Come to the Table

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For of the soul the body form doth take;
for soul is form, and doth the body make…
— Edmund Spenser

As human beings, we are unified beings of body and soul. We are corporeal, and as such, our most fundamental, natural need is food and water. Food is therefore the beginning of human culture. The Holy Mass presupposes a human culture that can at least produce bread and wine. Pre-industrial human society knew and lived this reality every day, but as we have become ever more estranged from the process of growing, making and even preparing the food we eat, the habits, customs and traditions surrounding food have diminished to the point that many people today see eating as an almost entirely mechanistic activity, like charging the battery on a smartphone or refueling a car. Eating is regarded as a ‘feeding task’ that must be done for the body’s sustenance, nothing more. For evidence of this dehumanizing mentality, we need only look to the dystopian Silicon Valley-inspired enthusiasm for liquid diets and “bio-hacking.”

One of the primary reasons this is a problem, is that our relationship with food informs low culture—the culture generated by the quotidian rhythms of basic human activity—which can, in turn, provide the humus for the flowering of high culture—the reflection of the loftier aspirations of the human soul. An ascent is present in the artist’s traditional progression from still life (food!), to natural landscapes, to scenes from history and mythology, to religious and ultimately sacred art. If our spiritually exhausted contemporary societies possess little or no high culture of value, creating artifacts that are ugly, banal, offensive, repetitive, or sometimes all of the above, then we should meditate on what is awry with the everyday practices, habits and customs that constitute our low culture.

John Senior recognized that the restoration of Christian Civilization demands the cultivation of healthy cultural soil in which the seeds of Christ’s Grace can be received. It is disturbing, therefore, to see many signs of the revolutionary process polluting the most basic aspect of our already depleted culture: the taking of food. Snacking (often while in front of a screen or on-the-go) has become ubiquitous. Food is increasingly artificial, and the buying of food is evermore distant from its production. Supermarkets have long since replaced local stalls and farmers markets, and now we hear strange messaging from our elites (who are also often the revolutionaries) about the urgent need for a transition from what remains of local and even industrial food, to ‘lab-grown’ synthetic food. We are even promised a totally meatless future.

To this day, historically Catholic peoples have better eating habits than those of historically Protestant nations. French people don’t snack, while Spanish and Italian meals are famously leisurely, convivial affairs. Contemporary American barbarism is both partly caused by, and evinced in, American eating habits. This corrosive, revolutionary spiral has been in motion for centuries, but amidst the economic and social chaos of this year’s Covid-19 epidemic and other crises, it seems to be accelerating.

Food systems have been put under severe strain this year, and factions of the elite seem to be looking to further modify people’s expectations and customs around food. Insects, artificial breast milk and 3-D printed meat are some of the bizarre foodstuffs being genuinely promoted as environmentally friendly, ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ alternatives to traditional food products. Some of these laboratory-produced horrors perhaps also represent a diabolical inversion of Christ’s miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. Except instead of such multiplication allowing us to sit at the feet of the Lord and hear His salvific teaching, these lab grown products will free us from the labor of food preparation, presumably giving us more time to soak in the spiritual-solvent of “globohomo” (globalized, homogenized) mass culture.

Conversely, Catholic culture elevates the taking of food—beyond the singular human need of nourishment—to an occasion of communion with our family and friends; feeding is transformed into dining. Mealtimes are a medium for the cultivation of friendship, mirth and merriment, feasting and celebration, and for the quickening of love. At the dining table, children, friendships, communities, and nations are formed. Dietary customs dignify our homes and festivities, cultivate family cultures, connect us to nature, and memorialize creation. Most importantly, the family table gives us an analogue, a dim resemblance by which to apprehend the Sacred Banquet that is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. All of this is being threatened.

In his 1994 book The Hungry Soul, Leon Kass observed:

We face serious dangers from our increasingly utilitarian, functional, or “economic” attitudes toward food. True, fast food, TV dinners, and eating on the run saves time, meets our need for “fuel,” and provides close to instant gratification. But for these very reasons, they diminish opportunities for conversation, communion, and aesthetic discernment; they thus shortchange the other hungers of the soul. Disposable utensils and paper plates save labor at the price of refinement, and also symbolically deny memory and permanence their rightful places at the table. Meals before the television set turn eating into feeding. Wolfing down food dishonors both the human effort to prepare it and the lives of those plants and animals sacrificed on our behalf. Not surprisingly, incivility, insensitivity, and ingratitude learned at the family table can infect all other aspects of one’s life.

Evidently, the ‘new normal’ that portions of the elite seem to have in mind for us regarding food, would move eating habits beyond these sadly familiar realms of incivility, vulgarity and barbarism into new ‘transhumanist’, ‘bugman’ territory. Each alternative food product would be almost unrecognizable from any identifiable fruit of creation, having been genetically engineered, puréed, reconstituted, chemically enhanced, and marketed as a simulacrum of beloved pop favorites.

If we are serious about restoring the Catholic City, it’s essential to restore the Catholic culture of our homes, including those of the family table. In the shattered remains of Christendom, in this Christianitas minima that we inhabit, we may not be able to effect significant political change—but we certainly can till the soil of culture in the hearth. Consider how transformative it might be for a Diocese to forgo the enticements of a slick new catechetical program and simply urge the faithful of the diocese to dine together as a family every day and pray one decade of the Holy Rosary. I submit that there would be a rich yield of apostolic fruit. We must be radical; we must begin at the roots. There is little closer to the roots than food!

In conclusion, I would therefore like to share some practical steps readers and their families can take to help restore culture at the roots. Firstly, don’t snack—eat only at mealtimes—and say Grace before and after you dine, transforming your daily meals into a sacral moment of communion with God, as well as your fellow man.

Secondly, recover the liturgical rhythm of feasting and fasting. We need to take up the powerful weapon of the Christian against the flesh and celebrate the mysteries of our redemption in Christ’s life, as well as celebrating the Saints days that the world is forgetting and replacing with secular feast days.

Thirdly, as far as possible, gradually minimize supermarket purchases and “globohomo” food products. Their adverse effects on health are known well enough, but they also divorce us from our own particular place and culture, thus contributing to the disintegration process of what is left of local low culture. Aristotle maintained that the Polis is formed by the links of friendship. Buy local, and cultivate relationships there.

Fourthly, try to grow and cultivate some of your own food. There is a deep satisfaction at becoming a food producer rather than just a consumer. In France, kitchen gardens and the humble potager produce twenty percent of the fresh produce eaten, and this year France’s newspapers called “Potagers et jardins, les stars du confinement”. Encouragingly, sales of chicks for home users increased by more than five times in America from March to June 2020, a trend indicating that people’s confidence in mass food production systems is perhaps not as firm as we are led to believe.

If we take these small steps and begin a humble cultivation of low culture in the family, the first society at the family table, then as communities, we can help nourish, sustain and grow the little territories where Christ reigns. In this valley of tears, we can take heart and consolation in dining together and in working to sanctify our place in Creation, until, God-willing, we can take our place at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

 

By

Theo Howard is former Evangelisation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Southwark, England. His work has appeared in the Catholic Herald of London.

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