Food and the Basic Faith Groups

It's Yom Kippur. Will your Jewish grandmother serve shrimp-and-bacon hors d'oeuvres when the family breaks the fast?

It's Ramadan. Will your devout Muslim parents smile if you serve dinner several hours before sundown?

It's Good Friday. Will the Catholic college cafeteria serve hamburgers?

It's Thanksgiving. Can you predict the foods that will be on your mother's table? Will the German grandmothers bake Christmas cookies at the Lutheran church? Is the tuna casserole served at potluck dinners at rural Minnesota churches truly a sacrament?

When it comes to the rhythms and symbols of faith, it's easy to see the role that food plays, especially in the intense and emotional final months of the religious calendar. "Food is all about the stories that define our lives," said Daniel Sack of the University of Chicago Divinity School, author of the book Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture.

"I'm not just talking about religious rituals that involve food. For many church people, what happens in the social hall week after week is more important than what happens in the sanctuary. They come for Communion, but also for community."

Sack said food traditions — with a big "T," as well as with a small "t" — demonstrate why it's almost impossible to draw a line showing where religion ends and culture begins. Food is one of the basic building blocks of life and, thus, is one of the "passions" that religious believers have always struggled to keep under control.

 Change what people eat and you change their lives. However, there are times when the religious significance of food is obvious and there are times when it is not. While studying this subject, Sack said he began sorting the different kinds of food traditions into four groups.

* Sometimes, the food becomes a holy object in and of itself. One example is when a Buddhist takes a food offering to a temple. In other cases, ordinary food becomes sacred as part of an intricate ritual that is defined by prayers and scripture — such as the bread and wine in a Catholic Mass.

"What is crucial is that this sacramental understanding of food seeps into other parts of life," said Sack. "And we're not just talking about Christianity. If you start talking about bread and wine, it's hard to take that symbolism out of there."

* Most religious traditions, to varying degrees, claim some right to control the role that food plays in daily life. This is most obvious in faiths such as Judaism, with its "kosher" traditions, and in Islamic laws to establish what is and what is not "halal." In other faiths, believers fast from eating certain foods at different times of the week or year.

* In many cases, these sacred laws and traditions then begin to shape the festivals and the cuisine of a particular culture or ethnic group. At this point the line between Greek cooking and Greek Orthodox cooking starts to blur. What role does faith play in the menus of Ethiopian, Italian, Lebanese, Indian or Swedish restaurants?

* Food also reflects what people believe about family and community life. It would be strange to see conservative Evangelical leaders serve the same food at a men's dinner that they serve a luncheon for the women's group. Foods reflect social roles, too.

Sack said that every community, every family, cannot help but develop informal rituals linked to meals, because meals are such symbolic times of fellowship. And when the times change, so do the meals.

Consider the food served at youth-group meetings. Once, parents organized these meetings and prepared the food, helping to maintain a sense of watch-care and protection from the outside world. Today, most churches hire professional youth pastors who plan multi-media programs and — naturally — send out for pizza.

"When we assimilate at the level of the table, we have truly assimilated to the world around us," said Sack. "When you take this view of life, those parents are not just sending out for pizza — they are sending a symbolic signal of acceptance of the surrounding youth culture.

"You see the same thing happening when people start lining up those fast-food boxes at church potluck dinners. Some megachurches even have food courts, these days. Who has the time to prepare those special dishes that people used to take to church?"

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