Food is a many-splendored thing, and its meanings too are manifold. It upholds the life of both our higher and lower selves, and most things in between. Indeed, the ways we think about our food might well be taken as a rough index of what we consider those two words higher and lower to mean more generally, and, in turn, of what our conception of that axial division tells about ourselves and the world picture we carry around in our heads.
Of course, there is always a danger of overinterpretation, and the subject of food, like that of music, notoriously lends itself to untethered reflections and inflationary writing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes food is just fuel for the body. But that’s true far less often than one might think, and it’s almost never simply and entirely so. As the sunflower turns its face toward the sun, so our experiences with food tend to turn us toward thoughts of things greater than food, borne up by the power of our cultural and spiritual expectations.
To begin with perhaps the most salient examples of this truth, consider the dietary codes imposed by so many of the world’s great religions—Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, among others. Such dietary laws express the high-low hierarchy very well, invoking divine authority in prescribing the foods one should and should not eat. What we eat is thus thought to bear a direct relationship to the right ordering of the universe, even if that order is understood as established not through nature but through the command of God, as understood and mediated by sacred scriptures and priestly authorities. Such commands may well come to be justified later on nutritional or hygienic grounds. Abstaining from pork, for example, can lessen the danger of contracting trichinosis. But the rules stand ultimately on the binding authority of the divine command itself, and the social sanctions and reflexes of the communities that have formed around those commands. Being profane or ritually unclean is a very different thing from being unhealthy.
Such codes elevate the act of eating by demanding that we be scrupulously attentive to what we are putting in our mouths. Yet that is not the only way, or even the chief way, that food may stand in close relationship to the sacred. Where such sanctions are optional, unavailable, or lacking in strength or uniformity, the matter becomes more complicated. In fact, it turns out to be every bit as complicated as our human endowment, in which lower and higher have a way of shifting, changing, even trading places.
For example, it’s easy enough to draw a contrast between a wild-eyed, famished caveman gnawing frantically on a mastodon joint and two elegant and well-dressed patrons of Chez Panisse out for a romantic evening of haute cuisine. But don’t we have both modalities at work in us? The presence of the latter perhaps goes without saying, but who among us has never been possessed by the desire to consume a small mountain of food in a mad rush of boorish gratification, stuffing our faces when others are not looking, indulging in an explosive, devil-may-care expression of sheer wanton appetite? This transgressive delight may be something we permit ourselves as an occasional concession to the less elevated side of our natures, but it is a joy of its own kind, a moment of sheer exhilaration, like that of a bicyclist coasting merrily down a long and deserted mountain road, her triumphant arms stretched up to the sky.
Such longing to be primitive is, as Santayana observed, a byproduct of civilization, and inseparable from it. When it comes to food, then, the unrefined and the lovely, or the raw and the cooked, are likely to intermingle easily, so that the casting aside of niceties for the sake of a liberating moment possesses its own kind of beauty. One thinks of the famous eating scene in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Tom Jones, in which Albert Finney and Joyce Redman turn a crude, suggestively consumed meal into an erotic (and very funny) dance of mutual seduction. The scene’s eroticism may not quite fall into the category of “high,” and some squeamish viewers may find it thoroughly unerotic, though they will have to concede that it is certainly “higher” than a mere slobbering over roasted meat. Chacun à son goût. The point is that food is nearly always an entry point for something more elevated, or at any rate more transporting, than the mere ingestion of organic matter. There is something like a Platonic ladder of beauty and love at work here, in which even what is insufficient has elements that point us beyond it, and draw us toward something greater, the thing or the property on the next rung of the ladder.
But first and foremost, food is a necessity. We must eat in order to live—even if we think that half the point of living is the opportunity to eat that living gives us. As such, then, the phenomenon of food goes to the relation of our body, of our material existence, to the rest of us. We are embodied creatures, and the centrality of food in our lives offers a potent rebuke to the idea that we are really souls or spirits that happen to be inhabiting these particular bodies for a while, as if they were taxicabs taking us down the road to our next karmic engagement. No, our embodiment is not incidental, but essential to who and what we are.
This means that we are animals too, with animal needs and animal limitations just like those of our dogs and cats and squirrels and horses and all the rest, creatures great and small. For us, as for all of them—all of organic life, for that matter—the perpetuation of life requires at every moment a steady flow of nutrition, which we derive from our taking into ourselves the lives of plants and animals and metabolizing them, then eliminating what is left over from that process. Not to put too fine a point on it, we kill and appropriate and eliminate. We are guilty from the start, in a sense, of valuing our own life more highly than the lives of other living things. That is, in a sense, the original sin of all living beings, the sin entailed in merely existing at all—a thought that would never occur to us, were we nothing but animals.
But food is not only a strong proof of our animality; it is equally strong evidence of the ways we transcend our animality. Just as we are not souls without bodies, so we are not bodies without souls. The two are distinguishable but inseparable. Unlike the other animals, we are not content to take our food as it comes to us. We don’t do a lot of desperate bone-gnawing. Instead, we do a lot of work on our food, and it gains value from the infusion of all our loving labor.
We go through remarkably elaborate processes and rituals to prepare it, taking the rawness of nature and recruiting it into our human world, our Lebenswelt, in just the same way that we recruit the otherwise inert spaces we choose to inhabit and make them into the dwelling places of our hearts and memories. We incorporate the act of eating into the texture of our shared existence, thereby elevating both. The conviviality of a common meal accompanied by lively conversation among friends perhaps represents the pinnacle of community life, an earthly delight that feels almost like a foretaste of heaven. But without this shared experience, rolling along in an unhurried rhythm of courses and toasts and badinage, the activity of eating would be as empty of meaning as a committee meeting.
