Yesterday morning, like many others mesmerized by the commercialization of holidays, I had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television.I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but I know that growing up poor we used to watch this, and that my wife’s family, from different circumstances, also watched it.The friends with whom we ate our main meal watched it, and given the advertising revenues, I imagine many other people tune in every year as part of the holiday tradition.What struck me were the testimonials just before or after the commercial breaks.Celebrities shared what they liked about the holiday and many of them, unsurprisingly, focused on food.Many indicated that overeating was pleasurable.I began to think of what it means to be a nation of foodies.
Not everyone is of a cenobitic sensibility, but focusing on the food seems to be paying more attention to the finger pointing at the moon than to the moon itself.Commercials for television shows of sweaty, nervous chefs wanting to be recognized as the best cooks in the world struck me as somewhat decadent.Like many professionals I’ve had occasion to eat in “fine restaurants” from time to time.Do I remember the food for long afterward?No.More often I recall the people I was with.What we talked about.The food, chefs may be pained to hear, was incidental.There were deeper issues afoot.If the internet’s any indication, I’m in the minority here.Foodies rule.
Special foods on holidays are, naturally enough, a holiday tradition.Many have their origins in the changing foodstuffs available as the seasons wend their way through their invariable cycle.Thanksgiving is like the ancient festivals of ingathering—the celebration of plenty ahead of the lean months of living on what we’ve managed to store for the season when winter reigns.Some animals cope by hibernating until food becomes available again.Others scavenge their way through chilly, snow-covered days.Gluttony, however, isn’t primarily a sin against one’s body; it’s the sin of taking more than one’s fair share.Unequal distribution of wealth is a national sin that grows worse each year.On Thanksgiving there are many people who don’t have enough to eat.Jobs can be lost through no fault of one’s own, and want can haunt late November just as readily as jouissance.Driving home we passed a shopping mall brimming with cars after darkness had fallen.The larger holiday of Black Friday had begun.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a foodie. These days such an admission is tantamount to a venial sin, but the fact is I’m one of those who eats to live, not lives to eat. Still, like many people I’m concerned about whence my food comes. I can’t grow my own and just about all of it comes wrapped in plastic. Thus I found a BBC article my wife sent me to be of great interest: “An uncanny mixture: God, alcohol and even cannabis” by Kait Bolongaro. Focusing on monasteries and their brewing and distilling traditions, Bolongaro uses the foodie angle well. People want to know where their grub comes from, and the current interest in knowing the location of the source plays well into this. European monasteries have long been known for their production of alcohol. Even Jesus drank wine.
I’m no connoisseur of spiritous liquors, but the story is quite interesting. Many people don’t realize that monastic orders, in addition to praying and not having sex, also support themselves through industry. Many make goods to sell. Those in this article make booze. As Bolongaro points out, the fermentation and distillation process is an exacting one. In fact, it is a science. In the case of Chartreuse only three monks know the secret formula. They control the temperatures and conditions remotely, by computer. And I thought Bible Gateway was the only place the religious spent their time.
Science and religion actually have a very long history of cooperation. Gregor Mendel, whose work gave Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection its actual mechanism, was a monk. Other religious have been close observers of nature and processes. There is no commandment against good beer, as many Teutonic brothers would no doubt point out. But to get it right you have to know your chemistry. As the article says, some things can’t be rushed and monastic life lends itself to such slow processes. The rest of us in our secular pursuits rush through life far too fast for religion or science. Contemplation requires “down time.” Time off the clock. The kind of time, we’re told, that simply doesn’t exist any more. The story, after all, appears in BBC Business. I’m no foodie, but I have to confess that the cheese and pretzels purchased from the Amish in Lancaster do tend to taste better than those that come wrapped in plastic. There may be a religion to science after all.
Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.
Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.
Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.