For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, and taste buds.
Forgive the playful revision, but the topic of this week’s interview has opened our eyes to the important role food and meal sharing plays in the Bible. It’s as if God blessed us with pleasure receptors on our tongue in order to bring more joy into the world, especially when the act of eating delicious, nourishing food is shared with family and friends.
Biologically, the ability to experience pleasure through taste isn’t crucial to our survival. Like countless other species, we could fuel ourselves differently. But evolution rewarded us, and Kendall Vanderslice, the author of We Will Feast, believes there’s divinity at work.
In this week’s interview with Melissa Wuske, Kendall spells it out.
“How remarkable is it that God designed the world such that our most basic needs are met in such a pleasurable way? God could have made us with root systems or the capacity for photosynthesis, but instead God gave us taste buds and the vocabulary to articulate the joy we find in flavor. … We are drawn into community with one another as we share the bodily experience of eating. We are reminded that we are all embodied beings who share needs for food and for community, and who also share in joy and delight.”
Melissa reviewed We Will Feast in the July/August issue of Foreword, and when it comes to Face Off interviews, we’re always looking for a faith-based message that resonates across the religious spectrum. As a Christian, Kendall is an extraordinary messenger. We’d also like to thank Eerdmans for bringing this heartwarming project to light.
Melissa, take it from here.
These days grocery stores are full of quick, easy, grab-and-go meals and more and more restaurants offer delivery. We’re no longer connected to our food by preparing it, and we’re less likely to sit to eat at all, much less sit with others. What have we lost—culturally, socially, spiritually—by clinging to convenience and sinking into isolation?
I’m convinced that God created us as eating creatures both for delight, but also as a reminder of our need for one another. From the very beginning of creation, God says that it is not good for humans to exist alone. We are made for companionship, and whether we acknowledge it or not, all of our eating draws us into communion with the hands of farmers, cooks, grocers, and more. Even if we grow and cook all of our own food, our eating still relies on bees and microbes and the vibrant life of soil. It is impossible for us to eat in isolation! And yet so many of us eat the majority of our meals alone. I think this stark juxtaposition feeds an intense loneliness that is so pervasive in our time. Food holds stories of family, culture, and religion; the table is where we learn to live in relationship to one another. In an increasingly isolated culture, we lose sight of all that is transmitted in the process of eating. We are fooled into believing that food is nothing more than fuel, our bodies nothing but machines. But as humans created in the image of a communal God, our needs cannot be calculated in calories and grams.
A meal is a multisensory experience. We taste, smell, touch, hear, and see the food, and our senses are enlivened by the people around the table. Why is the sensory aspect of a meal so central to its community-building power?
Part of the power of the table is the incredible delight that we can find in eating, a delight that is drawn from our sensory experience. How remarkable is it that God designed the world such that our most basic needs are met in such a pleasurable way? God could have made us with root systems or the capacity for photosynthesis, but instead God gave us taste buds and the vocabulary to articulate the joy we find in flavor. How many relationships forged around the table began with comments about the food being shared? We are drawn into community with one another as we share the bodily experience of eating. We are reminded that we are all embodied beings who share needs for food and for community, and who also share in joy and delight.
Too often the way we eat highlights economic disparities and amplifies cultural differences. What are some ways to make sure a meal together bridges gaps and celebrates differences, rather than fueling isolation and misunderstanding?
We find ourselves deeply attached to the foods we eat because so much of our identity is wrapped up in the stories and memories contained within them. These can be stories of cultural identity or family tradition, they can be reminders of displacement and migration, they can mark memories of family members or the resilience of ancestors. Because of these deep attachments to the foods we eat, to mock or condemn another’s food speaks to much more than one’s taste or ideas of health. To reject the food of another can equate to rejection of that person and the places they come from. Conversely, to celebrate the foods of another and to listen to the stories behind them can open gateways to deeper conversation and communion. Quite practically, this looks like asking for the stories behind different types of dishes, encouraging folks to share what a particular item means to them. It looks like encouraging the sharing of memories and letting conversation flow out from there.
In the book you discuss how the dinner-church movement is largely white, but that faith communities of color have long valued eating together. Why do you think the white church has lost the centrality of meals but churches of color haven’t?
One of the myths of whiteness is that it is culturally neutral, that it is the norm and everything else is a deviation from it. The way this manifests itself in food culture is through the differentiation of “ethnic foods” versus “normal foods.” Whiteness overlooks the ways identity is wrapped up in the foods we eat, and so it picks and chooses from other foodways as it pleases without concern for the stories behind them. Immigrant communities and communities of color more often recognize and celebrate this identity-forming, storytelling power of food, and this spreads out into the life of their churches as well. White communities here in the United States are less likely to recognize the importance of this power of food, and thus we are less likely to recognize the power of meals in forming us together as community.
Why would God, a being who transcends the needs for food, endow so much power in a shared meal?
Norman Wirzba writes of creation being formed out of the overflow of God’s love and thus food being God’s love made tasteable in the world. I think this is spot on—God wants to see us delight and take pleasure in creation! Of course, in Genesis 3 we see that humans misuse this power of food and to this day creation bears these scars through our complex relationships to growing and eating. Nevertheless, through the Eucharist and in the vision of the Tree of Life offered in Revelation, we also receive God’s promise to use food as a key player in the redemption of all things.
Who are the most unlikely dinner companions you’ve witnessed? What happened during the meal? How could you see God at work?
I love the intergenerational community that worships every week at Simple Church in Grafton, Massachusetts. This was the church where my project began and the community that I worshipped with for two years. Children play a vital role in worship at Simple Church—dancing while the adults sing, exhibiting shameless hunger for the communion elements, begging their parents to come back to church week after week. Teenagers contribute insightful commentary in table conversation, their thoughts valued by both the young adults and seniors at the table. The senior members invite young adults over for dinner, for swim parties, for birthday celebrations. The community thrives off of the unique contributions everyone brings from their various phases of life.