Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are,” wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the father of French gastronomy. I’m sure you’ve heard variations of this phrase, like Ludwig Feurbach’s, “Man is what he eats.” Or the more common, “You are what you eat.”
More than just popular sentiment, this concept has biblical precedent too. In this statement, says Eastern Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, Feurbach and Brillat-Savarin capture “the most religious idea of man.”
“In the biblical story of creation,” says Schmemann, “man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food. Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth… is God’s instruction to eat of the earth.… [Man] is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table.”
God created humanity with the necessity to eat. We are created to flourish hand in hand with the flourishing of all creation.When we eat with attention to the role of food in creation, by taking the physical world around us into our own bodies, we come to know more fully the God who created us and who created the world that feeds us.
We are also created for communion, to need close relationships with others, both friends and family. All of these needs are met most fully at the table, where we deepen intimacy with one another and also address our physical need for food.
When we attune ourselves to the intimacy of our deep reliance on food and on one another, we have the framework to recognize the intimacy of our relationship with the created world. When the world around us aches, we suffer the consequences as well. But when the world around us thrives, we thrive too.
Every bite of food we eat is touched by millions of lives. From the cooks and food scientists that crafts our snacks and meals, the grocery store clerks that stock the shelves, the farmhands and gardeners that tend to plants and animals, to the organic material composted to feed the soil and the microbes that break it all down. In the creation that God designed and called good, the necessity to eat leaves every life—human, plant, animal, and bacteria—dependent on the lives of others. It leaves every life dependent on the differing needs of differing climates and ecological arrangements. It leaves every life dependent skills passed down from generation to generation.
The wisdom passed around the table begins first in the soil, the adamah out of which adam was formed, it spreads through the kitchen where generations of women and men have passed on tradition and developed new cooking skills, and is consumed over a meal where conversation is just as important as the bread broken and shared.
When we eat with attention to the role of food in creation, by taking the physical world around us into our own bodies, we come to know more fully the God who created us and who created the world that feeds us. We come to know how our relationship with God is embedded in relationships with one another and with all of creation.
And we come to realize that the same God who prompted the diversity of languages, cultures, and cuisines, who created the diversity of plants, animals, and flavors, who commanded that we spread around the world and care for the earth, draws near to us as we tend to and eat of creation.
In the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), God dispersed men and women, diversifying their language when they did not spread out and fill the earth as God commanded. God longs for a world full of diversity, of varying languages and cultures that reflect back the multifaceted nature of the Imago Dei. We cannot fully know God outside of this diversity of language.
I’ve often heard this diversification of language explained as punishment, as though the Creator could be threatened by its own creation. In the story of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–14), we see what some label the reversal of Babel. Rather than reunify language into one, however, the Holy Spirit enables people to speak and understand languages not their own. God becomes manifest through diversity, each culture offering insight into a different facet of God’s overwhelming beauty.
If language, a mode of communication based on what comes out of our mouths, reflects the multifaceted beauty of God, how much more can we know God by that which we take into our mouths and incorporate into our very bodies?
Jesus knew the power of what we eat, he understood that our food reflects the very depth of who we are. It is through the consumption of bread and wine that we remember the sacrifice Christ made, but even more so it is through the sharing of bread and wine that we commune together as his church. This meal carries the story of Christ’s death and resurrection and it marks our identity as Christians. It connects us with the many ancestors that carried our faith down to us today.
If the same God that created a diversity of languages to capture his many nuances established a meal for us to remember our identity formed through his son, might we also capture a more nuanced understanding of God by partaking in a variety of cuisines? Might the stories encapsulated in cultural foodways provide deeper insight into the creative love of God?
Cultural foodways, or cuisines, are languages formed out of agriculture, trade, global movement, and dynamics of power, oppression, and displacement. They carry personal stories of family and community relationships, of culinary and agricultural wisdom passed on from generation to generation.
We tell the stories of who we are and where we come from in the recipes we compile. Some are stories of desired movement, others are tales of painful displacement. These stories tell of the land, the people, the language, the culture, and the flavors to whom we belong.
Cuisines often develop as a result of oppression and limitation. They bare the wounds of imbalances of power, of famine and drought, of starvation. Mayukh Sen writes of the dietary restrictions placed on high-caste Hindu widows that led to a vibrant Bengali vegetarian cuisine: “These culinary limitations inadvertently contributed to what is now a rich vegetarian cuisine, built around dishes made from scraps of produce. These women are this cuisine’s unsung architects, recognizing a spectrum of possibilities within their loss.… The pathways through which a cuisine assumes an identity leans on the vulnerable.”
Adrian Miller writes of the resourcefulness that led to the culinary genius of soul food: “Soul food is a coined term that brilliantly captures the humanity and heroic effort of African-Americans to overcome centuries of oppression and create a cuisine that deliciously melds the foods and cooking techniques of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas.” These cuisines are examples of hope and beauty flourishing in the face of injustice or hardship. They are languages that tell a story of death or hopelessness and turn the pain into something that sustains.
