Category Archives: Food & Theology

The Devil in the kitchen

A couple of weeks back I noted the connection between food and sin in religious art of the late Middle Ages — clearly the business of eating was riddled with spiritual pitfalls. It’s hardly surprising, then, to see the devil commonly cast as a cook.

wpid-wp-1446126534951This 13th century mosaic set in the grand dome of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence depicts the devil in his hellish kitchen roasting, boiling and devouring the damned. In a recent visit to Florence, I imagined the devout looking up to see the implements of their own domestic lives — roasting pots, skewers and spits — turned against them in this chilling representation of life alienated from God.

The connection between cooks and the devil lingered in Western culture. The 17th century English Bishop John Earle wrote, “The kitchen is his hell, and he the devil in it, where his meat and he fry together.” In the same era, the novelist Thomas Deloney declared, “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks.”

I wonder what it is about the process of turning raw ingredients into a delicious repast that elicits such grim associations. Granted, I’ve met a few cooks who could, where 51JuiNcBfIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_character is concerned, give the devil a run for his money. And others who revel in the association. Marco Pierre White’s autobiography The Devil in the Kitchen and the late Anthony Bordain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly play on it. But to associate the depravity of hell with a spit roast or a stew pot simmering in the kitchen seems like a slap in the face to those who feed us, let alone those who, like the angelic Babette, open up vistas to things eternal through the act of cooking.

Since Eve ate apples

“All human history attests
That happiness for man —
The hungry sinner —
Since Eve ate apples,
Much depends on dinner!”

Lord Byron
Don Juan (1823)

The depiction of food in art is telling. In travels to Europe, I’ve been taken by the prevalence of food in great artworks of religious history. Clearly, it’s more than incidental. How food is used says much about Western culture’s historic ambivalence toward eating, as well as food’s close association with the darker sides of human experience.

cranach_adameva_1528This image by the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder — a contemporary of the 16th century reformer Martin Luther — embodies what was then the obsession of theologians with sin and its origin. Pride, gluttony and lust were intertwined. While pride may have been at the heart of the fall in Eden, the temptations of gluttony and lust were understood as the most potent lures.

What’s more, it is Eve who entices the fickle Adam, as much with the fruit of her body as that which hangs from the tree. Note the roundness of the apple matching the contour of her breast. This is the classic image of the womanly temptress holding the fate of ‘mankind’ in her seductive hand.

There is much to critique in such attitudes to the female form and to the apple —much that informs dysfunctional theology to the present day: the church’s preoccupation with sexuality; the casting of women as temptresses who cannot be trusted; a spirituality shaped primarily by denial and renunciation.

The spirituality of religious orders that thrived  in the artist’s time understood bodily hungers as hindrances to devotion. In regard to sex, the devout were called to abstinence. In regard to food, a meagre diet was required, interspersed with periods of fasting. While much has changed in the last 500 years, so much stays the same. When it comes to our spirituality, we still struggle to reconcile images of abundance, feasting and sensuality with life at its most holy. Type ‘sin’ into Google, and the apple still glistens.

Paying attention: vinaigrettes, onions, etc.

To cook is to engage with small things. It has to do with paying attention to the detail. However grand the result might be (or not be, for that matter), a recipe is an accumulation of small steps. As any good cook will attest, the quality of the end product is a direct consequence of one’s attention to the incremental. Vinaigrettes included.

IMG_1611I suspect the same is true in many pursuits. It is certainly so in theology. In his book The Supper of the Lamb, the late Robert Farrar Capon — a theologian and cook of equal passion — dedicates an entire chapter to the onion. His point is beautifully made and well worth the cost of the book. It is a call to attention, in cooking and in life. Here is just a small extract.

Next take one of the onions (preferably the best-looking), a paring knife, and a cutting board and sit down at the kitchen table. Do not attempt to stand at a counter through these opening measures. In fact, to do it justice, you should arrange to have sixty minutes or so free for this part of the exercise. Admittedly, spending an hour in the society of an onion may be something you have never done before. You feel, perhaps, a certain resistance to the project. Please don’t. As I shall show later, a number of highly profitable members of the race have undertaken it before you. Onions are excellent company.

Once you are seated, the first order of business is to address yourself to the onion at hand. (You must resist the temptation to feel silly. If necessary, close the doors so no one will see you; but do not give up out of embarrassment.) You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. The two of you sit here in mutual admiration. Together with knife, board, table, and chair, you are the constituents of a place in the highest sense of the word. This a Session, a meeting, a society of things.

150px-The_Supper_of_the_LambRobert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, New York: Doubleday, 1969, 11.

The Providore of Heaven

A few weeks back I sat in a seminar led by a colleague in ministry, Nicholas Tuohy. Chef turned pastor, Nick has written a thesis on food in the gospels. In the course of conversation, Nick referred to God as ‘host and providore’. Honestly, I didn’t hear much beyond that. The second of these images struck a distracting chord, and one that lingers.

