Power in the Plate

The history of our food speaks of injustice— and invites us to redemption.
Power in the Plate
Image: Source: Nadine Greeff / Stocksy

I sat in silence at a corner table of the bustling Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The spread before me was vibrant: a bright and creamy saag paneer, chicken curry spiced as one might find in the Kerala region of India, and stewed chickpeas prepared according to cooking methods from Delhi. A bed of rice tinged orange from turmeric and crispy bhatura, a yogurt-fermented white bread. The scent of star anise, black pepper, and roasted garlic rose from their respective dishes and melded together by the time they hit my nose.

Altogether, it achieved the symphony to which all chefs aspire, the trinitarian balance of acid, salt, and fat that elevates, without overpowering, the flavor of each element.

As a chef and scholar, a student of food theory and theology, I hungered for chef Vimala Rajendran’s handiwork in belly and mind. I’d long heard of her restaurant proclaiming the love of God through its blend of flavors and storytelling.

“A table laden with a variety of spices is a microcosm of how the world is made,” said Rajendran, whose work is daily influenced by her faith. “Spices personify that which is in people: fragrance, aroma, character, texture . . . intentionally made so by God the Creator.”

We sipped on cardamom tea and discussed its similarity to the Turkish coffee served at a bakery where I once worked. The warm bite of the spice elicited memories of my old roommate who’d grown up in Finland and encouraged me to incorporate cardamom into baked goods more often. While the tender green pod served as a point of contact between Vimala and me, a taste of the communion we shared, cardamom’s transnational culinary history is less enchanting.

It was the European plundering of the Crusades that first sparked a Western desire for the very spices Rajendran praises today as a microcosm of the created world. Spices quickly became an emblem of power for Medieval European elite, a taste that in just a few centuries would change the world. “Once habituated to the spices of India,” wrote historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, “Europe was ready to do anything to gratify its craving.” This included the quest for a sea route to India that proved devastating to the indigenous people of the Americas and that paved the way for European colonialism.

The flavors and techniques of global cuisine encapsulate the stories of people throughout history. While our foodways taste of the magnificence of a creative God, they also bear the scars of people and cultures harmed through power wielded cruelly along the way. And around the table, laden with the complicated stories each flavor tells, we are invited to participate in the reconciliation of all things.

The Bible tells of the birth of humanity out of soil, animated by the breath of God and tasked with the responsibility to tend the earth and seek its flourishing. We could have been formed with the capacity for our skin to convert energy from the sun or our feet to soak up nutrients from the soil. God chose, instead, to design tongues with millions of taste buds such that our most basic need is filled through an act that brings great joy.

Our desire to experience the texture and flavors of creation reveals our desire and ability to know God through the world he’s made. “Eating joins people to each other, to other creatures and the world, and to God through forms of ‘natural communion’ too complex to fathom,” wrote theologian Norman Wirzba. “It establishes a membership that confirms all creatures as profoundly in need of each other and upon God to provide life’s nutrition and vitality.”

In Genesis 1, God tells humans to fill the earth and tend to it. In this movement, humanity is meant to experience new climates, to encounter new foods and new animals, to develop new agricultural techniques, in turn forming new cuisines. But at the Tower of Babel, humanity resisted such a spread. By building a tower to the heavens and drawing all of humanity to a single location, the people went directly against God’s commands. The tower limited humanity from encountering the diverse beauty of creation, and so God hindered communication to encourage their spread.

In the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit does not create unity among God’s people by narrowing them back down to a single language. The Spirit enables communication by allowing those gathered to speak and understand languages not their own. The interaction of diverse language enables more nuanced capacity to speak of God, creation, and human experience.

Cuisine functions much like language, argue anthropologists Mary Douglas and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Just as “there is no society without a language, nor is there any which does not cook in some manner at least some of its food,” Lévi-Strauss wrote. Cuisine—the cooking techniques and flavor profiles passed along from generation to generation—holds memories, tells stories, and evolves with the shifts of culture. While language rolls off the tongue, cuisine is experienced by the tongue.

Like the diversification of language at Babel and Pentecost, the interaction of diverse cuisine enables more complexity of flavors, textures, and culinary techniques. It enables diverse engagement with God’s material world and encourages the transmission of stories that reflect beauty in the face of brokenness. The cultures formed around the growing, sharing, preparing, and consuming of food prove the multifaceted beauty that emerges when we interact with the creation God made.

Despite its reflection of a creative God, food can be a destructive force as well. Evil seeped into the world, Genesis says, through the consumption of food—the only fruit humans had been commanded to avoid. The very soil out of which God formed humanity became subject to a curse, thorns and weeds a material reminder of the fight for power borne out through relationship to food. Famine and war, enslavement and colonization—all trace back to an accursed engagement between humanity, our hunger, and the soil.

And yet, even though the story of evil begins with an ominous meal, we remember the fallout even as the sharing of food also helps us look forward to freedom. Christ’s final meal with his disciples, and the sacrament Christians have shared ever since, is a meal that tells the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s a feast that reminds us who we are and where we come from and that looks ahead to the reconciling of all things. It’s a microcosm of the creation-wide communion for which we hunger; it transforms us so that we might go out and, through our eating and feeding, participate in God’s transformation of the world.

The diversity of cuisine shared around the world— “generational storytelling with an open mouth and heaping spoon,” as Tejana poet Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros called it—is a method of survival. It’s a catalogue of all the places we have been to ensure that a people is not forgotten, she says.