Of course, we take our food even further than that. We also use food both to express the sacred and provide an avenue by which it may be reached. Such transformational imagery lies at the very core of Christian theology, as in Jesus’s offering of Himself as the Bread of Life, a holy food personified, a heavenly food whose assimilation offers access to a life that will never end—a form of life that escapes the earthly logic of food even as it enacts it. The rituals of Holy Communion are those of a meal, built around the consecration of the simplest of elements, bread and wine, with the altar being not only a place of sacrifice—of the Lamb of God slain for the world’s sins—but also a place of feasting, the conviviality of the Lord’s Table. Like the Jewish seder, the Eucharist commemorates the singular event in which adherents’ religious identity is rooted, and food is centrally involved. But unlike the seder, it proposes to offer food that is sacramental in character, meaning that the food participates in, and is transformed by, the higher reality that it represents, and offers itself as an avenue to that higher reality.
Are there ways that food can serve more directly as an envoy of grace? Certainly the patrons of Chez Panisse would say that there are, especially if you were careful to ask them before the waiter brought the bill. The power of well-prepared food to elevate us is suggested by the wonderful coffee-cocoa dessert called tiramisu, whose name means, in Italian, “Lift me up.” In examples ranging from psychedelic mushrooms to Proust’s famous madeleine, the power of food to lift us up, to open doors of perception and summon memories out of the vasty deep, is widely attested, and for good reason. Food, and particularly exquisitely prepared food, offers a promesse de bonheur and a kind of transcendence, here and now, within the immanent frame.
A classic contribution to this school of thought is Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast,” better known in the form of its 1987 movie version directed by Gabriel Axel. It is a tale of stupendous extravagance in which a displaced French chef who comes to dwell in a forbiddingly bleak Danish village decides to dedicate all of her winnings from the Parisian lottery, money she could have used to return to Paris, to preparing a fabulous French meal for her dour companions and neighbors. Although the people of the household and village are at first scandalized by Babette’s lavish importation of exotic ingredients and the prospect of indulging in such a sensual luxury, in the end they are won over by the excellence of the food, and experience a sense of reconciliation and the opening of their hearts to one another, as well as a sense of gratitude to Babette, who has in effect chosen to remain with them by the sacrificial act of spending everything she has on this grand meal.
Babette’s Feast is said to be Pope Francis’s favorite movie, to such an extent that he often encourages others to watch it and has even mentioned it favorably in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). His enthusiasm for it is probably connected to the fact that most of the religion depicted in the film is a certain kind of rigid Protestantism, in which a disciplined simplicity of lifestyle of which the Pietistic villagers were proud had degenerated into something harsh and soul killing. This is the joyless condition to which Babette, with her French Catholic delight in food and her skill in preparing it, addresses her appealing antidote. I would add too that the meal is presented with subtle but unmistakable overtones of the Last Supper (there are twelve guests at dinner), reflected in Babette’s sacrificial willingness to exhaust such fortune as she possesses on the meal.
It is a beautiful movie, and a grand celebration of food. But it is does not address itself to the other, and rather more present, danger presented today by the misuse of food—the mania for culinary virtuosity and sophistication, abetted by an enormous and burgeoning culture of food-related consumerism, including the lavish overequipping of home kitchens the point that they come to resemble restaurants rather than family hearths. It’s not a long step from there to the pursuit of a rather New Age-y form of cheap grace and therapeutic spirituality, in which tastefulness is next to godliness. Even Babette herself, when examined closely, shows an unattractive side, as we see in her haughty declaration near the end that she is “a great artist” who has “something of which other people know nothing.”
It all makes one remember why fasting, too, is an essential spiritual discipline forming an honored part of all the most developed religious traditions. Man does not live by haute, or even humble, cuisine alone; there are times and circumstances in which a severe simplicity of diet, even unto the renunciation of food altogether, can be just as important as the whole-souled embrace of food. Denying the body is sometimes the essential path to releasing the soul, as ascetics of all persuasions have always known.
The intention here is not to launch into a diatribe against “foodies,” an ugly little name that most of the food enthusiasts I know seem disinclined to claim for themselves. Enthusiasm for food is a good thing, on balance, and a welcome change from Americans’ indifference to the quality of food over most of our history. Rather, I wish to point out that even the finest food, pleasing as it is, is not, merely by virtue of its skilled and mindful preparation, a royal road to transcendence, enlightenment, peace, and reconciliation—an inference that a wistful viewer of Babette’s Feast might be induced to make. To make that mistake is to forget the Platonic ladder of beauty and love, and choose to remain stuck on one of its rungs rather than continue to ascend it as we are meant to do.
Moreover, the high is not always high, the low not always low. The tables can be turned entirely. The elements used in the Eucharist are the simplest imaginable: bread and wine. It is not the elaborateness of the preparation or the skill of the priest that makes the food potent. The bread would not be more sacramentally effective if it were baked locally by an army of Babettes®, sprinkled with a dash of Grand Marnier, and artfully presented upon a soft bed of butter lettuce. Nor, for that matter, would it be less so. It is the consecration of the bread itself, and its dedication to a higher purpose, that supplies its meaning. It is the lifting up of the ordinary, the everyday, the lowly, that matters most.
Is that principle transferrable? Not every meal can be eucharistic, just as not everything that lives can be holy, pace William Blake. But something of that spirit of broad and generous appreciation could be imported into the way we regard food in our everyday lives. Cultivating the habit of simple gratitude for all our meals—great and small, high and low, raw and cooked—would take us a long, long way in the direction of the sacred. “Lift me up!” we should say— though remembering that our food alone can take us only so far.