In the fight for food, our desire is at steak stake.
Please, average Fort Collins foodie, take a deep breath. It’s not heretical to laugh at the above video. I won’t think less of you or your kale chips. Put down the paleo cookbook.
In this town, it’s really hard to talk about healthy eating and not get brought to a boil (food pun!). Fort Collins boasts 20 craft breweries and more restaurants per capita than any other city in Colorado. We love food—good, healthy, locally sourced, seasonally foraged, really tasty, usually expensive food.
And for good reason. Food is amazing! We are delighted by its textures, smells and tastes. There’s something deeply satisfying about the beauty of a well-prepared meal. Food is the original community organizer. All good and perfect gifts come from our Father (James 1:17), and many of us put the bounty of our culinary endeavors near the top of our what-we’re-thankful-for list. Eating well is a way of stewarding our Holy Spirit-indwelling bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19). The Bible even kinda-sorta gives us permission to be foodies and post our photos of dinner on Instagram:
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart. (Psalm 104:14-15)
John Calvin, the great Reformer, had an enormous wine collection and loved to write about food:
It is no small honor that God for our sake has so magnificently adorned the world, in order that we may not only be spectators of his beauteous theater, but also enjoy the multiplied abundance and variety of good things which are presented to us in it.
If we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer.
Why all the rancor and discord, then, when we bring up food with friends or family who are not as enlightened as us Choice City connoisseurs? Why do yell at others for eating steak for breakfast? For as often as food unites, it also divides.
But I don’t think the problem is the food itself. The problem, to borrow a phrase from J.D. Salinger, is that we’re just a bunch of apple-eaters. Not in the literal sense, but in the Edenic sense. We’re idolaters. We humans are really, really good at taking good things and turning them into ultimate things. Calvin himself referred to the human heart as an “idol factory.” This is real heart disease. And in our affluent, Western enclaves, we make idols out of food. This also means that we make rules about our food. Our rule-keeping abilities become a means of right-standing in the eyes of our friends, neighbors and members at the local CSA.
The tangible nature of food is what makes it so easy to turn it into a holiness issue. We’re literally and figuratively creating our own sacred cows. But this organic legalism tends to destroy the one thing it’s supposed to be protecting: the enjoyment and pleasure of eating.
In 1997, an American physician named Dr. Steve Bratman identified a psychological disorder among his healthy-eating-obsessed patients. He named the condition “orthorexia nervosa,” which literally means, “fixation on righteous eating.” (Really quick: The doctor who coined the term “orthorexia” is named after a processed sausage from Germany. Just thought I’d point this out. Carry on.)
What happens when we let the pursuit of righteousness contaminate the gluten-free bread, as it were? What happens when food orthodoxy trumps biblical orthodoxy? Carrie Willard, writing for Mockingbird earlier this year, helps us see how damaging our desire for right-eating can be:
Along with all of the “good” olive oil and organic kale we should be eating, we are told we shouldn’t be eating high fructose corn syrup and (heaven forbid) trans fats. The “eat this” list rivals only the “don’t eat this” list, and both seem to be growing faster than the weeds we shouldn’t be killing with pesticides. We read in Romans 14: “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” This was, of course, referring to religious observances relating to food, but it bears another look within the lens of contemporary judgments surrounding food and eating. . . .
There’s an implicit message in all of these food rules and high standards. . . . if you can’t do this well, then don’t even try. . . . All of this pressure to “do it right” can lead to significant angst. . . . [Orthorexia nervosa] reflects a yearning for righteousness and worthiness: “‘Ortho’ means right or correct, and ‘rexia’ means desire. In other words, a desire to be correct.” According to a 2009 article in The Guardian, those who suffer from this condition are “solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure.’”[Orthorexia] has been recognized relatively recently by the mental health community, and is described as a “fixation on righteous eating.” It is on the rise, but it is also very difficult to diagnose, because our culture as a whole is obsessed with categorizing food into “good” and “bad” categories. As a nutritional therapist said, “In our current food-obsessed culture, healthy eating can take on a quality similar to religious fervor, in which certain foods are sinful and eating in a certain rigid way is godly and rewarded.”
Right desire. In describing the disorder, we actually find the prescription for the cure. The intrinsic value of food shows us the desirability of God—his beauty and righteousness. Taste and see, the Psalmist implores. The good things we taste here ought to whet our appetite for the Provider of our meals. I like James K.A. Smith’s paraphrase of a famous Augustine quote: “You have made us for yourself, and our gut will rumble until we feed on you.”
Having a right desire about God and food will also show us the proper way to use food for others. Jesus is the living bread, given to and broken for us so that we might live forever (John 6:51-58). Our hospitality—meals generously prepared and shared with others—can be a reflection of that kind of nourishment, a precursor to that kind of joy. Willard’s conclusion is a fitting conclusion here, as well, so I’ll pass the plate to her one more time:
When it comes down to it, this great joy comes from God, who gives us this gift of food. In our sharing of that gift, there are echoes of the same grace present on the night before Jesus died, when he hosted a meal for his friends. And surely those moments include the joy that must have been savored on the shore where Jesus shared fish with those same friends after his resurrection. . . .
Robert Farrar Capon—Episcopal priest, theologian, and food writer—experienced all of this in his own kitchen. His 2013 obituary in The Economistconcluded with these words:
Food and company, he wrote, “don’t slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds.” It was all part of the real work: “To look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing.” Even the humblest meal could be a Eucharist, with the cook serving both as its priest and, through loving sacrifice of time and effort, its victim too.
And because I can’t help myself, consider this as dessert. Bon appétit!