Come to the Table: The Universe in a Crumb of Bread
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour… ~ William Blake
I am not exactly sure when I became interested in cuisine and food culture. Growing up in the deep South, drinking sweet tea, eating fried-chicken, cornbread and cat-head biscuits was just as much a part of my upbringing as knowing the words to the old hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Fried chicken, black-eyed peas and being Baptist went hand in hand!
In a way, all Southerners have been “foodies” since birth, it’s just that our food was cooked and seasoned in bacon grease and Tabasco sauce. Food, family gatherings and faith has always been intergral to the “Southern identity.”
Having had the chance to travel well outside the South, as well as to other places around the world, I’ve since learned that the same could be said of all cultures. The centrality of food and the enjoyment of a well prepared meal, is not just a “Southern thing,” it is a human thing. Food is so much more than just something to keep us alive. It is also deeply cultural, and interconnected to many things on multiple levels.
Like thousands, I was deeply saddened by the recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain. I was a fan as well as a student of his. What made Bourdain so brilliant (among other things) were his refreshingly honest insights to the web of interconnectedness in all cultures with their food. He didn’t just go to the posh and polished restaurants in his shows, he also visited the back alley-ways and dives where one often encounters - shall we say, “interesting” individuals.
Bourdain even did a show at a Waffle House, for crying out loud! It was a brilliant move! Because, if you want to understand America, you don’t go to Le Bernadin in New York (as awesome as it is!). You go to the local Waffle House in Amarillo, Texas or Wapakoneta, Ohio. To answer the philosophical question posed by Jack Kerouac in his 1957 novel, On the Road: “Whither goest thou America in thy shiny car in the night?” The answer is - “We are going to the Waffle House” (or something like it!). Bourdain was something of a “food philosopher;" I would even say, a “food anthropologist” (btw - there IS such a thing!).
This is not an article about Bourdain, or even about suicide, rather it is about the spiritual and theological significance of food — something, I hope would resonate with followers of Bourdain (although, I know, he did not identify with any particular religion). That being said, however, there is a deep connection between suicide and the lack of deep spiritual contentment by people suffering from depression as well as addictions (whether it’s to food, sex, money, fame, or whatever else). Weeks before his suicide, Bourdain, was with his friend, director Darren Aronofsky where they were shooting an episode in Bhutan. Sadly ironic, Aronofsky said that he and Tony, “...debated the fate of the country, the fate of the world. He was perplexed as to how mankind’s endless hunger to consume could be curtailed" . This is an attempt to answer not only Tony's question, but also to many others who have the same one.
FOOD: BRINGS US TOGETHER & REVEALS WHO WE ARE
Like many Americans, I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the heated rhetoric coming from every direction on any given issue or hot topic question. It seems that there is no subject or position that one can take on anything which doesn’t elicit some kind of angry reaction from those who disagree with it.
There is, however, one topic that almost everyone can discuss without becoming too angry - and that subject is - food! Just go to any local restaurant known for its great food and take a look around. Most people are in a good mood (unless they’ve been waiting a while to get a table!), and they are smiling! You’ll probably also see a pretty good mix of cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and political views…most are there for the food!
Of course, we also have very strong opinions about our food - how we like it seasoned, regional and cultural variations, and how certain dishes should be cooked, etc… but that’s another story!
By its very nature, sharing a meal engenders unity as well as community. It is an activity that brings families, friends, enemies, and even political rivals together in an act that reveals our shared humanity as well as the nature of our mortal existence. Simply put, without food - we will die. But food also reveals something more. It ironically reveals that we are also spiritual beings with spiritual needs. There is an immaterial part to our human nature that neither food, drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything physical can satisfy.
The main thesis of this article is a truth which may sound strange to some people. And that truth is that God IS food. He is not fast food, but He IS food, nonetheless. Only God, through the person of Christ, can satisfy the deepest desires of our spiritual selves - our human souls - as the Bible states, “…man does not live by bread alone.”
In order to have a deeper and a richer understanding of this truth, I want to briefly look into a bit of culinary history as well as the fascinating world of food culture.
