Attend a Baptist Wednesday night supper, a Methodist potluck or a Lutheran fellowship, and you'll get food that's "in this world but not of this world," to borrow a phrase that Christians apply to themselves. Church food is food apart, dishes you'll rarely be served in this day and age outside of a hospital cafeteria. Custom, rather than doctrine, dictates the recipes and it nearly always calls for comfort food: Jell-O salads, casseroles, chocolate cakes with bizarre names (the aforementioned Mississippi mud is one, Coca-Cola cake another), lemon pies, macaroni salad, fried chicken. Sauces? Have some gravy. There's the ketchup.
People who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints talk with longing--or horror--about memories of funeral potatoes, hash browns mixed with mushroom soup, and a peculiar casserole of hamburger meat and green beans. But they are also proud of their socio-culinary proclivities. The first commemorative pin issued by the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Committee was an image of "green"-that is, lime--Jell-O. More of the clean-cut gelatin is eaten in Mormon Utah than any other state in the union.
Church foods are modest. Americans would never dream of bringing caviar or beef Wellington or a mousse to the fellowship hall or annual dinner-on-the ground. Their food says, "We're down-home, easy-going, family people. Nothing fancy about us. Everybody's welcome."
Bible scholar Marcus Borg finds this food-borne message at the very heart of Christianity. Jesus, he says, broke down Jewish dietary laws because they had become too rigid and were separating people from one another. Jesus ate with sinners, drank wine at parties and talked a lot about food because he wanted to emphasize that God's love was for everyone, says Borg. What you did or didn't eat wouldn't please God nearly as much as how you treated other people. Food, so to speak, is agape.
Today, food does more. It helps people affirm their identity as members of a given faith. It says "we belong." Greek Orthodox church festivals are famous for the baklava and souvlaki. Pancake breakfasts, usually cooked by the men of the church for some good cause, say, "Let's start the day by thinking of each other." In Judaism, nearly everything that passes the lips gets its own blessing, and its food traditions-bagels, cream cheese and lox, to begin with--have become American staples. No matter what language they are spoken in, no matter what kind of faith inspires them, the words, "Come to the table. Sit and eat with us," are always spiritual.
What we put into our mouths has always mattered. Greatly. Soulfully. Even eternally.
Nobody has made that point more strongly than Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar of world mythology. He believed eating was at the heart of the human urge to repent. People are forever guilty, Campbell said, because they must kill to survive. British playwright George Bernard Shaw targeted that tension when he wrote: "A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses." But plants are alive, too, Campbell points out. And so even vegetarians are caught in the central, terrible truth of all animal existence: we live only because of death.
Religion is sensitive to this paradox, sometimes painfully so. Some Jains are so intent on preserving sentient life they wear masks for fear of inhaling an insect. Reincarnation figures into this thinking, since they believe individuals return in other forms. Native Americans traditionally evoke animal spirits, giving thanks to the animals that have willingly sacrificed their lives. Traditional Jewish laws set out exactly how animals must be killed so that they feel the least amount of fear and pain.
Sheep sacrificed during Eid Aladha, the Muslim holiday to commemorate Ibrahim's (or Abraham's) readiness to sacrifice his son to God, are revered as the creature of God that gives its life for a higher purpose. These sheep will take the believer across the "hair-thin and razor-sharp bridge" to heaven on Judgment Day, according to tradition.
Religious teachings about food can generally be divided into two segments: the "don't eat" and the "do eat." The "don'ts" are more likely to be codified into religious law than the "dos," which tend to follow custom and may be largely unspoken. But the do-eat rules can be just as important in helping spiritual people remember who they are. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews eat apples and honey to represent the sweetness of the new year; on Passover, herbs represent the bitterness of their enslavement in Egypt. Muslims often break the Ramadan fast by eating a bite of "heavenly" food such as olives or dates.
Turkish Muslims who feel they've been granted a wish may prepare a "Zaccharia table" with 41 different nuts and fruits to thank the Prophet Zaccharia. They also celebrate the month when the waters of the great flood receded by preparing asure or Noah's pudding made of wheat berries, dried legumes, rice, raisins, currants, dried figs, dates and nuts. Tradition says these foods were all the supplies left in the Ark.
But the don't-eat rules get most of the attention. Jews and Muslims don't eat pork because it's said to be unclean. For Jews who keep kosher, mixing meat with dairy is also unclean. Hare Krishnas, who don't eat onions or garlic, sometimes give as their reason that their food is first offered to the deities who might be offended by the noxious smell from such vegetables. Muslims aren't supposed to drink alcohol. Mormons are forbidden alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. Baptists and a number of other Christian denominations also preach abstinence.
Behind all these prohibitions is the idea that the human body is a temple dedicated to God that ought not be defiled. Their power can live on after the dictates have been lifted. Catholics have been allowed to eat meat on Friday since Vatican II in the mid-1960s. But you'd never know it in heavily Catholic areas like Milwaukee where Friday fish fries are so much the rule there that even pizza parlors have them.
To outsiders, religious food traditions often seem nonsensical. Ekeko, the Bolivian god of abundance, gets cereal and cigarettes. Shou Lao, the Chinese god of longevity, likes peaches and carries one to represent immortality. St. Expedite, a legendary saint who can make things happen more quickly, is entreated by many cultures, which offer him flowers. In New Orleans, he is thought to be particularly fond of Sara Lee pound cake, according to Catherine Yronwode, owner of the Lucky Mojo Curio Co. in Forestville, California, who has studied such customs for 40 years.
Strictly observant Hare Krishnas can hardly eat anything when they travel because the food has not been prepared with the kinds of blessings and dedication that they require. Jews observing kosher dietary laws must not only use two sets of dishes but they must use two dishpans to wash them and may also have two sets of dishwasher racks.
Though the food laws and customs of every culture and faith can seem arcane and antiquated to outsiders, paradoxically, as culture becomes global, they are becoming more important, not less. American Hindus who learned that beef flavoring was being used in McDonald's french fries sued the burger chain. "Eating a cow for a Hindu would be like eating your own mother," one enraged plaintiff told The New York Times. When the rumor that such flavoring was being used reached India, statues of Ronald McDonald were smeared with cow dung. (McDonald's spokespersons say beef flavoring is not used in India.)
We are all, then, not only what we eat, and how we eat but why we eat. As one Dallas Jewish woman who keeps kosher said, "Every bite I put into my mouth reminds me of who I am and what my values are."