This review first appeared in Issue 20: Feasting. Reviewed by Rita Jones
[M]y current employment as a recent college graduate includes a small black apron, a white notepad, and many leafy greens—all part of waitressing at a local organic “body and soul” vegetarian restaurant. I am around food all day, carrying plates of hummus and tabbouleh stacked five eggplant-steaks high, of tofu wonton pillows in ginger-orange sauce, and of Mediterranean veggie nut-burgers with goat cheese and balsamic onions. I love my job, and I love the food, but at the end of the day I chow down on a tempeh taco salad (tempeh is partially fermented tofu) and rush home. Thinking about food, cooking food—much less reading about food—are not what I’m keen to do at home. My housemates cook and bake, jam and curry, while off the clock I stick to tea and meals that take about five minutes of prep time. The Spirit of Food, however, proved to be a grand exception to my disinterest in traditional culinary literature, and has brought me to a greater level of sensory awareness and placement as a partaker in the divine feast. Leslie Leyland Fields’ anthology is comprised of short narratives (about 3 to 10 pages each) by contemporary essayists regarding an array of topics from large-scale farms to box-truck diners, from church potlucks to the communion table. As a little after-dinner morsel, each essay includes an original (or slightly modified) recipe from the author. Fields is an Alaskan author of several books and teaches nonfiction in the Master of Fine Arts creative writing program at Seattle Pacific University. Within intentionally faith-based circles, she is well-connected and exhibits ingenious taste in authors. Excerpts from Robert Farrar Capon, Lauren Winner, and Wendell Berry are to be expected, and placing some lesser-known authors in their midst was a calculated risk. Some essays do fall short, and tend toward the sentimental. But many authors, such as novelist Thomas Maltman, former NPR commentator Caroline Langston, medical writer Brian Volck, Southern author Vinita Hampton Wright, and the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemmann, exhibit remarkable pieces. Fields compiled The Spirit of Food to document the ways in which “many writers, growers, nutritionists, and theologians are calling us back from a kind of forgetfulness and inattention to our physicality, our appetites and our food, a neglect that quite literally threatens our health” (xxii). Most specifically, her volume highlights our individual and communal choices before God, with strong attention to the sacramentalizing of food, time, space and family. In an era filled with controversy, food wars, and food ethics, she asks, “How do we eat? How do we respond as people of faith? And if we make all the right choices, will good food rightly procured and produced then save us?” (xxiii). Within the essays from these thirty-four authors, a wide range of writing styles and tonal expressions are displayed, yet all, as the pieces deal with the intimacy of food, are highly personalized. Many discuss family heritage, church bodies, religious traditions, love, and loss, before food, all to bring the reader’s attention to our constant position before God’s table. Essays of exposition, narration, description and persuasive argument are all well placed in a concise chronology from garden, kitchen, ritual, fasting, and communion to, finally, feasting. In intimate, daily gratitude for His provision, delight and diversity, The Spirit of Food unfolds the role of God in creation and His manifestations in root, stew pot, potluck, and the absence of all those things. As we learn how to eat in the world, it is supremely helpful to be directed to these writers. The reader is exposed to a microcosm where, as Jeanne Murray Walker describes, one can find church in the meandering aisles of a produce market and celebrate in the mystery of being fed. In turn, the choices we make among those communal blessings reveal our inner selves: sometimes we can be grateful and receptive, and other times, truly awful. Essays also include interfaith dialogue with Judeo traditions as we learn the lessons of being kosher: God cares about our dietary choices, God is concerned about food, and a right relationship with food obediently points us toward Him. The most commanding and dynamic segment of the anthology is found in essays of fasting and absence. Here we see the individual wrestle with a world of pressures, anxiety, confusion and well-intentioned failures. In contemporary society, food is a commodity of luxury and comfort, yet also the potential source of the kitsch we seek to hide: weakness, dependency, flabby bodies, less-than-perfect existence, emotional chaos, and fat thighs. Sometimes absence from food helps us cope, helps us refocus, helps us concentrate on our higher needs—and sometimes we cannot seem to connect with food as truly good. We starve, we binge, we suffer. Fields wisely includes efficacious works on the general topic of fasting, including a stunning essay by Gina Ochsner on recovering from an overwhelming eating disorder, and her epiphanies that led her to wholeness. Weakness, however, can be found in the sentimentality of several essays, which appear stunted by both nostalgia and idealism. Diversity in location and lifestyle are seen throughout the collection, but appropriate consideration of those with broken nuclear families, drastic fiscal limitations, or painful church experiences is not clearly made. For many, the reality of a family meal, in church or at home, has never been apparent. Healthy daily meals may be far above a single mother’s budget. Church can be an intimidating space, and communion rife with misunderstanding, exclusivity, and guilt. On the whole, many essays in the collection assume a level of openness and connection to healthy forms of intimacy, a proclivity one should not take for granted. However, several essays usher in a pastoral tone of empathy, instruction and inclusivity that does not make this general shortcoming pervasive for the book as a whole. The Spirit of Food celebrates the many ways in which our world is symbolized, embodied, and meant to be taken and eaten, piece by piece, with Eucharistic intent. With Capon, we marvel upon the universe in the interchanging folds of a yellow onion, a spectrum of life and death, hollow and sweet. In such an “aqueous house of cards,” the reader is given a homily of staggering beauty (51). Berry, with a more universal consciousness, claims our freedom should beget a situation in which our food and farms are free; if not, we are all chained. Therein lies the beauty of this collection: philosophy in a vegetable, and transcendence in bread. Food has the capacity to bring us to the cerebral caverns of delight, and Fields’ work helps to shape the direction of our path. As we approach each plate, each field, each drink, each Lord’s Supper, we are taught that food must be the embodiment of our love and the intention of our choice as physical and spiritual bodies. Fields’ compilation is helpful in that it points to a larger body of work that we can turn to in these choices—the writing of Berry, Winner, and Capon to start with. We are invited into a conversation in which we take part three times a day, and into the sacrament of our existence. As Fields’ reminds us in her closing essay on the perfect loaf of bread, we are simply waiting for it all to rise. To do so takes patience and grace, and comes from within. --- Read Issue 20: Feasting. Rita Jones graduated from Westmont College in 2010 with a degree in history and an English minor. This fall she will embark on her next journey in academia as a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her studies will include american intellectual history, women and gender, and american spirituality. Rita was raised on a small farm in the Puget Sound, Washington, and still holds a deep fondness for front porches, lilac blossoms, and cradling chicken eggs in the palm of her hand.
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