Monthly Archives: March 2014

Food: the time of our lives

This morning I had breakfast. At midday or thereabouts I’ll have lunch, and then tonight, once home from work, I’ll make dinner for the family. In between there’ll be breaks for coffee, and then, if I am as undisciplined as usual, a late evening raid on the refrigerator.  No doubt, what I eat and drink from day to day will change, but the rhythm never does. Day in, day out, food sets the hours of my life.

‘Foods, and the meals we make of them, are our clocks,’ says the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy; ‘they are our faithful calendars. In a real sense, they are the time of our life.’ While this certainly encompasses our daily feeding routines, MacClancy’s idea of ‘food as time’ includes more.

As a city dweller—my beloved’s balcony garden of tomatoes, herbs and chilies not withstanding—my daily life is far removed from the agricultural rhythms of the earth. Regardless, they persist. Indeed, for great swathes of people across the earth, still the food they produce and harvest determines their lives. The cultivation of crops and the nurturing of livestock set the calendar year after year.

My grandfather was a wheat farmer in the Mallee of northwestern Victoria. Without the machinery of modern farming, he used horses to pull ploughs and prepare the ground for seed. It was this back-breaking task that determined his life in the late autumn each year. With minimal rains—around 10.5 inches (267 mls) annually—timing was crucial, constant observation of weather patterns and seasonal changes essential. All being well, the harvesting took place in the relentless heat of summer and lasted for two months. Dad recalls Christmas dinner eaten under the shade of a tree in the paddock while the work continued. The harvest would not wait.


Harvesting in Quambatook, c. 1930s

In situations like this, food exercises power. The farmer does not set the pace of life. Rather, he works by a pace set by the earth itself. Food and its production is the time he lives by. My grandfather was not a church-going man, but ‘God fearing’ no less. I suspect that when one is so relentlessly dependent on resources outside of oneself—a dependence that colours every season of life—the possibility of God is much more pressing.

Jeremy MacClancy, Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992, 58.

Gopnik on taste


‘The Cardinal sampling the wine’ by Frtiz Wagner

‘None of us can escape the web of competitive, cyclical, counterintuitive, imitative relations that shape the social role of taste. There is no privileged space from which we can look down and say, Your tastes are trends, my tastes are truths. All taste effects depend on contexts. The smell in our nose changes the taste in our mouth, and the length of the line outside the restaurant changes of our view of the taste of the food we’re waiting for, and even how much we’ll spend to eat it. We are what we eat? Probably closer to the truth to say that we eat what we are: the total self we bring to the table shapes the way we choose, and even how we chew. Our morals and our manners together drive our molars.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 105-106.

‘shot glasses of salvation’

After reviewing Keeping the Feast yesterday, some words of poetry from the author


we pass the silver plate
of broken bread with
less confidence than
we pass the peace
easier perhaps to hug
than to admit to our hunger
we take and eat without
a word and wait for
the wine’s weaker friend
shot glasses of salvation
we place the empties
in the pew racks causing
the clicking sound of
solidarity to rattle
our hearts and shake
awake the resonance
that runs through all
the saints and suppers
that we might remember
that we might be one

Milton Brasher-Cunningham, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, Moorehouse Publishing, 2012, 8.

‘Keeping the Feast’ by Milton Brasher-Cunningham

‘We make bread so that it shall be possible for mankind to have more than bread.’

So said the ecologist John Stewart Collis back in the 1970s. He’s right. Food is never just about the food. In fact, when we write about food as an end in itself, it’s likely we’ve misunderstood our subject.

That critique could never be levelled at the North America writer and poet Milton Brasher-Cunningham, author of the beautiful book Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal. Though a gifted cook, host and a lover of food who never strays far from the table, Milton points us beyond food to deeper things, and often in the most poetic and challenging terms.

Part memoir and part theological reflection, this is a book by a person of faith, one deeply committed to the church and its sacraments and who does not shy away from either. But one does not have to share that faith to find inspiration in Milton’s words. He writes of the formative power of ritual in eating, the nurturing of community and memory through meals, the sacredness of story written and owned at the table, and the world-shaping fidelity expressed in the routines of cooking and sharing.

13795928Keeping the Feast is a gentle book, but one that gets under the skin. Milton shares his soul in the way he writes, and in so doing touches ours. If you instinctively value the table as a place of community, this book will remind you of why you do. If you love to cook, not to impress but embrace, this book will make you smile. And if you are a person of faith who participates in the church’s ritual meal—‘the signature dish of our faith’—this book will remind you of the rich and formative sacrament that is yours.

Indeed, bread is more than bread. It leads us to the feast of life.

‘The point of life is not to be right, or safe, or famous, comfortable, or rich, or powerful. None of those is a sign of success, of God’s favor or significance, particularly when our power and wealth and safety require someone else to be poor and weak and scared. The point of life is to be together. To love one another—all the one anothers—and to struggle against everything that leads us away from that love.’

Cicero in favour of dinner parties

“Really Paetus, I implore you to spend time in honest, pleasant and friendly company. … I am not thinking of the physical pleasure, but of community life and habit, and of mental recreation, of which familiar conversation is the most effective agent; and conversation is at its most agreeable at dinner parties. In this respect we Romans are wiser than Greeks. They use words meaning literally ‘co-drinkings’ (symposia) or ‘co-dinings’ (syndeipna), but we say ‘co-livings’ (convivia), because at dinner parties, more than anywhere else, life is lived in company.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)


Visser on food and civilisation

Food is ‘everyday’ — it has to be, or we would not survive for long. But food is never just something to eat. It is something to find or hunt or cultivate first of all; for most of human history we have spent a much longer portion of our lives worrying about food, and plotting, working, and fighting to obtain it, than we have in any other pursuit. As soon as we can count on food supply (and so take it for granted), and not a moment sooner, we start to civilize ourselves. Civilization entails shaping, regulating, constraining, and dramatizing ourselves; we echo the preferences and principles of our culture in the way we treat our food. … Food — what is chosen from the possibilities available, how it is presented, how it is eaten, with whom and when, and how much time is allocated to cooking and eating it — is one of the means by which a society creates itself and acts out its aims and fantasies. Changing (or unchanging) food choices and presentations are part of every society’s tradition and character.  Food shapes us and expresses us even more definitively than our furniture or houses or utensils do.”

41AS5F97T5L._SL500_AA300_Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal, New York: Grove Press, 1986, 12.

Stephanie on ageing

Stephanie-AlexanderNear the end of her wonderful biography A Cook’s Life — one I’ve commented on before — Stephanie Alexander shares, with typical candour, an insight into her daily life at the ‘greying’ end of an extraordinary career:

‘Despite these marvellous trips and all the activity associated with being the founder and figurehead of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation there are many mornings I wake up filled with dread. Dread of what? Rarely is there a definite reason — rather a vague sense of unease, of not wanting to face whatever the day will bring, an awareness of solitude, an unspecified feeling of inadequacy. Also I hurt in various parts of my body these days. My doctor friend Duffy says that if you don’t hurt somewhere you’re probably dead. Remembering his remark is enough to make me smile and roll out of bed into the shower. The warm water can be relied upon to chase away the dread for the moment.’


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