Category Archives: Books
We got divorced. It was an amicable split. In the end I bit my tongue and went quietly. Years later I still grieve for what we had and what could have been. It was good in the beginning, but the disappointments gradually mounted. Five years in and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I left.
It was back in 2000 I bought my first Slow Food membership. Inspired by founder Carlo Petrini and his Slow Food Manifesto, I signed up to the organisation’s Australian convivium convinced that our shared values would make a lifetime bond. In the early days I devoured the publications, relished the events, and met some extraordinary people. All too soon, though, the relationship stalled.
My discontent was not to do with the values of the movement or the aspirations of its leadership, but with the priority of the local gatherings. It felt to me like our conversations became increasingly privileged and indulgent. While we mouthed more noble commitments, we were far more concerned about the taste of the oysters and the provenance of the olive oil that we ever were about matters of food security and justice. Unable to face another tasting of goats cheese, I quit.
Good food is about more than the aesthetics of taste and place. It’s even more than the values of slow. While I love my Maffra red wax cheddar, am fussy about the quality of my sourdough, and value the routines of food preparation, surely the designation ‘good’ has to go further than that. To determine food’s goodness requires an intelligent, moral engagement with the systemic issues of food’s production, distribution and consumption.
In her book Good Food, the North American writer Jennifer Ayers makes this point well. She argues that the quest for good food requires “moral attention” to those farmers and labourers swamped by an increasingly industrialised food system, to the urban and rural poor who struggle to find healthy food at an affordable price, and to the long-term wellbeing of the earth that produces it. According to Ayers. what’s needed is a social and environmental movement that addresses the deepest needs of “the poor, the laborer, and the earth.”
It’s not long ago that Australian writer Rebecca Huntley made the same plea in our context. For a food-related movement to be truly revolutionary, she argued, our vision must go beyond “artisan-crafted goats cheese” to address the needs of the most disadvantaged – those marginalized by place, poverty and race. It’s a new “republic of food” we need, she wrote – one in which all are fed and a table at which all are welcome.
Now that’s a movement I can be part of.
Jennifer Ayers, Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology, Baylor University Press, 2013.
Rebecca Huntley, Eating Between the Lines: Food & Equality in Australia, Black Inc., 2008.
Recipes are an interesting form of writing. At their butt end, they’re nothing more than a perfunctory list of ingredients and dot-point rules of construction. I don’t like them. I don’t want to be told what to do in my kitchen. At their best, however, recipes can be rich repositories of cultural history, family lore and wisdom. They can invite you into a household, a place, a sense of spirit and creativity. A good recipe tells a story of which you can then become a part. To be honest, a well-written recipe of this variety feeds my soul.
It’s the recipes I love most about Susan Muto’s book Table of Plenty: Good Food for Body and Spirit. While this is not technically a recipe book, it’s the retelling of her Italian-American mother’s recipes included in its pages that makes the book sing. Her description of her mother’s eggplant parmigiana is akin to poetry, and her brief retelling of the family recipe for meatloaf makes me want to gather the clan with haste: ‘Once you taste it … there is no room left for sadness.’
Of course, this book is about much more than recipes. Muto is a writer of breadth and has previously provided the theological groundwork for Christian formation with the classics of spiritual writing at the fore. In this book she calls us to pay attention to the most rudimentary aspects of our lives, more especially the routines of the table. It is indifference to food, she argues, and the daily rituals surrounding it that leads us to a dehumanized and disconnected place, one in which God’s presence is so much more challenging to know.
Table of Plenty is not a difficult read. It is brief, gentle in its argument and simple in its focus. That said, it is a book of considerable depth. If you allow it to, it will challenge your eating routines and might even add a recipe or two to the weekly repertoire.
I recommend it.
Susan Muto, Table of Plenty: Good Food for Body and Spirit, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014.
I am no gardener. Though I recall tending to my designated ‘plot’ in the suburban garden of my childhood, the passion never took root. My beloved, however, is a gardener. I appreciate the beauty, abundance and joy of what she does. Though the city balcony on which she has to work is frustratingly small, the soil that’s there feeds her soul, and mine, in the most tangible ways.
