e-mail us

Starting Point

God’s blessing is our pleasure


The matter of food is endlessly interesting to me. I spend most of my waking time growing food or reading about growing food or thinking about growing food. A good chunk of time is then spent in anticipation of and in the act of eating. As much as I like to grow food, I love to eat food.

Food and its distribution are a measure, on one hand, by which to describe and discern justice and injustice. Food is also an occasion for repeatable variations of celebration and delight. Eating is just great! There is a saying: “Eat to live. Don’t live to eat.” The saying is surely trying to correct the excesses of our culture; however, the devaluation of food’s authentic pleasure is the most cynical of suggestions.

The profound importance of food stands at the heart of our religious tradition. The connections between shared food and community and justice and redemption are rich. Eucharist’s many layers of meaning are a testimony to the spiritual significance of food. Food shared represents generosity, community, justice and mutuality. Food and the earth from which it comes are gifts from God. We recognize almost immediately the practical and spiritual significance of food. But at the heart of this significance, often unrecognized, is pleasure. And spirituality depends on the touchstone of deepest pleasure to define what is valuable and what is not.

As a nation, our spirituality is a bit lean. With food so readily abundant and varied, one would think that we Americans would have access to satisfactions and spiritual insights in spades. But not so. I would propose that it is exactly our distance from the pleasures of food that is, in part, responsible.

The pleasure of food, like many pleasures, depends on its absence to define the occasion of its presence a pleasure. Food is just about the greatest experience when we’re really hungry. Daniel Berrigan quips, “Our spiritual crisis is three square meals,” which speaks to the problem of being oversatiated. To be constantly full of food is to know neither deprivation nor satisfaction -- only anesthesia. Part of the problem of not fasting, of not getting really hungry, is that the real and simple pleasure of food is minimized. Food becomes just part of the schedule, is taken for granted, becomes disassociated from pleasure.

On a related note, feasting and celebration in which someone goes to special expense to provide rich food is enjoyable and meaningful only if those occasions are interruptions of a diet in which rich food is an exception. Part of the crisis of the American diet is that it is too full of daily feasting on foods that ought to be consumed only on occasion: meats, sugars and alcohol.

Over the last 100 years, our relationship to food has changed dramatically, a change that has no historical precedent on a societal scale. This change has meant the disassociation of the household -- of everyday life -- from the growing or raising of food. Where our great-grandparents probably raised a great deal of their own food (80 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms in 1870), few of us today know even how to plant a tomato. Our relationship to food is short-term: We buy it one day, eat it the next, without any understanding of the complex and potentially wonderful process that brought it to harvest.

A hopeful development has been the swelling interest in gardening over the last decade. Growing one’s own food is frequently described not only in terms of hobby but of spirituality. Growing one’s own food is fun, interesting, puzzling, challenging, empowering and skill building. It is spiritually satisfying to do work that is obviously useful. It is spiritually and physically satisfying to use one’s body in a productive way.

Growing one’s own food can also be delicious. One of the diminishments of pleasure afforded by supermarket cuisine is the absence of freshness and, consequently, flavor. Last winter, we harvested carrots that were exceptionally flavorful and sweet. The fall frosts had changed some of the protein in the carrots to sugar. Never had I eaten such carrots!

I suspect, too, that the disassociation from growing our own food has meant the diminishment of the pleasure of hospitality. Inviting friends to the table used to be an invitation to the gift of a meal that represented a season of work. Meal discussions certainly included the expertise of the cook, but also of the gardener and the techniques used to grow and preserve the garden’s bounty. Somehow the intimacy between us and our food plays into the intimacy of sharing it. I love sharing food that I have grown. I love receiving food that others have grown.

To be related to food as it is being grown means we are in some kind of knowledge-building with creation. That should mean that we become students of soil health, plant health, human health. It is satisfying to begin to understand ourselves in the context of what keeps us alive. To grow a tomato plant is to begin to understand soil fertility, insects both harmful and beneficial, seasons, weather, biology and nutrition. It is to be introduced to the craftsmanship of good tools, the study of minerals, and the relationship between death (compost) and life (a healthy garden). It is interesting, complex and delightful.

This evening, Maggie and I and our daughters will share food we have all worked on. Some of us will have planted it, some will have helped to weed it (despite protests), some will have cooked it. It is simple food but it is food we have known, have worked at, have enjoyed looking at as it has grown, and now share. God’s blessing is our pleasure.

Jack Jezreel is currently the director of the JustFaith, a justice education project sponsored by Catholic Charities USA. His e-mail address is justfaith@email.msn.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001