As a teen, Lauren F. Winner was a devout Orthodox Jew. Her first book, "Girl Meets God," recounts her delight in Judaism's ancient sacred practices, and the schism created in her life when, in college, she converted to Christianity. In "Mudhouse Sabbath," from which the following is excerpted, she looks at how her former faith brings dimension to her new one.
Throughout Christian history, interpreters have agreed that the moral precepts of the Old Testament--in particular, the Ten Commandments--are binding upon Christians, but the civil and ceremonial codes, from the dietary laws to the holiday injunctions, are not. And the New Testament rather dramatically makes clear that Christians are free to eat as many clams and oysters as they like: In the Book of Acts, a hungry Peter has a vision of a sheet of food descending from heaven. The sheet is filled with food that is both kosher and unkosher, clean and unclean-potatoes and chicken and spinach, but also pork chops and lobsters and prawns.
A voice instructs Peter to "kill and eat," but Peter protests, insisting that he will never eat unclean, unkosher, food. The voice from heaven then says, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."
This story is symbolic, to be sure. The voice is talking not just about food, but also about people; the instructions are not simply to eat, but also to invite both Jews and Gentiles into the Kingdom of God. Still, the story has epicurean consequences, too. Peter, a Jew who has come to follow Christ, is free to eat any and all of those once forbidden foods.
While Christians are not bound by the particularities of deuteronomic dietary law, we may still want to pay attention to the basic principle that underlies kashrut: God cares about our dietary choices.
This should come as no surprise; you only have to read the first two chapters of Genesis to see God's concern for food. Humanity's first sin was disobedience manifested in a choice about eating. Adam and Eve were allowed to eat anything they wanted, except the one fruit they chose. And the New Testament makes clear that God cares about the most basic, quotidian aspects of our lives. (Our God, after all, is the God who provides for the sparrows and numbers the hairs on our heads.) This God who is interested in how we speak, how we handle our money, how we carry our bodies is also interested in how we live with food.
At its most basic level, keeping kosher requires you to be present to your food. Of course, so does the Atkins diet. The difference between Atkins and kashrut is God. We try out the Atkins diet because our physician cares about what we eat. We limit ourselves to kosher food--to return to the etymology, appropriate or fitting food, prepared appropriately--because God cares about what we eat.
So, down to brass tacks. I am not about to stop eating shellfish again. But I am trying to bring some thought and intention to the food I eat. The impulse comes from Judaism, but for the specifics I have turned to a number of different teachers who, though not Jewish, have an intuitive appreciation for the logic of kashrut.
One of my food teachers is an Episcopal priest-cum-chef, Robert Farrar Capon. In 1968, Capon wrote a slender book called "The Supper of the Lamb." It's part cookbook, part theological meditation--something like M. E K. Fisher meets the desert fathers. (The book is, in fact, organized around a lamb recipe, and the title's biblical allusion is not accidental.)
The second chapter of "The Supper of the Lamb" begins with the slightly absurd instruction to spend "60 minutes or so" chopping an onion. One onion, 60 minutes. The hour is to begin with the chopper looking at the onion, encountering the onion, having a "material . meeting" with it. After noticing its shape, its top and bottom, its blemishes, you proceed to removing its skin, moving so carefully that you do not puncture, let alone slice, the flesh of the onion itself. And on and on Capon leads us, through a veritable onion meditation. By the end of the chapter one wonders if a single hour is enough time.
The lover of course is God. "He likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the colors, the smell, the tensions, the tastes, the textures, the lines, the shapes are a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be onions as turnips, but to His present delight." And so the reminders stack up on top of one another (rather, one might note, like the layers of a cake). Food is part of God's creation. A right relationship with food points us toward Him.
Another of my food teachers is Barbara Kingsolver. In an essay called "Lily's Chickens," Kingsolver explains that she eats seasonally. When tomatoes and plums are in season, she eats them. She avoids the unseasonable temptations of modern American supermarkets, which ship in greenhouse tomatoes and lemons and plums and asparagus all year round. Kingsolver only eats tomatoes in January if she canned some back in June.
Why is Kingsolver so committed to this culinary calendar? Because shipping food from greenhouses around the world is America's second-largest expenditure of oil. (The first, not surprisingly, is our daily reliance on cars.) As Kingsolver explains, "Even if you walk or bike to the store, if you come home with bananas from Ecuador, tomatoes from Holland, cheese from France, and artichokes from California, you have guzzled some serious gas." To eat seasonally (and locally) is to enact a politics of reduced consumption.
But seasonal eating has an almost sacramental effect as well. Though Kingsolver may not have had spiritual aims when she began eating seasonally, she nonetheless introduced a liturgical calendar to her life. Her year, just like the Jewish year or the church year, now has a rhythm. Tomatoes mean summer. Potatoes and beans suggest winter. Kingsolver's seasonal diet sacralizes not just food, but time.
I do not practice seasonal eating with the rigor I once brought to kashrut. Last night, for example, I found myself eating a slice of pizza topped with chunks of avocado. (It's November.)
But I have begun the move toward seasonal eating. I'm embarrassed to admit that the first step in seasonalizing my diet was study. When I read Kingsolver's essay, I realized that because I am so accustomed to Whole Foods and The Fresh Market with their year-round displays of bright, perfect produce, I had no idea which fruits were in season when. I had to head to the library and read up on vegetable birthdays. (No strawberries in November, of course, but apparently persimmons are abundant here in Virginia in the fall.)
Now, like some of my Jewish friends who keep kosher at home but eat more liberally at restaurants, I try to keep a seasonal kitchen but allow myself to indulge when I'm out on the town. For the first time since I became a Christian, I have found myself thinking about what food I put in my body, and where that food has been-in whose hands, in what countries-before it got to my plate. Like Capon's musings on the onion, this reflecting on and participation with my food leads ultimately back to Him who sustains, provides, and feeds.
Seasonal eating is not for everyone, and it is certainly not the only discipline that can infuse Christian eating with attention and devotion. Some of my friends find that fasting one day a week imbues their six days of meals with a spirit of gratitude and joy. Others try to make all their food from scratch. Every loaf of bread is baked at home, every salad comprises vegetables from the garden in the backyard.
On Sunday morning as I watch my priest lay the communion table for the gathered believers, I remember why eating attentively is worth all the effort: The table is not only a place where we can become present to God. The table is also a place where He becomes present to us.