“Foodie” Stuff 101
One of the truths that all “foodies” know is that enjoying good food involves the intellect as well as the senses. The principle here is that the more you know about something, the better you can enjoy it. It is true of food, as it is true of most subjects.
Take music, for example. I happen to like opera, but I am certainly aware that many people don’t care for it. However, when an opera is explained it can be more fully enjoyed, even by those who don’t like it (hopefully, anyway!!).
The same is true for food. There is both ethical value, as well as epistemological value in knowing more about our food. For example, understanding that the meat we eat comes from animals that were ethically treated helps us to enjoy it better. Knowing that the coffee, or chocolate we consume comes from farms where fair-trade principles are practiced, aids in our enjoyment of it. But it also goes much deeper than these surface concerns.
People who have their own gardens and grow their own vegetables understand this very well. It is deeply satisfying to know that you have grown and nurtured the beautiful summer tomato that you are about to eat in your salad or that the greens you will serve to friends at your evening dinner party came from your own garden.
In addition to our intellect, our enjoyment of food also utilizes all of the five senses: seeing, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. For whatever reason, taste and smell seem to have deep seated connections to our memory and our emotions. Certain tastes or smells can trigger our memories, taking us down into a labyrinth of thought, ideas, history, travel, and time.
This truth was brilliantly iIlustrated in the 2007 Pixar animated movie, Ratatouille - a movie about a talking rat named Remy who loved to cook gourmet food. One of the main antagonists in the movie was a very moody and meticulous food critic named Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole). In one of the pivotal scenes, Ego enters the restaurant in order to write a review while Remy (the Rat) and the other characters eagerly await his verdict, after having frantically and carefully prepared the food. As Anton takes the first bite on a dish, ironically called ratatouille, he is suddenly and mystically transported straight to his childhood where his mother is present and placing before him the same dish to comfort him in a time of distress.
|The moment after Anton Ego takes the bite that sends him directly back to his childhood (2007 - Pixar)|
Food reveals that we are more than mere physical beings; we are spiritual and emotional beings as well.
Terroir & The Interconnectedness of Food
Several years ago when I visited Italy I enjoyed an amazing meal with friends at their lovely home in Naples. It was around this time that I was diving headlong into the fascinating world of culinary history, and all that goes with it. It was in Italy where I first learned about a concept called terroir (pronounced - “tear-wah”). Terroir is actually not an Italian word, but French. It has at its root the word terra - meaning, “land or earth.”
Terroir are all of the environmental factors that affect particular crops - but, primarily wine grapes. According to Larousse Wine:
"Originally conceived with reference to wine production in France, the concept of terroir is now universally known. It covers all the natural and climatic elements linked to a particular vineyard area. …Terroir, contrary to commonly held beliefs, does not simply refer to the soil and what lies beneath the vines (granite, limestone, etc.). It also includes other factors, such as the slope (hillsides or plain), altitude, exposure, environment (proximity to forest or lake, etc.), and of course, the climate. The terroir is the combination of all these factors and it gives each wine-producing site its unique identity ."
Each of the aforementioned factors has subtle influences on grape varieties that in turn affect the taste of the various wines. Wine grapes, however, are not the only food affected by terroir. Other crops such as chocolate, coffee, cheese, tea, chili peppers, and tomatoes, as well as many others, are effected by environmental factors (or terroir) as well.
Does “History” Have a Taste?
Much to my surprise and gratitude, my friends from Naples gifted me a bottle of wine grown from grapes nourished in the nearby, rich volcanic soil, enriched by Mt. Vesuvius. There I learned that volcanic soil is one of the key factors for the terroir of excellent wine grapes grown in southern Italy. The region between Rome and Naples, called Campania, is known for its excellent terroir. Enjoyment of the wine certainly includes knowing this, but there’s also more.
