As I mentioned in an earlier post, I think it’s a good thing to do a little making every day. It’s sort of humanizing to create, do things that help sustain and beautify our lives, and to share them with others. My main forms of making are writing, cooking and knitting. I’ve also, in my life, made a decent amount of music–a different kind of making, because it evaporates before it’s even finished, but it is making nonetheless. Creativity, whether in a great work of art, or a practical invention, or using something in a new way that makes life a little better, is something that human beings aspire to for themselves, and admire in others.
Making helps us feel better, reduces stress. Because I cook gluten- and dairy-free, cooking is not only for fun and the pleasure of eating, but a major activity for my own wellbeing. My aim in cooking around these (and sometimes, a few other) limitations is not only to produce food that is safe to eat for people with dietary restrictions, but is also attractive and delicious for others at the table. (I never really need to eat the whole batch of cookies by myself, so I’m glad when others find them worthy of eating.) Each day, through a number of email lists and my Facebook page, I get a variety of recipes from sources for restricted diets. This morning, one I got had the following quote:
Cooking together always changes the energy in the room. There’s something so simple, but incredibly meaningful, in making something, anything, from start to finish.
I rarely cook with other people, though. But cooking, especially during difficult times, does change my energy and my mood. It tells me that I have one foundational area of my life which is under my control. It is an act of care for myself, whether or not I am cooking with or for others. Because so much of the work I’ve done has been very abstract and ephemeral, cooking a meal–even if it is just boiling a couple of eggs–is a concrete thing I can point to that I have done well. And I get to judge whether it’s been done well or not: if I like it, that is what matters. I can improve or adjust a recipe (really, in most cases, it’s only a guideline anyway!), or never do it again if it doesn’t please me. Cooking is one of the few areas of life where I can do what I want, with very few other voices giving me a boatload of “shoulds” or “musts”. I might ask a few opinions of friends who have tried the dish I’ve just made, but whether I make it again is completely up to me.
Because I like to cook–and eat–ingredients are important to me. Just as I prefer to knit with yarn that feels good, looks beautiful, and is ethically sourced, I try to the greatest extent possible to work with good ingredients. One of the good things about a restricted diet is that you will do best if you learn to cook for yourself (pre-made gluten- and dairy-free foods are usually more expensive than their standard counterparts, and usually disappointing). You read a lot of labels, you decide which ‘treat’ level foods are worth making and eating–you probably eat more healthfully, if for no other reason than you decide you don’t need a cookie every day if you have to bake it yourself to get an edible one. And most of the things that you end up eating are less-processed, organic, natural. You eat things closer to the plant or animal they originally came from. You feel better, not just because you’ve eliminated offending substances from your diet, but a lot of ‘edible non-food’ things as well.
Caring for ingredients means caring for the people who produce them. Although I am the offspring of urban parents, and have more urban than rural tendencies myself, during the time I was doing my research with the churches in Derbyshire, I spent a lot of time in the countryside. I talked to farmers, and I talked to priests in rural settings about their ministries and the challenges involved. I stood up to my ankles in cowcrap for the Kingdom of Christ. I admired the commitment to providing fresh, healthy food and caring for the land–the beauty of the English countryside owes much to the work of farmers. And all the while, fewer young people are choosing this occupation, either because the city is more attractive and lucrative, or (for those who would like to become farmers) it is very expensive to get started.
But food is sacred. Food, in many ways, is about the relationship between humans and the supra-human. Of the foundational needs of life–air, water, and food–this third one is the most basic need that humans have to select and create. Air, without which we can’t survive more than a few minutes and not suffer dire consequences, is (fortunately) something that is all around us in most normal situations. We don’t have to go looking for it. Water, which we need less constantly but still cannot live without for more than a few days, needs to be found and sometimes transported. But we don’t really choose what is air and what is water (although we might have to decide whether a particular source of water is safe to drink). Our only real responsibility to air is to refrain from fouling it any more than absolutely necessary. We have that same responsibility toward water, with the added requirement that we make sure there is enough for others, and for future needs.
Food, on the other hand–we consciously participate in making sure our need for food is met.
Whether you believe literally in the Garden of Eden story, or are a strict evolutionist, it doesn’t matter. From the beginning of what can be accurately described as human life, we have had to put an effort into food. We’ve had to pick it off trees, or hunt and gather, till the soil, tend the herds, work the harvest, slaughter the fatted calves. We’ve had to decide what is and is not food. We’ve had to make our food safe, palatable, quotidian, or festive. Four of our five senses–taste, smell, vision, touch–tell us whether something is suitable as food. What we eat is basic to our cultures–no pork, no wine, all vegetarian, mainly fish. For much of human history, our food and our geographic location have been very intimately linked. Moving to a new culture where the food is dramatically different has been a source of stress and disgust, and sometimes wonder and delight as well.
It’s no surprise then, that so much of the Bible is really about food–the Levitical dietary laws, the appropriate sacrifices in the temple (grain, animal, fruit) and the way in which to offer them, the hospitality that Abram offered the travelers who turned out to be angels, Jesus’ meals with disciples and strangers.
And of course, the supreme Christian ritual of the holy communion reminds us that food is life. Not only do we not live without food, but every time we eat, we take life–plant or animal, something dies so that I can live. That’s not meant to make anyone feel guilty for eating–it’s just a fact. Anything that is supposed to be eaten was once a living thing. As a friend’s child said, “God is great, Goddess good, let us make him out of food.” That’s sort of exactly what we do in the eucharist. We turn ordinary foodstuffs into the body and blood of one person of the triune God. We don’t worship the food, but we do recognize that God is what is behind every mouthful we eat and drink. when we eat and drink the bread and wine of holy communion, we remember (or should) that food is life, and all of it comes from the giver of life. If food is present, God is present.
Food is sacred. It deserves more respect than we give it most of the time. The western world is suffering more lifestyle-related illness–heart disease, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders–than at any time in recorded history. Even though we’re living longer than ever before (thanks to safe water, fewer deaths during childbirth and childhood, better working conditions, and antibiotics), we’re sicker than we’ve been. And much of that is because we’ve lost a lot of respect for food. We eat mindlessly, we eat low-quality stuff, we eat things that aren’t really food (propylene glycol is a preservative in bagged salad–it’s also a main ingredient in antifreeze). And we waste an enormous amount of the food we buy; some estimates are that 1/3 to 1/2 of the food we buy is thrown out uneaten. And in the UK, food waste is one of the major sources of ‘greenhouse gases.’
If we really took the eucharist (or holy communion, or the Lord’s Supper) seriously, and remembered that the food and wine we consume at the altar is representative of all food and wine–and strove to discern God’s presence in every bite and sip–it might not solve all of our food-related ills, but it might be a step in the right direction.
Okay, time to go fire up the grill on this beautiful first day of summer!