Let’s talk about food.
I know, that’s what we usually do here. But, I don’t mean, let’s talk about creamy plates of butternut squash risotto…
Or steaming bowls of curried sweet potato soup…
(Both recipes of mine featured in last month’s issue of The Catholic Digest, by the way.)
Instead, I mean, let’s talk about why we care about butternut squash risotto and get all excited about curried sweet potato soup. Why do we cook? Why do we eat? Why do we spend so much time, money, and energy fretting our little heads about food?
My Facebook feed has the answer. Or, rather, it thinks it does.
We’re currently approaching the high holidays of eating, so almost daily, one friend or another, making an attempt at preventative virtue, posts about their new diet and the philosophy of food behind it: “I eat for energy”; “I’m eating clean”; “I’m eating like a caveman.”
Of course, right alongside those posts, are ads for Godiva chocolate, urging me to “Indulge,” as well as images from food blogs (mine included), which post pictures of tasty treats tantalizing enough to tempt even the strictest of ascetics to break their fast.
My own complicity in this problem aside, the question remains: Who is right? Do we eat for health? Or do we eat for pleasure? Is it right to eat for nutrition, but wrong to eat for comfort? Is it virtuous to treat food as fuel, but wrong to treat it as a reward.
My answers: Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No.
Got that? Right. I’ll go over it again.
Yes, we eat for health. And yes, we eat for pleasure. Yes, it’s right to eat for nutrition. But no, it’s not wrong to eat for comfort. And yes, there’s virtue in recognizing the energy needs of your body and meeting those needs. At the same time, though, no, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a piece of apple pie after you finally get around to cleaning out your basement.
I understand some of my answers fly in the face of the advice diet gurus typically dish out: “Don’t eat for comfort and never use food as a reward,” they say. But you know what? Their advice flies in the face of God’s design of the universe.
Let me ‘splain.
The Way We Are
My explanation starts with this simple truth: Food wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t. God didn’t have to make our bodies in such a way that we needed to be fed morning, noon, and night. He didn’t have to make our bodies in such a way that we needed to be fed at all. If he willed it, we could have gotten our nutrition and energy from the sun, the trees, and the rain, like plants do. (“Good idea,” think cooking-weary moms everywhere.)
God also didn’t have to fragment the nutrition we need across five different food groups or hundreds of different vegetables, fruits, grains, and animals. He could have concentrated it all in one little plant. Kale really could have been the be-all, end-all.
Lastly, God didn’t have to make food taste so darned good. The whole lot of it could have tasted like dirt…or beets. Yeah, I know, same thing. Still, it could have. Lemons didn’t have to be tart. Arugula didn’t have to be peppery. Bacon didn’t have to be so sweet…and salty…and magical.
I’m not sure how an atheist would understand these things. But for people who believe that God created the world and loves the world, it’s just plain illogical to dismiss the pleasure and comfort value of food. Of course, food is supposed to give us pleasure! Of course, food is supposed to give us comfort! And of course, food is supposed to be a way that we give love, receive love, celebrate triumphs, and mourn defeats! That is all part of God’s design.
As for why God designed food (and us) that way…well, reasons abound.
To begin with, our need for food—food that someone has to grow, cook, and store—draws us to one another. It brings us together in friendship and cooperation. It also brings us together around a kitchen table, where we don’t just eat, but talk, laugh, and look one another in the eye…something that we might not do nearly so often if we just soaked up all our nutrition from the sun, like we soak up Vitamin D.
Then, there’s hunger, which comes upon us with clockwork-like regularity. Our experience of hunger and our need to eat remind us that we are not enough. We aren’t self-sustaining eco-systems. We are dependent creatures. We need to be nourished. We need to be fed…with food…and so much more.
Which brings us to the next reason: supernaturally speaking, food also helps us understand the Eucharist.
As a Catholic, I don’t believe the Eucharist is a symbol of Christ’s Body and Blood: I believe that in the Mass, on the altar, bread and wine truly become Christ’s Body and Blood. Food, on the other hand, I very much see as a symbol. And that’s because every natural truth about food points beyond itself to a supernatural truth about the Eucharist.
I devoted a whole chapter to this in These Beautiful Bones. Here, I have room for two paragraphs. Sorry. You can always read the book. In essence, though, food—which requires sacrifice to grow, buy, and prepare—nourishes us, strengthens us, comforts us, and brings us together. Likewise, the Eucharist—Christ’s perpetual sacrifice of self-gift—nourishes us with God’s life, strengthens us with God’s grace, comforts us with God’s love, and brings us together into one Body, the Body of Christ.
