Given the number and seriousness of recent food scares, one might be tempted to ask who needs enemies if one’s friends, the food producers on whom we all have to rely, can endanger us so much. But actually there is nothing very new about these crises. Slipping parts of horse into beef products, with the attendant risk of introducing bute into the human food chain, or discovering that consuming popular processed products such as bacon and sausages tends to shorten life quite significantly, are but the latest unpleasant revelations. The DDT used on food crops a generation ago was eventually found to be unacceptably dangerous to the consumer, and many (most?) of the food items sold in shops have long been laced with varying amounts of poison as a result of the pesticides, hormones and enhancers used on livestock, fruit and vegetables.
Yet, apart from the obvious fact that we can’t live without eating, the very metaphors of food and eating are deeply embedded in our acts of loving, our religious rituals and our celebration of life. The Jewish Seder meal, the Christian Eucharist, the offerings of food left in various forms of Hindu puja: all these and many more indicate that feasting and sharing food are basic to our religious instincts. And the opposite, fasting, also has a part to play in many people’s religious practice -– particularly, for Moslems, in Ramadan, which culminates in the feast of Eid.
Even limiting the palette to Christianity, the Scriptures and tradition are steeped in stories and metaphors of food: the Heavenly Banquet, the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper to name just a few.
And moving away from the religious, many, perhaps most, of our celebrations and rituals involve special food and drink: Christmas pudding, hot cross buns, Easter eggs, Pimms in summer, mulled wine and mince pies in winter. The list is endless. Relationships rely on the giving and sharing of food: from the initial shy gift of a box of chocolates or the grubby sweets shared in the playground, to the hospitality extended to friends round our dinner tables and the celebration party (complete with special cake).
Probably most of us could describe ‘memorable meals’ we’ve shared over the years: a romantic candlelit dinner for two sitting on deck chairs beside a pasting table in our poverty-stricken youth, an al fresco meal of fish on a wave-lapped Greek beach, or a simple sandwich consumed on top of a mountain after a vigorous climb.
Among my own treasured food memories are some from when I was working in poor parts of the world when I was chief executive of an NGO. One picture I still treasure is of a simple but delicious feast provided for me in a Tanzanian slum and served with royal grace; and another is the gift of a live chicken that was thrust into my arms as I left a remote African village. This latter fluffy passenger quite quickly adapted to travelling by car over bumpy roads, and I gave it to the next people I visited.
When my husband accompanied me on a visit to Siberia, we travelled in two stages from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For some reason the caterers ran out of food and we were ‘reduced’ to dining on smoked salmon and extremely inexpensive
champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was also, of course, a samovar at the end of each carriage, which supplied an inexhaustible stream of tea.
And then there was the time we were guests of honour at a banquet in the far north of Thailand. On our plates were some unidentifiable lumps of a black substance. Having detected that these were not chunks of delicious aubergine, I quietly moved mine to the edge of the plate; but my vegetarian husband, ever curious, speared a chunk and asked our host what it was. When he was told that it was ‘congealed chicken blood’, I watched his smile fade as the piece of food slowly descended back to his plate where it was surreptitiously slipped under a pile of rice to hide.
Drinks come in various interesting forms, as well. When I was lecturing at a college in Fiji I was given a coconut shell full of cava, which I was required to down in one. It was not particularly unpleasant, as long as one didn’t mind the gritty sandy texture, but I think it probably spiced up my subsequent talk.
Cézanne’s translucent paintings often capture the spiritual beauty of food and remind us that food is for sharing, enjoying and celebrating. It’s no wonder that the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to show hospitality to strangers, ‘for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares’. It’s easy to believe this when looking at one of Cézanne’s wonderful (wonder-full) studies of comestibles.
There are gloomy statistics that tell us that even in our wealthy country many homes do not have a dining table and that food is often consumed in front of a television without the need for conversation or laughter. Such information should alert us to the fact that while food is important as a personal, social and religious entity, it is also deeply political.
And that will be the subject of my next blog. For the moment, I hope you enjoy your food, and are able to share, celebrate and entertain angels.