The idea of God as provider is, of course, nothing new. I’ve reflected on the notion of providence many times. It’s this more tangible and personal image of God as providore that helps me imagine providing as more than just a thing God does; it’s who God is.

Every Friday I shop at the Queen Vic Market. My providores are many. There’s Bill with his cheeses, dolmades and yoghurts. There’s Tan’s trestles weighed down with seasonal fruits and vegetables. There’s Jago, father and son, with their ordered display of meats that never varies, Judy and her fresh eggs, Joe’s poultry and game, and that brisk but anonymous woman who supplies the fresh pasta for our Sunday night dinner. As I see each one standing behind their produce, there’s abundance and beauty, honest work, connection between producer and product, and a relationship with customers that is so much more than conveyor belts, cash registers and plastic cards. The market itself is open to the elements, pungent, and often chaotic. As I push my trolley from shed to shed, there are puddles to navigate and overflowing garbage bins to avoid. No antiseptic aisles here. No piped music to sooth the consumptive spirit. And there in the thick of it are my providores, perspiring in the summer and rugged up in the winter.

There’s something about this that touches on the nature of God’s providence. In the creation story of Genesis, God’s creating and providing are one: God creates life and God sustains life. There are no degrees of separation, no progressive movement away from creation on God’s part. This is not the God of head office, the anonymous CEO of a global supermarket chain seeking market dominance. This is God the providore, creating, choosing, handling, connecting and feeding. This is God of the pantry not of the boardroom, a perspiring God who does not manage providence from afar but embodies it.

Eating, knowing and lust

‘Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, and “the eyes of both were opened and they knew they were naked …” (Gen 3.7) The Hebrew word “to know” can have sexual connotations … The knowledge that Adam and Eve acquired included the knowledge that humans are sexual beings, and our sexual nature and physical hungers are deeply intertwined. Eating and sexual intercourse can both be acts of profound human communion … But eating and intercourse can become grave violations of communion when they are acts of consumption, gluttony, domination, or lust.’

UnknownElizabeth T. Groppe, Eating and Drinking (Christian Explorations of Daily Living), Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 49.

Image: ‘Adam and Eve’ by Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto

On vegetarianism

lisa-simpson-vegetarian2I’m no vegetarian. I’ve confessed my love of meat before, not as virtue but simply a fact of preference and of my complete inability to conceive of a meatless kitchen.

Ten years ago I read a thoughtful but unconvincing book on the theology of vegetarianism. The argument was that a vegetarian diet is God’s plan for humankind and that my surrender to that truth is part and parcel of my full conversion:  ‘Clearly, carnivorous eating is a mockery of all that God works toward and desires.’

With apologies to all of my more virtuous friends, I couldn’t come at it then and I can’t now. My grease smeared fingers are well and truly in my ears. I’ve decided to like Adam Gopnik’s perspective instead:

‘Evangelical vegetarianism … is closer to the Shaker prohibition on sex that it is to the abolitionist war on slavery: it does not ask us to be better than we have been. It asks us to be other than we are.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 136.


Zadok Perspectives on faithful eating

Zadok Perspectives is the quarterly journal of Ethos: Centre for Christianity and Society. It’s an award winning publication well worth a subscription. When it comes to issues of food, the latest instalment ‘Faithful Eating in an Unjust World’ is certainly worth a look.

DOC150414-15042014101731 2It includes some terrific articles on the big issues of agriculture and globalised food production from a distinctly Christian perspective. Economist, homemaker and community farmer Dianne Brown explores the contrast between industrial and sustainable agriculture and the Christian commitments relevant to our choices: the stewardship of creation, intergenerational justice, equity for agricultural communities and living humbly with the limits of human knowledge. Similarly, Jonathan Cornford (PhD), the founder of Manna Gum, provides a succinct biblical perspective on the challenges of global and local agriculture into the future.  Both pieces are a challenging read.

There are other articles that address the more personal and local application of faith to what and how we eat. There’s Alison Sampson’s regular column on Everyday Spirituality prodding us toward ways we can ‘choose life’ in our shopping, cooking and eating; Paul Tyson’s and Paul Crother’s encouragements to acts of ‘micro-resitence’ in the face of large scale food production and supply; Dominique Emery’s testimony of juggling ethics, cost, nutritional needs and taste in the family home; an interview with Nick Ray on ethical shopping; and Kim Cornford’s inspiring story of neighbourhood food production and sharing.

For me, the highlight of the issue is Dianne Brown’s stories of two farmers, Giuseppe in Tuscany (France), and David in central Victoria (Australia). Though on different sides of the world, both are working land that has been in their families for generations, and both are on the slow journey toward more sustainable farming practices. Their stories are a moving account of the extraordinary cost of change, the risks inherent to ‘radical’ action, and the layers of complexity in the economic, social and cultural challenges that are part and parcel of their journey. More than anything, it’s a reminder to people like me of just how easy it is to talk and how challenging it is to act.

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