Food’s ability to do that—to be both what it is and more than it is, to reveal truths about God and man simply by existing—is not a coincidence. It is one of the best examples of God’s genius for metaphor, for creating a world where the natural sheds light on the supernatural. Herman Melville’s got nothing on the Holy Trinity.
Regardless, all the big important stuff like community and the Eucharist aside, there’s at least one more reason why God made food the way he did.
Because he loves us.
Seriously. God’s love is manifested in every cocoa bean and coffee bean, every grape, every stalk of wheat, every Brussels sprout. The endless variety, the limitless combinations, and the delightful tastiness of it all is more goodness than any of us deserve. It’s all gratuitous. It’s all unnecessary. It’s all a complete, unmerited gift. I don’t deserve bacon jam. You don’t deserve bacon jam. None of us deserve bacon jam. We’re weak, foolish, and selfish sinners. But you know what God gives us?
Receiving the Gift
Besides going to Bakn the next time you’re in Pittsburgh, what do you need to do to thank God for this gift and then receive it?
It starts, I think, by simply recognizing food as a gift. Yes, food is fuel. And yes, food can be an occasion of temptation or sin. It can also become a means of control, avoiding emotions, or dealing with our problems. But that’s not food’s fault. That’s our fault.
We are fallen, broken creatures, who don’t always know how to properly respond to the gifts God has given us. Most of us are predisposed to abusing his gifts left, right, and center—not just food, but also sex, our bodies, our intellect, and our material possessions. If, however, we want to grow in holiness and virtue, if we want to become mature Christians, we have to stop the cycle of abuse and learn how to use God’s gifts rightly—to see them for what they are, receive them with thanksgiving, and use them for their proper ends.
In terms of food, this means seeing food as a blessing, which fosters community, self-knowledge, and points to the Eucharist.
It also means bringing the Cardinal Virtues to the dinner table with us: practicing temperance by eating one cookie, not three; exercising prudence by taking a larger portion of spinach and a smaller portion of garlic mashed potatoes; exercising fortitude by making those hard choices everyday, not just once in a while; and exercising justice by seeking to give our bodies their due, (but not at the expense of our budget, the poor, or those who host us for a meal or two).
Last of all—and this brings us back to where we started—it means eating that piece of cheesecake on your birthday. It means breaking open the good bottle of wine when you get your hard-earned promotion. And it means curling up with a bowl of Bacon & Jalapeño Macaroni and Cheese when someone rear-ends your new car, then drives off, sticking you with the repair costs.
Note: I’m not saying eat two pieces of cake, drink past the “point of hilarity,” or chase the Mac ‘n Cheese with an entire quart of Ben and Jerry’s. (Really. Don’t. You’ll get sick. Nobody can handle that much dairy.) Just let food be what God made it to be, all in good measure.
From Theory to Reality
I know this is easier said than done for many of you. Former anorexic here, remember? I get that the journey from abusing food to loving food and using it rightly can be a long one, traveled in fits and starts, with plenty of falls and setbacks along the way.
I also know that for those of you who need to overcome bad food-related habits, such as being overly reliant on food for emotional support, part of that journey will require taking a break from using food for comfort or as a reward. That was part of my journey too. Thankfully, not a long one.
I promise, one of these days, to write more about what helped me break those bad habits and more. But for now, it suffices to say that the most important help I had was simply this: I knew where I was going.
When I came to understand what food was, when I came to see it as a touchstone for culture and community, a sign of the Eucharist, and a manifestation of God’s love, I stopped wanting to abuse it. I discovered a road I didn’t know existed and a destination that I’d never imagined. That discovery, eventually, made all the difference.
So, as Thanksgiving and Christmas bear down on us, if you’re someone who struggles with food, don’t panic. Don’t hop on the latest fad diet craze. And don’t make your family miserable by banishing All the Good Things from your cupboard.
Instead, pray. Go to Adoration. Receive the Eucharist as often as you can. And, as you do, see God becoming food. See God feeding you. See his love manifested for you in spiritual nourishment. Then, let that spiritual nourishment start to change your vision of physical nourishment.
This isn’t the end of the journey. But it is the beginning.