In the United States, when cuisines become appropriated into popular culture, they are oftentimes valued as flavors devoid of the stories they tell. They are adopted and adapted to fit mainstream desires and to fit into capitalistic consumption patterns. Even as appreciation grows for diversity of flavors, many cuisines tell yet again a story about power—the power of white culture to erase histories of oppression.
Ruth Tam writes of her own difficult relationship with her family’s Cantonese cuisine: “My hunger for my family’s food was overpowered by my desire to fit in, so I minimized Chinese food’s role in my life and learned to make pasta instead. Little did I know that Americans would come to embrace the dishes and cooking styles that once mortified me… the trend has reduced staples of our culture to fleeting fetishes.”
While it is dangerously easy to consume without thought for the history of a dish, there is much to learn by listening to the stories of place and movement, of power and displacement that they tell.
If these foods tell stories of power, pain, hope, and place, might they offer wisdom as to how we might heal relationships within creation as well?
Eating the cuisines of our neighbors—when accompanied by sustained relationships and a deep care for the stories embedded in their food—is a valuable way of developing a deeper understanding of who they are, digesting stories of their past and present through the intermingling of flavors and textures. In turn, the broadening of the palette expands our own knowledge of the God in whose image they are made. As such, eating the food of another can lead to better understanding with which to bridge difference.
Every human is made in the image of our Creator, and thus every human deserves the dignity of telling his or her story. Telling this story through the creation of food has a particular power for those whose journeys involve displacement or who face the threat of cultural traditions being demeaned or erased. A variety of social enterprises, such as Brooklyn’s Hot Bread Kitchen, San Francisco’s La Cocina kitchen incubator, and the Eat Offbeat cookbook, tap into this potential—empowering refugees to build economic security while sharing their own stories in digestible form.
Hot Bread Kitchen runs a bakery-training program for women facing economic insecurity. Along with learning artisan bread baking, the women have options to take courses in English as a second language, bakery math and science, and are placed in full-time, fair wage jobs—which are difficult to come by in the restaurant industry. The bakers bring with them various baking traditions from around the world, diversifying the offerings that Hot Bread Kitchen serves.
La Cocina “cultivate[s] low income food entrepreneurs” by providing affordable commercial kitchen space and entrepreneurial help to “women from communities of color and immigrant communities” to help launch and market their businesses. Their goal is to seek the flourishing of the “ethnically diverse and economically vulnerable neighborhood” in which the incubator resides.
The Eat Offbeat cookbook is a book written by the chefs of Eat Offbeat catering, a corporate catering company run by a team of refugee chefs resettled in New York City. By sharing their family recipes and stories of movement, the cookbook strives to rewrite the narrative around refugees in the United States. The book helps “professional chefs bring their talents and their stories to the world, and help[s] the world take a stroll off the beaten path and into… far-reaching cuisines,” says Manal Kahi, the founder of Eat Offbeat.
Each of these enterprises uses the power of food and the stories it holds to engage important conversations about conflict and culture around the world. They encourage the flourishing of community through the creativity granted to each of God’s image bearers across the globe.
In the diversity of cuisines around the world, we learn something about the goodness of God. We learn of a God that pushes humanity toward creativity, toward flourishing, toward beauty, even in the midst of despair. We learn of a God that grants the gift of creativity to all who have been made in the Creator’s image. We learn of a God that delights in the diversity of the world and longs for us to seek such delight as well.
At the end of Revelation, we are given a vision of the New Jerusalem, a vision of a Tree of Life whose leaves heal nations and that bears its fruit all year round. That the healing of nations is proclaimed to take place through the flourishing of a fruit-bearing tree is of little surprise to me. Throughout the Bible and throughout human history, the dinner table prompts conversation, and the creative diversity of God is manifest in various cultural cuisines.
When we sit at the table with neighbors, in particular those who don’t look or eat like us, when we hear one another’s stories and the tales of faithfulness and fear that have made us who we are, we eat our way ever closer to the coming kingdom of God.
We are what we eat. We are soil, animated by the loving breath of God, the very same soil that ushers forth the plants we must consume to live. We are creators and consumers who carry forth the stories of our ancestors in the recipes and traditions they pass on, and in the recipes and traditions we relay to the friends and family in our midst.
In the biblical story of creation, we were given the world as our banquet table, so long as we tended to it with care. Because we failed to heed this call, for the moment the world aches with the reality of famine and oppression, of heartache and hunger. Nevertheless, it continues to sing of the love of a creative God that encourages the formation of delicious cuisines even in the face of limitation.
When we feast on the foods and listen to the stories of the meals of our friends and neighbors, we draw ever nearer to the healing of creation. We celebrate the diversity of the world God made and embody the belief that even as it is broken, it is still very good.