I put a lot of time and thought into what my family eats, and I know I am not alone in this. I think it is fair to say that at no other time in history has “What’s for dinner?” had so many potential answers. Not only do we have unprecedented access to foods from all over the world in every season, we are also privy to a vast array of theories about what we should eat and why. What we should eat is, in fact, an important question. The choices we make can affect our health, the economy, our neighbors, and our world. Sometimes, however, I feel the need to step back from food “issues” and questions about what we should eat, and remember not just why we fast, but why we eat in the first place. What is food? What can it tell us about who we are?
Food is a gift. A blessing. It is not a free gift, but a gift with a message. We need to eat not once, but every day. Our hunger teaches us that we are dependant beings. We are creatures, made from the earth, not gods sprung fully formed from the sky, and as such we are part of a whole creation. Sun and soil, rain, the slow turning of the seasons, these things nourish us just as surely as they nourish the plants and animals. Our bodies are quite literally made of the same materials as the stars and mountains and the deep blue seas, and we need to be replenished each day. With every meal we renew our communion with the rest of creation.
Like grace, food is a gift, but one that requires us to work. In Genesis even Paradise is described as a garden, and humanity is commanded to tend it. The work gets harder after the Fall, but even at the moment of creation we are thinking beings, able to influence God’s world to better suit our needs. We don’t just forage and hunt, we cultivate. We eat the fruits, not only of the earth, but of our own labor. For better or for worse, almost every food we eat now bears the imprint of human hands. Culture and tradition tell us what is good to eat, how to grow it, how to prepare it. When we eat we touch, in a small way, the ancient hands that first cultivated the grains, saved the seeds, and domesticated the animals. We take our place in the human family, remembering the mothers and grandmothers who passed down the recipes. We reach out through space as well as time. Now more than ever we eat food that has been planted, harvested, and sometimes even prepared by others, often by strangers. One grateful thought from us is all it takes to bring them to our table. If we are adventurous, taking advantage of the unprecedented access we have to ingredients and recipes from across the world, food can bridge continents, connecting us to people of other countries and cultures, reminding us of our common humanity. And finally, food brings us closer to the ones with whom we share it every day. The act of sitting and eating with others binds our lives to theirs.
Food binds us to the earth and to one another, but it also calls us upwards. Orthodox Christians begin meals with prayers of blessing rather than simply thanksgiving. (We do have prayers of thanksgiving, but they are meant to be said after a meal. Unfortunately, I have rarely heard them used outside of monasteries.) When we pray before a meal, we ask God to sanctify what we are about to eat. We remember that we are more than flesh, more even than thought and emotion. The bounty of the Earth, the work of our hands, even communion with our fellow men will not feed our spirit-hunger. For that we need grace. When we ask God to our table every meal becomes a tiny Eucharist, a small incarnation whereby God’s love for us becomes tangible, edible, able to enter, transform, and become part of us.
I don’t think about food like this all of the time. Usually I am too busy trying to get a meal on the table before my children completely destroy the rest of the house. But sometimes, if I start to feel anxious over food issues or frustrated by the endless hamster-wheel of cooking and cleaning, it helps to remember that even the most mundane and earthly parts of our lives can be uplifting if we stop to look at them from a different point of view.