On Eating

Photo by Abby Whisler

Photo by Abby Whisler

One of my dad’s most meaningful compliments to me is that I am my family’s most enthusiastic eater. This doesn’t conjure up the loveliest of images; in fact, I think he said it to me when I was inhaling some fried chicken around age 10. His words delighted me, however, because they showed that my dad really knew me. He saw something that always has been and will be fundamental to my personality: a love for food.

We eat to live, of course, so everybody has to love food on some level. But food is fraught with complex intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics. The way we view food is central to the way we view life and the way we relate to other people. Food habits cause family strife, complicate friendships, and are a factor in romantic attraction. One time I cried in elementary school because we didn’t have any “cool snacks” for me to give my friends (fruit gushers, capri-suns, you know what I’m talking about). An otherwise pleasant guy I knew once spurned some homemade scones for his myriad dietary reasons. I wrote him off as pompous.

Over the course of my three and a half years at Covenant, I’ve done a lot of thinking about food. From my freshman year “Let Them Eat Cake” philosophy to my senior year following a restrictive eating plan, I’ve been all over the dietary map. My freshman year I tried to basically eat my way through Taco Bell’s menu every night, while senior year I started following the Whole30 eating plan, cutting out all sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, and pretty much everything you can’t pronounce on a nutrition label. Both of these ways of living were choices I made based on my view of food. Which way was better, more pleasing to God? Neither.

My years of Taco Bell gluttony and Whole30 denial were the same at the core: searching. Because food matters so much to me, I initially thought that joy could be found in unfettered indulgence: food is good; don’t give me rules! But my body told me differently in lethargy and nausea (and the freshman fifteen of course). On the opposite end, I tried denial: only the purest of the pure, the healthiest of the healthy. My skin glowed, my energy soared, but I longed for something more than mere utility in the crispness of apples, the creaminess of avocados.

Do you think I’m going to say, “Eat in moderation” or something like that? Well I’m not. That sounds a little hollow, and the problem’s still the same. We’re still searching, trying to harness food into our narrow view of the world, stripping it of its holiness. Robert Farrar Capon’s extraordinary book The Supper of the Lamb helped me make sense of my searching for what to do with all this food. Capon expresses the essential holiness of food as God’s creation. After a full chapter on onions, he says of God:

“He likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the color, 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 and turnips, but to his present delight--his intimate and immediate joy in all you have seen, and in the thousand other wonders you do not even suspect. With Peter, the onion says, Lord, it is good for us to be here. Yes, says God. Tov. Very good.”

The answer I’ve found is not necessarily to find a middle ground between gluttony and deprivation (though that may be the result), but to look even deeper than that, to a place where food is not a tool for sensual indulgence or bodily use but a gift redolent of God’s character. The onion sings along with the rest of creation of the goodness of the Lord. Scripture tells us so many things about food. Of course, I think of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” But ultimately, I think of a Savior who ate, who drank, who fasted, who left us a meal as a sacrament until he returns.

I don’t have enough spiritual wisdom to tell you how to eat practically, whether turning down a casserole because you want to be gluten free is right or wrong. Whether calorie-counting is God-glorifying; or if you should or should not shop at Whole Foods. But years of learning to eat well have taught me two things. First, that food is broken, and that I will always be in error. I will overindulge and I will deprive myself. Even the best baguette will not satisfy. I will wake up tomorrow, hungry. Second, that food is holy. Think about our extraordinary incarnational faith. Humanity fell because of a meal that dishonored God, and when all is restored we will sit down together to a wedding feast. Credits to Pastor Novenson for that insight. I close with another passage from The Supper of The Lamb:

“Above all, give us grace to live as true men - to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us - with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”