Piety and Granola

Last week, a Facebook friend shared a link to the Huffington Post article on a word we should not use when it comes to the food we eat. The word is “indulge”, and its relations: indulgent, indulgence. The essay gave numerous examples of celebrities, especially, “indulging” in chocolate, or having an “indulgent” cheeseburger, or enjoying an “indulgence” in ice cream. It’s usually “news” when a woman in the public eye–especially one who is well known for being thin or sexually attractive–occasionally eats these foods.

It’s kind of funny how these very foods are often described as “sinful”. And without “sin” there is no “indulgence”, because an indulgence is exactly the setting aside of sin(s) after having paid a certain price. But sin and indulgence aren’t the same thing. The indulgence sets aside, erases, or perhaps even ignores the consequences of the sin or misdeed. (Not always a good thing for a parent to be “indulgent”.)

HuffPo, and by extension the friend who shared the article, is right that it is time to stop using “moral” or “spiritual” categories to describe foods. (Especially when we misuse them.) Perhaps the “sin” is our over-scrutiny of what people we only know from images in the media choose to eat, in the fear (or hope) that by doing so they will somehow damage the “perfection” of their faces or bodies. A little extra flab on the thighs, or a pimple on the face–in the eyes of too many, this is a “sin”. And perhaps a celebrity’s enjoyment of something delicious on occasion is an indulgence: it says they’re going to ignore the sin that a stranger has ascribed to them.

This morning, the Buffalo News Taste section had an article on brunch, and yet another interesting food:morality equivalence was suggested. Readers were encouraged to make granola for their “pious” friends.

Granola (muesli to my British friends) is a high-fat, high-sugar food, and so not necessarily healthy. Not “pious” for those who worship at the temple of thin thighs and clear arteries. But perhaps because it is not rich and delicious and often reserved for special occasions, it is seen by the article’s writer as somehow the food of the forgiven.

Maybe the fact that the article appeared first in the Los Angeles Times explains some of this, but there is no way to investigate that.

Granola is pious; the savory pudding made from stale bread for which a recipe appears in the same article is somehow less sanctified. The more enjoyable a dish is, the lower on the spiritual food pyramid.

Granola may not, for many people, be an objectively better dietary choice than bacon, eggs, and bread. We can have false moral dictates in the food confessional as much as we can have them from the pulpit.

The fact that spiritual and moral language is too often applied to food raises important questions beyond those of what is a “good” or “bad” food to eat from a purely nutritional standpoint.

It should make us consider, in an age when the fastest-growing self-identification is “spiritual but not religious”: What is replacing “religion” and being counted as “spirituality”?

The need to monitor the moral behavior of other people seems not to diminish, even in a period of history with the reputation of becoming more “secular”. We may beat ourselves up for being “bad” on our diets, but we really seem to enjoy pointing out how the “mighty” fall.

This seems really misguided to me in a number of ways. First of all, there really is some benefit to attending to the log in our own eye rather than the speck in someone else’s. And forgiveness–starting with the seventy-times-seven occasions on which we are required to forgive someone who “sins against” us. That might include our own dietary “failings” (although there is some merit in trying to do better).

Taking care of ourselves–soul and body–is a service to God. But God also gave us all manner of good things to enjoy, and not to enjoy them moderately and sensibly seems (to me at least) as much a sin as excessive consumption.

We need to consider that religion cannot be equated with, or replaced by, dietary behaviors. And religious language should not be applied to patterns of eating.

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