenge for both individual people of faith and for the church. His perspective is an important one, sensitively and accessibly written for a wide audience. It’s a good place to begin in the exploration of eating and faith.

Stephanie Alexander and obsession

‘He’s obsessed!’ I heard a friend of mine described that way recently, behind his back. It’s a powerful tag, obsession. It infers a dark side. In fact, the most common use of the term renders obsession a dysfunction, something to transcend in favour of personal wholeness. Proponents of that holy grail — work-life balance — paint obsession’s imbalance a wrong to be righted. But I often wonder, does obsession deserve a little more credit?

9781742534947I am a devoted fan of the Australian chef Stephanie Alexander. Her autobiography A Cook’s Life stands apart from so many others in the genre, a refreshingly honest account of her life and career without the self-aggrandisement painfully common to such books. The first Stephanie’s Restaurant in Fitzroy opened just two years before my own kitchen apprenticeship began, and it feels like this matriarch of the kitchen has been present ever since. The second incarnation of her restuarant in its stately Hawthorn home was simply one of the finest and most influential restaurants this country has known. Across two decades Stephanie Alexander was unequalled in Melbourne’s culinary world. Even today, her publishing phenomena The Cook’s Companion sits perennially open on my kitchen bench.

What’s clear about Stephanie’s story and her rise to prominence is the obsession that’s driven her from beginning to end. She alludes to it in her writing, occasionally naming it more explicitly, but she doesn’t need to. Her life’s obsessions with excellence, beauty and perfection are there on every page.

This story should not be about Stephanie’s Restaurant but about my life. But for the next seventeen years Stephanie’s was my life. The pressure and the challenge of trying to create something so special meant that everything else became subordinate. It was not that I did not value my family and friends — I absolutely needed them. But I could not find a way of managing and operating the restaurant without it sucking every gram of energy from me. My connection with the real world of political issues of the day and contemporary culture became superficial. All these things I recognised as important but I had set myself an all-consuming task.

The personal cost that Stephanie has paid for her success is considerable and deeply felt:

In among all the lists in the notebooks just sometimes there is a sentence reflecting sadness or despondency: ‘At least once a day I feel utter despair at the enormity of the task and the impossibility of achieving perfection.’ Why did I think perfection was ever achievable or necessary? The relentless quest for the unattainable meant that I too easily overlooked the joy and delight in the present moment.

Though Stephanie never uses the word regret, there is a nagging unease in her self-assessment. Her honesty is disarming and an unexpected gift to the reader:

Looking back, I have to admit that I made some very bad decisions. I always believed I could do it all and have it all. A restaurant and a baby — no problems. A restaurant and two young children — easy. A restaurant, a regular column, writing a book and two children — no problem at all. It’s significant that the ‘marriage’ is not up there in importance with the restaurant. I do not believe it was arrogance, I believe it was the unthinking hope that the marriage would look after itself while I forged ahead creating, doing, writing, carousing.

In the world of fine gastronomy, Stephanie is not alone. Obsession is as uniform among those who succeed as the chef’s whites. Absolute obsession. Indeed without it we would simply not have the vibrant restaurant scene we now take for granted.

We may well want to critique the costs of obsession, and there are many. But we can only do so acknowledging there is hardly anything of lasting beauty in this world that exists without it. What’s more, we crave and value its results: from the excellence of our barista’s coffee to the sublime beauty of an aria; from the inspiration of Luther King’s obsession with justice to the stirring beauty of an artwork hung in a gallery. Even David’s spiritual obsession expressed in his prayer, ‘One thing I ask of the Lord and this is what I seek …’ It’s obsession that creates beauty out of ashes. It’s obsession that wrestles justice from darkness. And all our lives are richer for it.

There’s no doubt, Stephanie’s was the great establishment it was because Stephanie was obsessed, and at considerable cost. Perhaps we should all strive for balanced and centered lives, bit it’s likely such a world will be devoid of great art, great music, poetry and culinary beauty. Perhaps it will be a world without the noble acts of justice and sacrifice that arise out of a holy discontent. Most tragically, a world without obsession would be a world without passion.