This is week five of our book club discussion on The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. Join us every Monday morning as we dig into this feast!
When my boys were toddlers they loved to say grace before dinner. What a thrill it gave them to lead the family in the prayer they shared with their preschool friends:
God made the sun, God made the sea, God made the fishies, and God made me. Thank you for the sun, thank you for the sea, thank you for the fishies, and thank you for me. Amen.
We would do the hand motions in unison—arms circled over head for sun, choppy wave motions for sea and hands flat together to mimic a fish swimming sleek through the water.
As they grew, so did their prayers, often reflecting a long litany of thanks. They would try to outdo each other with hands folded and eyes closed--then grin crooked afterwards at such a great display of benevolence. A few years later, we have come full circle. Our table blessing is short and simple—an oft-repeated no-nonsense thank you for this food.
I am filled by this pause before we dig into our meals but as I read our essays this week from The Spirit of Food, I cannot help but to reflect:
What exactly is appropriate table grace? Does it end when the last bite is taken, when the last crumb is brushed from the table, the last dish washed and put away? Shouldn’t our table grace extend out to the very beginnings of the food that we put in our body?
Wendell Berry thinks so. This poet-farmer tells me that when I consume responsibly—aware of the politics, esthetics, and ethics that birthed the food I place in my mouth—I am helping to shape the way the world is used.
…People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know that the garden is healthy and remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating. The knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater. The same goes for eating meat. The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak. Some, I know, will think of it as blood thirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life. On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude... (Wendell Berry, The Pleasures of Eating)
Does this mean that I must be a farmer to experience “right” table grace? Must I raise the livestock I consume to fully appreciate the process that leads it to marinate in my stomach?
In his essay Mr. Berry lists seven steps we can take toward eating more responsibly. Mostly, these involve education about food origins and avoiding processed foods as much as possible.
It is true that much of our culture has become estranged from the origins of much of the food we consume. Past generations seem to have had a much better understanding of the interrelationship of food and mindfulness. Life was simpler—foods more provincial. The intimate knowledge of what it took to get the food to the table made it nearly impossible to take meals for granted.
Kelton Cobb, for example, in his essay Table Blessings, talks about the experience of eating at his grandparents’ table:
…When we sat down to eat, I was prepared to be refreshed, not merely refueled…Table grace for my grandfather was a confession of faith, of ultimate loyalties. Food reminded him of his dependence on God. Food reinvigorated his faith and prompted him to confess it. Before he ate, he acknowledged his life as a gift from God…The food we eat, and the way we handle it, may tell God a good deal. The table blessing is not simply a nice custom. It is a sacramental litany. Food and nourishment are made holy when received with a blessing.
Our third and final essay this week, Filled to Brokenness: Notes on Hunger by Gina Ochsner, is her heartbreaking account of her journey to a healthy view of food. Ms. Ochsner describes her struggle with anorexia and bulimia as a young woman and how this history continues to impact her relationship with food today.
…How was it that when I devoured the most, I felt so hungry? I wanted to be filled with a lasting substance so that I would never hunger again. Emptiness and fullness were two sensations I could never accurately gauge; the seemed beyond my control, even beyond my ability to understand…
I dare not simplify the complex and multifaceted issues that contribute to the development of an eating disorder, but when I read Ms. Ochsner’s essay side by side with Berry’s and Cobb’s, I cannot help but to marvel at how intricately our views on food weave themselves into the fiber of our beings.
Eating responsibly. Deep-rooted gratitude. Right relationship with food.
Shouldn’t all of these fall under the umbrella of Table Grace?
For now, we are bound to these bodies. We must feed our hunger as well as we know how-- letting our table grace extend into every detail of daily life.
As a special treat, Laity Lodge’s Executive Chef, Tim Blanks, will be sharing some of his recipes with us during our book club discussions. Thanks, Tim! Enjoy!
Tim’s Baked Beets
I think beets are the most underrated of all vegetables. Perhaps this is due to the tins of sliced beets, saturated with vinegar, which we were subjected to as children, Try this method of baking them whole in their skins and discover a whole new vegetable.
Medium raw beets ( I like them with the tops on--leave 1 to 2 inches on the top of the beet…it’s all about presentation. People eat with their eyes first).
Dressing 1 cup plain yogurt 4 table spoons chopped fresh chives Salt and fresh ground pepper
Preheat oven 350F
Wash the Beets and dry them well. Place them in the roasting pan. Loosely cover with foil. Bake for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until the skins break easy if pressed lightly with a finger and comes away easily from flesh.
Meanwhile prepare the dressing: mix together chives, yogurt, salt and pepper. Let infuse while the beets bake.
Remove the beets form the oven. Peel and slice in half. Place them on a serving plate and spoon the dressing over the beets. Serve hot.
**If you have been unable to purchase The Spirit of Food, two of this week's essays can be found online. Wendell Berry's The Pleasures of Eating and Kelton Cobb's Table Blessings. We would love to have you join the conversation. If you would like to buy a copy of this lovely book, Leslie Leyland Fields is offering our HighCalling book club participants a special price. Just email her at email@example.com, and she’ll send you the book for $22, including shipping! Thank you, Leslie!
**Next week we will be discussing three more essays, that is, Fasting Toward Home, My (Self-Righteous) Food-Stamp Fast, and The Joy of the Fast.
Photo by Nick Failing, used with permission via Flickr. Post by Laura Boggess, author of the Wings of Klaio series.