Mount Vesuvius was the infamous volcano that erupted in AD 79 destroying the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Beginning in the 18th Century, explorers and archaeologists have started the slow, painstaking process of uncovering the city, house by house, street by street. Although the destruction of Pompeii was a tragic event taking the lives of an estimated 2,000 people, it also serves as a snapshot of everyday life in First Century Imperial Rome. In addition to thousands of artifacts and human remains, archaeologists have also discovered post holes buried near ancient Pompeiian villas indicating where ancient grape vine trellises stood. When I visited the site in 2011, the Pompeii archaeological park had planted grape vines on the exact spot where a vineyard was planted over 2000 years ago (see image below).
|Mount Vesuvius as seen from the ruins of Pompeii|
|Grape vines soak up nutrients from the sun and the rich volcanic soil of Vesuvius on the exact place where ancient grapevines once grew in Pompeii over 2000 years ago.|
Terroir records the weather, rain, sun, heat, cold-snaps, in the grape itself, but there is also the “cultural terroir” which dives deep into the history and people of the place where it is made. When one drinks a glass of wine, harvested from grapes in the Campania region near Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, one cannot but help to think about the history of the region with its rich long tradition of wine-making, as well as ancient Rome, and the once glorious and beautiful villas of Pompeii, where ancient Romans once lived and walked.
Whether it’s environmental factors, or history, culture, or whatever else - we learn that when we eat our food, there is much, much more going on than meets the eye.
In the words of Duke University professor, Norman Wirzba, we “…never bite into just one thing.” He states:
"To eat is to be implicated in a vast, complex interweaving set of life and death dramas in which we are only one among many. No matter how solitary our experience may be, every sniff, every chomp and swallow connects us to vast global trade networks and thus to biophysical and social worlds far beyond ourselves. The moment we chew on anything we participate in regional, geographic, histories and geophysical processes that, for all their diversity and complexity, defy our wildest imaginations and most attempts at comprehension. The minute we contemplate or talk about eating, we show ourselves to be involved in culinary traditions and cultural taboos, as well as moral quandaries and spiritual quests. To amend an ecologist’s maxim: we can never only bite into one thing. "
Furthermore, the truths Wirzba mentions above also show that we are indebted to many people whom we will never meet for the growth, nurture and production of our food and for the sustaning of our lives. Additionally, it reveals the truth that we are ultimately indebted to God for rain, the sunshine, soil and seed, whether we recognize Him or not. As Wirzba states, “…food is the fully sensory manifestation of God’s daily provision.” .
Come to the Table: Taste and See that the Lord is Good!
Near the beginning of this article I made two statements. The first one is that humans have both physical and spiritual parts to our nature. Both parts (the physical & spiritual) must have food or they will die. The second statement I made is that God HIMSELF is food in the person of Christ. This is the essence of the Christian message. That God (who created the universe and all that is) fully indwelt human flesh in the person of Christ. Christ is the ONLY food which truly satisfies the spiritual part of our nature (the eternal part).
For those who have “partaken” of Christ by faith - it is an all-consuming relationship, and it is real. In fact, this relationship with Christ is so intimate and so consuming that critics accused early Christians of cannibalism. This is certainly what the Romans thought of the first Christians when they heard of their “love feasts” (as they were called), where Christians partook of the “flesh and blood” of Christ. Of course, what they were doing was partaking of Christian Communion (taking the elements of the bread and wine) and not cannibalism.
Christ did indeed make an incredibly audacious and radical claim! He claimed to be the very bread of life. Speaking to the Jews of His day, He said:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51)
This is truly a revolutionary claim but, also, an incredibly arrogant statement if it is not true.
|Salvador Dali's - "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955) [Wikipedia]|
There are many today who would strongly object to Christ’s claims for various reasons, but when He made these statements He was expressing a deep truth about the human soul - namely, that only HE can satisfy it. All of human history serves as a proof of this, as C.S. Lewis brilliantly observed:
“Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” 
Lewis actually wrote quite extensively on the subject of human longing and desire. He utilized the German word “sehnsucht” or “unfulfilled longing” to explain the deep condition of the human heart.
In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis put it this way:
…A baby feels hunger; well there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world .
To truly satisfy spiritual hunger, one needs spiritual food, but there are many substitutes and counterfeits.
