Why does food exercise such visceral power over our imaginations? How is a meal able to transform ― for good or ill ― the shape and mood of the day?
I realise that for some people the questions are different. Too many in our world (still) worry that there won’t be a meal at all. They find themselves in unjust economic and political contexts where food has been allocated for other purposes ― like the servicing of national debt ― or has been priced beyond reach. Others, meanwhile, have a love/hate relationship with meals. Food isn’t a gift to be savoured. It is, instead, an enemy that makes them sick or fat, or it is a tool deployed by marketers to signify one’s status or evoke personal shame. And for yet others, eating isn’t about very much at all. Food is simply the fuel we ingest ― preferably as cheaply and conveniently as possible ― to keep us moving along.
In the last hundred years or so, the thinking most people do about food has changed decisively. This is because people the world over have been, or are being, reduced to a shopping relationship with food. They do not hunt or gather their food. Nor do they grow it. Owing to unprecedented developments in production, processing, refrigeration and distribution, many people are now absolved of the need to know where food comes from, what practical skills are necessary for its procurement, and what affections and sympathies are crucial for the protection of the ecological processes and cultural traditions that make eating possible and, potentially, a joy. For an increasing number, eating now resembles a magical show: all you need to do is show up, pay some money, and the food will appear, much like bunnies and flowers pulled from a hat. Or you can sit on a couch, surf the web, peruse the (highly stylised) pictures, click a button, and before you know it, the food shows up at your door.
Never before in the history of humanity have people had to know, do, or care so little to enjoy so much food. This is because the industrial methods associated with the Green Revolution ― synthetic fertilisers and herbicides, new seed varieties, increased irrigation, monoculture fields, concentrated animal feeding operations, heavy use of pharmaceuticals, reliance on fossil fuels and the consolidation and corporatisation of farming sectors ― have produced more calories than the world has ever witnessed. All in all, it is a monumental feat. Without this production, millions of people in the twentieth century would have starved. Which is why Norman Borlaug, the man most associated with the Green Revolution, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
But has this production boom been an unqualified success? Should we not worry about an accounting system that leaves few lines for net and, in some cases, permanent loss?
My aim is not to make light of the suffering that hunger induces ― suffering that is inexcusable in a world awash with food. Nor is it “to turn back the clock” and argue for outdated agricultural methods that wasted soils and produced poor harvests. It is, instead, to draw our attention to the fact that recent high yields have come at a very high ecological, agricultural and human cost: depleted and degraded fresh water, mined and eroded soils, systemic animal abuse, (plant and animal) species biodiversity loss, agricultural worker abuse, fossil fuel dependence, growing farmer anxiety and debt, and an industrial diet that makes many of its eaters sick. The industrial system that has yielded all these calories, and freed most people from the hard work of growing food, has also created the most ignorant, negligent, and arrogant eaters the world has ever known.
Having become presumptuous and naïve about food systems, eaters are hardly in a position to advocate for ecological well-being, agricultural justice and social and personal health.
What should be done? We can make a good start by learning to say grace at mealtimes.
On the surface, my recommendation hardly sounds promising. It is true that some people still have the humility to bow their heads before raising their forks. But have we not moved beyond such an old-fashioned ritual? We don’t need to say grace because we purchase the food we need with money we have worked (more or less) hard to acquire. The purchase online or at the store is the realisation of a contractual relationship which, at its conclusion, entails no further responsibilities on our part. But does a contractual relationship to food exhaust the meaning or significance of what happens in a meal? Does it do justice to the life and death struggle that eating represents?
Multiple traditions have encouraged the practice of saying grace because they assume that food is fundamentally a costly gift. It isn’t reducible to being a commodity that we work to obtain as cheaply and conveniently as possible. As they might frame it: the moment a commodity logic takes hold of an eating imagination, is also the moment when places and creatures are made to fit within an efficiency obsessed, profit maximisation calculus that will do considerable damage to eaters and what is eaten alike.
Put another way, if food, understood as the means of life, can be reduced to a commodity, it is but a short step to the conclusion that life itself is also a commodity, fully susceptible to the power plays of possession, manipulation and profit. In a world such as this, no place and no creature are safe, because nothing is sacred. Land, water, plants, animals, workers and eaters ― all can be exploited to maximise somebody’s bottom line.
