Ladies and gentlemen, diners and tipplers, gather ’round! The ninth issue of The Mockingbird is officially available for order! Note, too, we have a deal for bulk orders. If you/your church/your favorite hole-in-the-wall needs a bundle of copies, email us: email@example.com. And, as always, we place before you the menu and the first course: Mr. Richardson’s Opener and the Table of Contents to (apologies) whet the appetite. A votre santé! Zum wohl! Dig in!
A Free Lunch: the Spiritual Economics of the Church’s Most Cliché Ministry by CJ GREEN
Orthorexia: The New Etiquette by CARRIE WILLARD
A Poem by JOY ROULIER SAWYER
The Cheap Grace of Cheap Food by BENJAMIN SELF
For the Record: What Would You Eat If You Weren’t Afraid?
The Compleat Leftoeuvriére by ROBERT FARRAR CAPON
Modern Food, Moral Food: Our Interview with HELEN ZOE VEIT
For the Record: Ode to the Church Cookbook, On Our Bookshelf
In Praise of Excess by ETHAN RICHARDSON
Freedom Isn’t Free by CONNOR GWIN
A Poem by SARAH BROWN WEITZMAN
The Hospitality Sting by SARAH CONDON
I Eat Therefore I Am? by SCOTT JONES
For The Record: Capon’s Sauce Primer
The Curse of Eglon: Weight Loss Under the Weight of the Cross by BRYAN J.
A Poem by BRAD DAVIS
Champion of the Vernacular: Food Criticism in a Nation of Experts by DAVID PETERSON
Hungry for Religion: A Sermon by DAVID ZAHL
Diet Pills and Dinner Parties
In his bestseller The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon opens one chapter with a parable: A wise man decides to throw a dinner party. Among his guests are an eligible bachelor and a beautiful widow. His hope, through the merriment of wining and dining, is to play a little matchmaking, too. The other guests are skeptical.
The widow, throughout the entire evening, complains about the monotony of cooking. She only wishes that someone would come around and invent new kinds of meat to enjoy, because the old ones—chicken, veal, beef, pork—are so played out. The bachelor, on the other hand, argues that there is too much variety and not enough consistency. With a scientist’s eye, he only wishes there were one substantive, sensible plant to meet all our dietary needs.
As the wise host had predicted, love blossoms: the two become one in their deep and abiding joylessness. They are soon married, develop a nutrition pill, and live “efficiently ever after.” Capon signs off with a reassuring word for his readers: “Anyone with an ounce of playfulness is sure to be spared the anguish of their company.”
We are not past the day of the diet pill. Just this year, Aeon’s Nicola Twilley wrote about a real food substitute called (sadly) Soylent, the brainchild of a Silicon Valley engineer. This product, stemming from research that says we spend 90 minutes a day on our food, is meant to give us our time back. Soylent, right in tune with Capon’s couple, is a “thick, odorless, beige liquid” with “every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial.” Twilley hoped to try the goo for a week, but cracked after five days. As for all the extra time she had? “I spent [it] joylessly clicking around on the Internet, my brain resisting every effort to corral it into more productive activities.”
Despite Soylent’s allure, it would not be fair to say we’re in an age of dietary minimalism. In contrast to Capon’s couple, we also inhabit a food and drink age of high-art decadence. Chefs are celebrities—their restaurants have years-long waiting lists. In even the remotest towns, brewers and distillers are a dime a dozen. The makers of Pappy Van Winkle, the famed Kentucky bourbon, have boasted that their product is so sought after that it hasn’t been on shelves in the past three years. Even billionaires can’t get their hands on the stuff. “They’d have an easier time buying our company,” the owner said.
Beneath the fads, there is a pseudo-religious quality to the way we talk about food. Food ethics have become some of the heated global conversations, whether they concern small farms or carbon emissions or childhood obesity. But there’s also a new spirituality implicit in the foodie craze. As Bill Deresiewicz once disputed in his Times op-ed entitled “A Matter of Taste?” food is today’s high ideal:
Just as aestheticism, the religion of art, inherited the position of Christianity among the progressive classes around the turn of the 20th century, so has foodism taken over from aestheticism around the turn of the 21st … “Eat, Pray, Love,” the title goes, but a lot of people never make it past the first.
It is no simple religious path, either. Regardless of where you shop, the produce aisles are littered with all of your foodie liabilities, all demanding your obeisance: Food waste. Childhood obesity. Eating disorders. Organic produce. Your sister-in-law’s food blog. For a part of life that should mean sustenance and pleasure, food is often a collective human experience we can only describe as, sorry, constipated. If moral scrutiny ever soured a delightful human enterprise, it began with your cereal bowl—or granola bowl—or smoothie bowl—or whatever you do or don’t eat for breakfast. The Law of Food is everywhere. You cannot escape it, and yet you always find yourself behind it. Food choices make up some of the chief ways we tell others who we are and what we care about. (Needless to say, I was wrong when I thought Food & Drink might be a “lighter” issue than its predecessor, Mental Health.)
To some extent, food has always carried this moral weight. Before juice cleanses, even before frozen dinners, Leviticus was lined with rules about food—all the way down to which joint-legged insects you could eat. Food and drink—the way it was prepared, consumed, and sacrificed—has always been a marker of a deeper creedal code.
The same is true for those who call themselves Christian. Some of the most elemental pictures from the tradition come from the sacraments of food and drink. The bread and the wine, the fatted calf and the wedding feast—Christianity’s hope is literally laid out upon the table. So maybe Alice Waters and Michael Pollan are on to something! Thomas Cranmer, the English reformer behind the Book of Common Prayer, once wrote:
For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears; so likewise these elements of water, bread, and wine, joined to God’s word, do, after a sacramental manner, put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses.
Food and drink, in other words, help us taste God’s provision in Christ. Like a good sermon, the meal is a physical reminder of whose table we’re ultimately at. Wendell Berry said that “Eating is an agricultural act.” It is also a heavenly one. Which is why this issue is for everyone. You may not see yourself as a high-brow epicurean or a coffee snob. Maybe you, like Capon’s pill-maker, wish there were fewer options. But you do hunger in the ways we all hunger. Because you are human, you too come to the table to have your fill. And from the first course to the last bite, you’ll find this elemental hunger (and thirst) to be our running theme.
Which leads me to one last editor’s note to pass on to you before you take your seats: all credit, besides that which is due to the Almighty Host, goes to this issue’s spiritual sous chef, the Rev. Robert Farrar Capon. His words are everywhere in these pages, both directly and indirectly. Even when he is not being directly quoted, he is making his presence known. Capon, the food writer and priest, is not keen on table manners: God is to be liberally consumed and enjoyed. Capon insists that you, the guest, have no responsibility but to taste, and to laugh at your own party fouls. This one’s for him.
And so, enough talking, let’s dig in. There’s lots to try, but we have all the time in the world, so take your jacket off. We have decadent feasts and church cookbooks; we have mid-century etiquette and down home hospitality; we’ve got the heavy fare, too—from addiction to agribusiness. There are plenty of cocktails and simmering sauces, and we’ll finish the night with some forbidden fruits (and, yes, fast food). It’s all there for the taking, really—and the blessing’s already been given! So …
Prost! Pass the salt! Amen and amen!
Ethan Richardson, Editor