No Experience in this World Can Satisfy Us
Our modern world is filled with addictive counterfeits and substitutes to the “true and satisfying Bread that has come down from heaven.” These substitutes never truly satisfy the human soul and that is why our world is so filled with addictions and addicts (note: both non-Christians and Christians alike are not immune from becoming addicts). Gourmet food doesn’t satisfy; illicit relationships don’t satisfy; travel to exotic destinations doesn’t satisfy; material wealth and things don’t satisfy; great success, admiration and fame doesn’t satisfy (think of all the famous people, stars, sports stars, etc…who are depressed and/or have committed suicide), and the list could go on and on and on…
Theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen brilliantly described this truth when he said:
“'Addiction' might be the best way to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates contemporary society. Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in the “distant country” leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home ."
Christianity is unique among all of the world’s religions. To put it simply, it is an invitation to eat - an invitation to a grand feast, where all are invited. No one is excluded. The table has been set and the “food” has been meticulously prepared. The table which God sets is populated with people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 7:9).
The “food” Christianity has to offer has excellent terroir, and its preparation precedes even the foundation of the world itself (Rev. 13:8). The food is none other than Christ Himself. God freely offers to the world Christ as the only “bread” that truly satisfies. Christ is the answer to the world’s greatest hunger - spiritual hunger.
It is certainly no accident that the Bible was written by an agricultural nation who also tended their flocks. The Bible is one of the richest books of all history and all time, when it comes to the centrality and spiritual significance of food. The Old Testament is filled with illustrations, allusions, and symbols intimately connected to food, livestock, crops, soil, agriculture, land, fruit, vegetables, milk, honey, wine, bread and water and God.
We see it in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15-18), and we also see it at the very end, at the great Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). It would be safe to say that food lies at the very heart of the Bible and is actually its very theme. Its pages are replete with images, metaphors and realities connected to food. Every page, every image, and metaphor can ultimately be traced back to Christ as the true Bread from Heaven, the Living Water, whose very blood is symbolized by the wine of the Eucharist.
In the Christian worldview, we live in a fallen world full of much sorrow, sadness and grief. Many have experienced loss in some form or another, but all people are in desperate need of the spiritual food that Christ offers.
In Christianity, history is an arrow that is headed towards a definite end and goal (an eschaton). For those who have already tasted the bread of His flesh and drunk the wine of Christ’s body, there is much to eagerly look forward to. For the bread and wine that Christians partake of here on earth, and the Communion that we enjoy with our God and each other, are a foretaste and glimpse of what is to come. As theologian, Hans urs Von Balthassar writes:
“And when in the bowers of heaven this wine is served up at the Lamb’s marriage-feast, then the whole world will be able to taste on which hillside and in what year of salvation it grew, will be able to savor in it the whole landscape of its origin, and not the least of your joys will be lost. But everything about it has invisibly turned within, and the dividing borderlines between being and being are dissolved in the unifying tide, and all bubbling eagerness has ceased fermenting, and all sadness has resurrected into brightness .”
Endless joy and feasting awaits those who have Christ.
For those who have yet to taste the royal and vintage wine of Christ and the bread of His body, the offer still stands. You are welcome. Come to the Table. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8)!
 https://pagesix.com/2018/06/25/anthony-bourdain-participated-in-death-ritual-months-before-suicide/ (accessed, 25 June 2018).
 Georges Lepré, Technical Consultant, Larousse Wine: The World’s Greatest Vines, Estates, and Regions (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2011), pg. 26.
 Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pg. 4
 Norman Wirzba, “Thinking Theologically About Food,” in Bible in Transmisson (Summer 2013), pg. 7.
 C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (1966)
. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, chap. 10 (emphasis mine). Also see, Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL, 1994), pp. 78-81; also his “The Argument from Desire” on http://peterkreeft.com/topics/desire.htm (accessed Jan. 1, 2006)
 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Convergent Books, 2016), pg. 49.
 Hans urs Von Balthassar, Heart of the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979), pp. 76-77.