Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Thematic: Eating and Being

Body and Soul at Table

Food is a strong proof of our animality; it is equally strong evidence of how we transcend it.

Wilfred M. McClay

Scene from Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud), 1987, Gabriel Axel, director; Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

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