Fred Bahnson is a gardener, a passionate one, and a theologian too. His book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith is perhaps the most significant book I have read in the last year. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, Bahnson is now director of a seminary based ‘food, faith and religious leadership’ initiative. More importantly, he has dedicated a significant part of his adult life to the establishment of community gardens, those that give expression to a discipleship of the soil.
As a memoir, Soil and Sacrament traces Bahnson’s journey from the establishment of Anathoth—a faith-based community garden in rural North Carolina—to his own farm where he lives and works the connections between earth, food and faith. In between he takes a year to reflect and travel. Inspired by the prayer of the early Christian ascetics, ‘We beg you, God, make us truly alive’, Bahnson goes in search of ways to live such a prayer through his visits to four gardens, each coinciding with one of the four seasons and a related liturgical festival.
‘This journey was a quest to find those modern prophets who might teach us all better ways to be at home in the world. I visited a Trappist monastery in the South Carolina low country where I prayed the Divine Office with the monks and learned to grow mushrooms. At a model community garden started by several Protestant churches in the mountains of North Carolina I asked a blessing over a potluck meal and renewed my faith in community. I ran a prayer gauntlet with Pentecostal organic farmers and meth-cooks, turned-coffee-roasters in Washington’s Skagit Valley. And finally, in what struck me as the completion of a sacred circle, I traveled to a Jewish organic farm in the Berkshires where I davened in a red yurt in the predawn hours, celebrating the bounty of the fall harvest according to an ancient tradition. … And everywhere I went, I witnessed how our yearning for real food is inextricably bound up in our spiritual desire to be fed.’
It is his account of these four communities and their gardens that makes up the bulk of the book, but it is Bahnson’s ability to weave together seamlessly his experience with intelligent theological reflection that makes this more than a collection of interesting stories. Bahnson writes beautifully, feels and thinks deeply and, I sense, struggles as much with himself as he does for a faith planted securely in the earth. For me, it is this that makes the book such a gift.
His own words of summary are better than mine:
‘I said before that soil is a portal to another world, but I’ve since learned that it’s not just one world. Working with the soil opens us inward to find a God eager to lavish upon us God’s mercy and compassion and love. Soil also opens us outward, where we learn to receive the fruits of this good earth, and where we also discover that ours is not the only hunger. Soil work reveals the joyful messiness of human life where we find others who need us, and whom we need in return. How we hunger is who we are. We are each one part pain and one part desire, and we should not be ashamed that our ache to be filled is so great, so overwhelming. God gave us this hunger, and we should not squander it on lighter fare. As a stream will run downward until it joins the immensity of the sea, so will our soul seek the level Ground of our being. It is our desire, after all, that makes us most like God.’
Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
‘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.
Keeping 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.’
I quoted yesterday from Adam Gopnik’s beautiful book The Table Comes First. As one who tries to write about tables and food, I bow down to writers like this. Gopnik not only writes well and ranges broadly, he sees in food so much more than food. The book is a delight to read.
I don’t have the time right now to do his work justice, but over the next day or so, as with yesterday, a few quotes from here and there.
Gopnik reflects on the common role of cafes and restaurants in modern urban life:
‘Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafes and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle, or medieval people by pilgrimages: we are courted, spurned, recruited, hired, fired, lured to a new job, or released from an old one at a table while a waiter hovers nearby. There are few marriages that did not begin at dinner at a table leased for the evening, and few divorces that did not first show signs of approaching doom in a sigh of resentment or an eye roll of exasperation in a similar setting.’
‘Places of hope, restaurants and cafes are also places of reassuring mystery, and the mystery reassures because, in reminding us of lives and appetites beyond our own, they remind us of worlds we have yet to enter.’
‘Home, Robert Frost wrote, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, they not only have to take you in but have to act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.’
And on the difference between the two:
‘though joined at the hip, the temperamental difference between the two is real. The restaurant belongs to its cook. You come to eat, and though, as Brillat-Savarin saw, anyone can eat there, still you come to eat. … The cafe, though, belongs to its habitués, and pleasure can be rented for the price of a coffee.’
Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 14-15, 31, 52, 53.