The practice of saying grace can take many forms, but at its core we find an acknowledgement that eating should evoke a grateful disposition within us. Why? Because, as those practically and intimately involved in the growth of food know, all of one’s best efforts to produce food might still result in a failed crop or a diseased and dying animal. One may prepare a plot, put seed in the ground, nurture and protect the plant, and still not witness the growth of delicious fruit. Germination, growth and health cannot simply be willed into existence or fully controlled by us. To garden or farm the land, and to husband one’s animals, is, therefore, to be faced continuously with one’s own impatience and impotence.
But it is also to engage the surprise and mystery of life that comes from beyond anyone’s knowing and planning. To encounter mystery, and to appreciate that eating ultimately rests on the humble receiving, rather than the arrogant grabbing, of life’s gifts, is to believe that saying thank you or saying grace is an appropriate, even if imperfect and incomplete, gesture.
To whom should eaters be grateful? One can start by expressing thanks to growers and cooks, and family and friends gathered at the table. These people deserve our thanks because their skill, creativity and love ― none of which are necessary ― have transformed simple grain into delectable bread, and mere physical proximity into convivial companionship. When I ask people to recall some of the happiest and most transformative moments in their lives, I am no longer surprised by how often food and a dinner table are at their heart.
One can continue by expressing gratitude for the lives and the deaths of the plants and animals that make it to your plate, and for all the marvel-inducing ecological processes that turn sunshine, rain and soil into fabulous fruit. Think about it: we have barely begun to understand the complexity and diversity of the mostly unseen, microscopic dramas being played out beneath our feet ― dramas that receive the death happening above ground, and then transform that death into fertility and the possibility of new life. To take a close and patient look at the dramas and histories presupposed by every bite, is the first requirement of the thoughtfulness that defines thankfulness.
One might even go so far as to say thank you to the ineffable, incomprehensible, sacred power that sustains and nurtures reality, and seems to circulate through every bite. Creatures are not the source of their own life. That there is life at all, rather than not, speaks to life’s gratuity. Is it possible that the loving intention that prompts a cook to prepare a meal for guests is somehow analogous to the divine intention that creates the feast of life some call creation? If it is, then the appearance of food, no matter how humble, is, at least potentially, the nutritious articulation of a human and a divine pronouncement that says, “I love you.”
The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry gives us one formulation of saying grace in his short poem “Prayer after Eating” (first printed in his 1973 collection of poems entitled The Country of Marriage):
I have taken in the light
that quickened eye and leaf.
May my mind be bright with praise
of what I eat, in the brief blaze
of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.
In this blessing, eaters are not simply casting a pious veneer on an otherwise mundane act. They are, instead, asking to be repositioned in the world as eaters who acknowledge the grace and giftedness of life, and who offer thanks and praise to a power that nurtures and sustains life. In this repositioning, eaters relinquish the desire for complete possession and control, and try to become the ones who receive and share, nurture and protect, the creatures that feed them.
This means that saying grace isn’t simply a religious act. It is also a political and economic act in which eaters ask to be transformed so that they become the protectors of life, the defenders of farmers and cooks, and the nurturers of food sheds and communities. If so, then the effect of saying grace would be radical and revolutionary at the same time: radical because it would draw our attention and affection to the sources of life; revolutionary because it would turn our energy and commitment to the building of a just and flourishing world. It is by giving our attention and care to the preservation and celebration of creatures that we become worthy of our meat.
At root, to say grace is to want to pronounce an “Amen” upon this world and its life. But to say a genuine Amen, one must also be able to affirm what is going on as good and right, because to say “Amen” is (literally) to say, “Let it be so.” It is to want what has happened to happen again and again, because its occurrence is praiseworthy and beautiful.
Can people pronounce an authentic “Amen” in contexts of eater ignorance, economic anonymity and systemic abuse? If our answer is “No” or “I have no idea,” that may well be a sign that we need to become knowledgeable about from where our food comes, and advocate for a more just and compassionate food system.
Eating has never been a simple or easy act, because for any creature to eat, another creature, whether seen or unseen, must die. This is a holy and humbling mystery no eater can finally evade. Mindful and grateful eating, the kind of eating that is framed by a grace-saying life, will be the kind of eating that seeks to extend the creativity and care at work in the kitchen, and the hospitality and celebration in evidence at the dining table, to the whole world.
No bowl or plate of food stands alone. Every bite joins us to a table, which joins us to a kitchen, which joins us to a garden or barn, which joins us to fields and weather, which joins us to ecosystem and meteorological processes, which joins us to … the divine delight that first declared the world to be good and beautiful ― and delicious.
Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School, and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. The second edition of his book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating has just been published by Cambridge University Press.
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, January 15, 2019