Food carries memories of displacement and migration, of moments of plenty and moments of want, of social hierarchies and family relations. It memorializes the resilience of the people history is most wont to forget, voices often absent in its recording. As a method of utilizing this power, anthropologist Carole Counihan spent two decades recording food-centered life histories of women around the world, in particular Tuscan and Mexican-American women. By collecting the words of women and their relationships with gardening, recipes, and food, Counihan’s research reveals how working with food represents power and creativity and survival.

Even the most intricate and satisfying meals carry the bitterness of a broken world. They tell of the people and cultures threatened by the quest for power, of the hunger that accompanies war and environmental degradation. We can eat to honor these complex histories, to pay respect to the resilience of those who’ve passed traditions on. We can taste the grace of God in recipes that emerge out of the darkness of human history.

But our hunger for the flavors preserved by our neighbors can also, unintentionally, be a platform through which we deepen the wounds of ethnic and class divides. We can all too easily fall into what philosopher Lisa Heldke calls “cultural food colonialism,” utilizing the foods of our neighbors as an act of adventure rather than the soil to nourish relationship.

This potential to further pain through the consumption of another’s food was exemplified this summer when members of President Donald Trump’s administration opted to dine at Mexican restaurants in the midst of enforcing family separation policies. Food writer Helen Rosner considered the deep disconnect between valuing a cultural product but not its producer: “It seems as if it would require high-wire moral acrobatics . . . to enjoy the fruits of Latin American culture, and labor, at this time. But for many other Americans, including those leading our government, there is a simple, reflexive disconnect.”

This disconnect flows out of a tendency for consumers to commodify our neighbors, viewing ethnicity, in the words of social activist and scholar bell hooks, as “seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” She warns against using the gifts of difference as “an alternative playground where members of dominating races . . . affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other.”

When we commodify those we claim to love, we behave similarly to our ancestors building up a tower to the heavens, satisfied to stay in one place and have the world brought to us in bite-sized portions without the need to encounter any mess. We value nothing other than the tickle of our taste buds and the individual experience of a belly free of rumbling once again. Our eating doesn’t draw us any deeper into communion with our neighbors; it doesn’t allow us to witness the image of God in anyone new. Neither does it force us to confront the injustices woven into some of our favorite foods.

To honor the sacredness of eating, we must examine the motives of our choice of cuisine. Do we hunger for the true communion and reconciliation of all things? Or are we simply after a taste of the exotic? Schivelbusch described the medieval desire for spice as a longing for Paradise, “a fantastic world beyond local everyday life, not quite of this world nor of the other.” Do we, like our medieval brothers and sisters, long to taste but not completely see? Or does our vision of the coming banquet include concern for our neighbors and their immediate needs too?

To eat the foods of our neighbors without acknowledging the full history behind their production—or in the case of government officials, to eat while demeaning those responsible for a cuisine’s formation—we take the very gift of God meant for communion and wield it instead as an instrument of pain.

We live in the tension of a world where food and cuisine are beautiful reflections of the magnificence of God. And yet we also live in the midst of brokenness where our consumption has the power to cause great harm. This tension can only be navigated in the context of relationship, established so powerfully around the table.

Early on in my food studies career, I was curious how the table functions both to unite and divide. I designed a research project to examine the ways people experience the formation of friendships over the course of several meals. I gathered together a group of women who had never met and provided a series of settings in which we cooked and ate together. Following methods of autoethnography and collective biography, each woman recorded the ways she felt the experience of getting to know others—the awkwardness, intimacy, tension, and comfort. Though the experiment was admittedly quite limited in scope, we attuned ourselves to the power of the table to hold tension, to ease pressure, and to provide a point of contact through which conversation can begin, through which stories can be relayed. When committed to the task of forming relationships, the table guided us through the discomfort of our difference. To this day, the recipes we shared with one another serve as reminders of the journey toward becoming friends.

At Vimala’s beloved Chapel Hill café, chef Rajendran serves dishes that narrate her own lifelong journey befriending neighbors across continents. “If a dish shows up in my restaurant or at my table, it’s because I have met at least one person from that region who opened their recipes to me with the history and what goes into it,” she said. Many dishes reflect the cuisines of her home country of India, in particular the Kerala region—where the apostle Thomas is said to have traveled after Jesus’ resurrection. Others reflect the flavors of the Middle East and Thailand, reminders of the global spread of spices, informing cuisines for generations to come.

Rajendran hopes that every guest encounters the Bread of Life at her table. As she and I feasted together, I thought of Christ’s words to the crowd that sat under his teaching: Those who eat of me will never hunger. But with each bite, I find myself ever ravenous for more: for the stories and spices simmered slowly together, witnessing to both the vastness of our Creator and the deep brokenness of the world.

“If you eat the food I made, you know that food is an expression of my very being,” Rajendran said. “It’s an offering to you to honor God’s created being.”

And isn’t this what the sacrament of Communion is meant to do? It is a meal that captures a story, the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and promise of return. It is a meal that provides a point of contact for Christians around the world, united by the elements of Christ’s body and blood. But its purpose is not simply to fill us with the bread and wine so we’ll hunger or thirst no more; it is to deepen us in relationship with the Bread of Life and with all who take part in the feast.

“The Eucharistic table can hold the entire world around its borders and issue a call for justice and solidarity, salvation and liberation,” wrote theologian Cláudio Carvalhaes. “As we open ourselves to our own and other’s prayers . . . words and stories, and practices, we can and must create new worlds.”

There is, in the words of renowned food writer M. F. K. Fisher, a communion of more than bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk. In spices and textures from around the world, from the feasting of the holidays to the humility of our daily meal, we experience the kingdom of God pieced slowly back together, crumb by crumb.

Kendall Vanderslice is a baker and writer living in Durham, North Carolina, where she studies at Duke Divinity School. Her first book, We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God, releases with Eerdmans in May 2019.

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