Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture
St. Martin's, 272 pages, $24.95
Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $25
I love my church, but if I could change one thing about it, it would be the coffee hour. I have fantasies, perhaps based on stories of my mother's Baptist childhood, of lively socializing, ginger ale gelatin salad, and hearty fellowship. At my church, things are a little simpler. Some people take off right after the service, and the rest of us gather for a few minutes around a basket of Entenmann's doughnut holes. Often as not, coffee hour is a visit to the nearest Starbucks with a buddy from the parish.
I may be nostalgic for some halcyon coffee hour that never existed. But my nostalgia is stoked by Daniel Sack's new book, a delightful romp through the foodways of American Protestantism, which shows that we Christians have always infused our food with religious meaning. "[F]ood-centered socializing has played an important part in American church life," he writes. "Church meals have built community among members and brought visitors into the church. Congregational social events have provided children wholesome and safe entertainment and adolescents a good place to meet and court the opposite sex. And they have fed hungry people."
In our ever-time-crunched society, those meals may be getting squeezed out. Sack's book makes clear, though, that we ought to cherish them. They do more than just feed our bodies; they nourish our communities and our souls.
Sack, who has taught religion at Hope College, examines church suppers and the Lord's Supper. The celebration of the latter, he shows in a fascinating opening chapter, changed in the 19th century as some Protestants embraced two social reforms. Their zeal for temperance inspired a switch from Communion wine to grape juice, and their involvement in the nascent sanitation movement led some Protestants to abandon the single, germy communion chalice in favor of individual communion cups. A simpler feast, Sack shows, usually follows church services, with worshipers heading to the social hall for a second communion of coffee and cookies, doughnuts, or cheese straws.
He tells the fascinating stories of 20th-century Protestants protesting global hunger and 19th-century Protestant food reformers criticizing lavish American diets. Americans' taste for meat and grease, the antebellum crusaders believed, was "as scandalous as slavery and drunkenness." One of those reformers, Sylvester Graham, searching for pure food that would befit the pure Christian body, invented the Graham cracker; Seventh-day Adventist Will Keith Kellogg developed the corn flake.
But this book is more than just an exploration of Protestant menus. It is also, perhaps unwittingly, an apologia for—and an illustration of the weaknesses of—the Protestant mainline. The mainline often gets a bad rap. Take the chapter on "emergency food." Focusing on soup kitchens in Atlanta, Sack shows the dogged devotion with which prosperous mainliners in a booming city have tackled poverty and hunger. But he also takes pains to point out that while "Religious faith. … provides them with a motive for ministry," most Protestant soup kitchens avoid "overt evangelization." Atlanta's food-bankers are much more motivated by "the call to service" than "the call to evangelism." Indeed, Sack himself evinces a little discomfort with evangelism—twice in one paragraph he describes the mainliners who staff soup kitchens as hesitant to "force" Christianity on anyone. Indeed, the most evangelical evangelists are hesitant to "force" faith on people, too. Sharing the gospel doesn't mean inaugurating a new Inquisition.
Even if mainliners aren't witnessing over their spaghetti dinners, food still plays an important role in shoring up faith. When people eat together, they also talk to each other, they develop relationships. Friends who eat together, Whitebread Protestants suggests, pray together: clever churches, explicitly evangelistic or not, use food to lure people inside. This is especially true when it comes to teenagers; savvy youth group leaders know the secret to a high turnout is free pizza.
From the Sublime to the Noxious
Most Americans favor fast food. In his recent New York Times bestseller, Atlantic Monthly correspondent Eric Schlosser uncovers, as his subtitle puts it, "the dark side of the all-American meal." The all-American meal is a burger and fries, and those tasty temptations, says Schlosser, are responsible for many of the woes of contemporary society.
Not least, of course, is that the burgers and fries purchased cheap at fast-food outlets are bad for our arteries. That's a familiar story—we know french fries make us fat, we know they lead to heart attacks. We know we should be home eating broccoli and tofu. (Though I didn't know that Chicken McNuggets, which "derive much of their flavor from beef additives," have twice the fat per ounce of beef patties. I imagined that chicken was the health nut's fast food of choice.)
But Schlosser does more in this Upton Sinclair-style exposé than merely scold us for our love of Whoppers. He takes us inside the horrifying side of the beef industry, a business shaped and dominated by fast food. The chapters on workplace conditions will leave readers outraged. That fast-food chains employ more teenagers than any other industry in the country, blatantly disregarding laws that limit how many hours minors can work, is just the beginning. Working conditions at Hardee's and KFC are bad, with low wages and management notoriously hostile to unions, but they look luxurious in contrast to meat-packing plants, where a third of workers are injured on the job every year.
The stories Schlosser tells about the conditions under which meat-plant cleaning crews labor read like muckraking reports from the Progressive era: "At the Monfort plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, Richard Skala was beheaded by a dehiding machine. Carlos Vicente was pulled into the cogs of a conveyor belt at an Excel plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, and torn apart. Lorenzo Marin Sr. fell from the top of a skinning machine while cleaning it with a high-pressure hose, struck his head on the concrete floor of an IBP plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and died." When OSHA fined National Beef for its negligence in the deaths of several employees, the company could easily cover the penalty: $480 for each dead man.
The chapters on food quality will leave readers sick to their stomachs. Again, consider beef—not just the beef at Wendy's and Burger King but, thanks to the power and influence of the fast-food chains, beef everywhere. The problem starts, to oversimplify a tad, when cattle are fed excrement, the corpses of dead cats and dogs, and animal blood. All those substances, which naturally herbivorous, ruminating cows shouldn't be eating in the first place, carry disease. At least 1 percent of U.S. cattle carry E. coli. E. coli makes its way from the feed lots to our hamburgers; it has infected about 500,000 Americans since 1993. Most of those 500,000 are children, and hundreds of them are dead.
So, what we're eating does untold damage both our physical bodies and our social bodies. We eat on the go, without time for fellowship or community. Rather than prepare food ourselves, we rely on thousands of underpaid workers who clean, chop, and grind in unsafe environments. And the food we think is nourishing or at least fueling our bodies is really wrecking our gastrointestinal systems and our kidneys, and killing our kids.
All Americans should be worried about the all-American meal, but Christians have some additional reasons to worry. As Sylvester Graham knew, we're supposed to safeguard our bodies, for they are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
At the center of our faith is a man sitting at a table breaking bread with his disciples. Imagine what the Last Supper would have been like if, instead, Jesus and the Apostles merely grabbed burgers on the run.
Lauren F. Winner is a contributing editor for Christianity Today.
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Whitebread Protestants can be ordered at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers. Fast Food Nation is available at Amazon.com and elsewhere.
The Material History of American Religion Project site has more information on Whitebread Protestants, including an earlier paper by Daniel Sack, "On deciphering a potluck: The social meaning of church socials."
The New York Times Book Review says Sack's Whitebread Protestants "has rearranged a culture most often viewed as mainstream and boring and effectively served it up as a complex and even exotic morsel."
A lengthy excerpt of Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, "Why McDonald's Fries Taste So Good," was once available on The Atlantic's site, but now just exists in pirated form elsewhere. Meanwhile, The Atlantic site still offers an interview with Schlosser about the book.
Schlosser also spoke about the book on NPR's Fresh Air.
Last year, the Associated Press took note of a Minnesota "hotdish bill" that exempts organizations holding potlucks from state food-handling regulations.
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