A sacrament of food

Author: Heather King

I think often of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who offered himself up to starve to death in another man’s place at Auschwitz. I think of his sacrifice, of the terrible phenomenon of depriving people of food. And it occurred to me recently that perhaps the one worse, more corrupt torture vis-à-vis food would be to make people eat. To tie them down and force massive amounts of sugar-, fat- and salt-laden artificial food down their throats until they blew up like balloons, until they became morbidly obese, until they became so lethargic mentally, emotionally, spiritually that they could barely move. Until they started suffering from diabetes and heart attacks and gout and hardening of the arteries. Until they couldn’t tie their shoes or walk normally or comfortably rise from a sitting position. Until their idea of taste had been so thoroughly laid to waste that they could never have the true pleasure of food again.

That very week I read a piece in The New Yorker about America’s epidemic of overeating. The trouble started in the 1960s, according to the article, when a movie theater owner from the Midwest discovered that if you give people a giant serving of popcorn, more often than not they’ll eat every last bit of it. Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, later signed on to the idea that one way to get people to buy more is to serve a bigger bag of fries. More recently, the author of a book called Mindless Eating devised a trick bowl with a tube that continuously refilled the bowl with soup, corroborating that if you keep putting food in front of people, they tend to keep blindly, atavistically, chowing down. Hence, the advent of supersized portions. Hence, with the support of the advertising, fast food and chemical engineering industries, a population of which a full third is now obese. My nightmare scenario had come true. Except that no one is tying us down and force-feeding us. Many of us have come to eat this way voluntarily.

One reason we’re fat is that much of our food, especially fast food, is so full of chemicals and additives that, no matter how much we eat, we never seem to be really sated. We hunger for real food — homemade bread, trout caught fresh from a stream — and the farther away we move from the real and toward the artificial, the more our taste is blunted, just as watching pornography eventually blunts the taste for actual sex: intimate, vulnerable, imperfect, surprising, and, once in awhile at least, glorious.

I have a sober friend who says that drinking never made him happy but it made him feel like he was going to be happy in 15 minutes. That’s the effect, to my way of thinking, of fast food — which doesn’t appease my hunger but makes me feel like, if I ate more, I might be appeased in 15 minutes. In addict circles, this is known as the phenomenon of craving.

Another reason we’re overweight is that we’ve lost sight of food as a sacrament, one of the most basic ways we have to connect with each other and with God. More and more, we tend not to eat together. We tend not to say grace. We tend to miss the tastes, colors, smells, shapes, textures and sensual delights of the food and to therefore miss remembering that for much of the world, any food at all is cause for rejoicing.

We often don’t know where our food comes from. We seldom see the people who plant, pick, pack and ship it. We’ve lost sight of the rising and setting of the sun, of the rainy and the dry seasons, of the cycles of nature, of the wonder of our bodies, and souls.

We’ve lost sight of the fact that if one of us is sick, we are all sick, that while we’re stuffing ourselves, someone else is going hungry. We’ve lost sight of the rich man and Lazarus at the gate (Luke 16: 19-31); of the fact that we’re both these characters: on the one hand as bereft, and on the other as grasping and fearful as the next person. Through a combination of genetic luck and narcissism, I’m not overweight myself. But I’m appalled as I type this — an essay about hunger — to find that I’m mindlessly spooning yogurt and peaches into my mouth.

One way to battle obesity and to be in solidarity with all the people in the world who don’t have enough to eat is to consent always to be a little bit hungry, to eat a little less than we want. I’m not talking about the obsessive-compulsive illnesses of anorexia and bulimia, or the insistence on, say, eating only organic, which often verges on yet another form of narcissism.

I’m talking about pondering the mystery of a potato or an egg, cooking a meal for friends, giving some of our hard-earned food, time, money, selves away. Consciously honoring the sacrament — by giving thanks for the sheer goodness and delight of food; by purchasing, preparing and eating our food with love — also allows us to derive the true pleasure, emotional, physical and spiritual, that eating is surely designed to give. In fact, maybe it’s not how much or even what we eat, but the orientation of our hearts — around food and everything else — that most matters.

In 1926, naturalist Henry Beston built a cottage in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and spent a year in solitude: salvaging lemon sole from a shipwreck, walking to town to buy fresh bread and butter, keeping a pot of coffee on the hearth for the members of the Coast Guard crew who patrolled the shore by foot at night. In The Outermost House, his chronicle of that year, he wrote: “A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. . . . Do no dishonour to the earth lest you dishonour the spirit of man. Hold your hands out over the earth as over a flame. . . . Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen over ocean from the beach.”

We want to love food and people and nature so much, in other words, that we’re willing to die for them, not to be in such bondage to them that we let them kill us. We need to engage in the uber ritual of the Mass; we need the Body and Blood of Christ: the True Food. We want to share knowing that we are all beggars, all complicit in the suffering of the world, all hungry for a redemption that may or may not — in this “lifetime” — ever come. We need to remember that the Hitlers and Stalins of the world are only the shadow side of our own souls, writ large, that we are all, at any given moment, in dire need of mercy.

Recently my friend Joan gave me a $20 gift card from a local grocery chain. I’d earmarked the money for a roast chicken and some toilet paper, but walking to the store the next day I ran into Gene, the homeless guy who hangs out in back of L.A.’s Pio Pico library. He was wearing the same down parka he’s had on for months and muttering, as he often does, about the CIA, and suddenly I knew I wanted to give the card to him. I wanted to make him happy. I wanted him to feel safe — an urge so spontaneous and, I’m ashamed to say, rare, that the urge alone seemed proof of God’s infinite and redeeming love. Gene can be temperamental, but when I handed over the card he broke into a smile that was fit for the angels. “My, my,” he said, revealing a row of broken, cigar-smoke-stained teeth. “Christmas in July.”

I ate other things. But that smile fed me for a week.

Heather King is the author of three memoirs: Parched; Redeemed; and the forthcoming Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at shirtofflame.blogspot.com.