By Zoë Romanowsky
Throughout history, the Church has been at the forefront of "food movements." Monks began brewing beer in the Middle Ages for their own consumption and then sold it to the public. Religious orders all over Europe made wine, cheese, bread and other products. This tradition continues today in religious communities that farm the land, roast coffee beans, make wine and beer, raise animals and sell gourmet food items.
As Christians, we're rightly encouraged to care more about our souls than our bodies. But this doesn't mean food isn't important. In fact, Catholics are the perfect people to champion the rebirth of a culinary culture. Here are five good reasons why you should join the effort:
While sexual intimacy belongs to married couples, eating is inclusive: it's the most intimate thing we can do with other people. We give and receive love across the table. It is a place for conversation and building relationships, for giving thanks and replenishing our energy to fight another day.
Think of the women and men who, over countless generations, have warmed bellies and lightened hearts with their home cooking. Take the simple sandwich -- nobody could make one like my grandmother. I swear it was the love she put into it and the way we sat together as I chewed away, a tall glass of lemonade in hand.
Sitting at the dinner table together is one of the most important things a family can do. The ritual has been so lost that new ministries are springing up to address the problem -- such as Father Leo Patalinghug's "Grace Before Meals," which encourages families to sit down for home-cooked food. This one thing alone has renewed many family relationships.
The Holy Spirit dwells within us; we are truly houses of God. We're told in Scripture that we are Christ's hands and feet here on earth -- through us he touches people and continues his saving work. Shouldn't we be giving our bodies what they need in order to do God's work?
Treating ourselves with reverence and respect means we not only use our bodies for good but that we don't pollute them, either. Our bodies and minds need the right fuel to function at optimum levels -- and that begins with knowing what we're putting in our mouths.
When was the last time you read the labels on your food? As a general rule, the longer the list of ingredients and the more words you can't pronounce, the worse it is. High fructose corn syrup -- one of the by-products of our industrial corn-based food system -- is a main ingredient in many products today. Many scientists and nutritionists believe this item has contributed to today's alarming obesity rates and an increase in early-onset diabetes.
If we're temples of the Holy Spirit, we owe it to ourselves, to God and to others, to feed ourselves real, wholesome food.
One of the major themes in Catholic social teaching is stewardship. It goes back to Genesis, where God entrusted the earth and all its resources to man and woman. The earth's bounty is meant for everyone, and we have a responsibility to care for it as trustees and stewards.
For a Catholic, this isn't just talk. It means we have to be active stewards, supporting efforts that replenish and sustain our environment. Issues like animal welfare, recycling, cleaning up waterways and finding alternative energy sources are important. Catholics need to educate themselves and get involved in finding solutions.
Of course, stewardship begins at home. If you're like most Americans, the majority of the food items in your house have been shipped at least 1,500 miles. That's a lot of fossil fuels and a lot of time in transit.
Our grandparents didn't have strawberries 12 months of the year or tomatoes in January, unless they were canned or frozen. When you eat according to the seasons, you lower your carbon footprint and enjoy fresher, tastier food. Not only that, but buying from local producers puts money back into your local economy.
Of course, creatures deserve our attention too. Catholics need to be advocates for the ethical treatment of animals. The chickens and cows we eat today are not lounging around green pastures somewhere in Iowa. Most chickens are in pens so tightly packed they must have their beaks chopped off, be fed antibiotics to ward off disease and receive growth hormones so they'll grow faster and fatter.
The way the average animal comes to our dinner table is not a sign of good stewardship.
Food is one of the fundamental building blocks of culture. Humans have always organized themselves around food. How and what a nation eats tells you a lot about it; and a country that can feed itself is more stable and secure than one that cannot.
Our food system is an intertwining network of relationships. The heath of our land and waterways, the well-being of small farms, our agricultural policies and the biodiversity of our eco-system all have an impact on our culture.
But there's more to the issue than legislation reform or political activism. When you sit down as a family for dinner, when you keep the food traditions of your heritage alive, when you support the small farms in your region -- all of this renews the culture.
Culture is built on core virtues and principles. Patience, civility, manners, good conversation, kindness, tradition and moderation are all learned around the table.
What can compare to a juicy cherry picked at the height of its season, or an oyster plump and salty from the sea? How about mom's apple pie or Uncle Billy's secret barbecue sauce? God created us to experience pleasure, and our ability to taste and smell is a part of that.
Some argue that food is simply for physical nourishment. It's true that not everyone has the same palate or interest in culinary matters. But food nourishes more than our bodies: It feeds our hearts and minds and senses. And it puts us in touch with our own mortality and reminds us of our dependence on God and on each other. It connects us to the natural world and to the rhythms and cycles of life that ground us in who we are as human beings.
For Catholics, food is at the center of a good life. What and how we eat will change us and the world we live in -- for better or worse.
1. Grow something of your own. Plant a vegetable garden, fruit trees, berries or herbs. If you have no land, use pots.
2. Rediscover your food heritage. Dig up the traditional recipes of your family, heritage or geographical region.
3. Make family dinnertime sacred. It doesn't need to be elaborate, but it does need to be together.
4. Eat in season. Discover what's in season in your area and start planning recipes around these ingredients.
5. Visit your local farmers' markets. Farmers' markets continue to sprout up; buy what you can from local growers and producers.
6. Support local food artisans and shops. Keep your money in your local economy as much as you can.
7. Meet your local farmers. Take the kids and visit the farms in your area -- it's great to have relationships with people who grow your food.
8. Host a potluck. Use this as a chance to build relationships and share recipes, all while feasting on good food!
9. Educate yourself. Start reading labels, find out where your food comes from, and get informed about food issues.
10. Give thanks. Always pray a blessing before meals, and create special food traditions around liturgical seasons and feast days.
"The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan (Penguin, $16)
"In Defense of Food," by Michael Pollan (Penguin, $15)
"Deep Economy," by Bill McGibbon (Holt, $14)
"Food Matters," by Mark Bittman (Simon & Shuster, $25)
"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial, $14.95)
On the Web
Grace Before Meals: Gives tips and recipes for families who want to strengthen their bonds by dining together (www.gracebeforemeals.com).
Slow Foods Movement: Promotes equity and sustainability in food policy (www.slowfoodusa.org)
100 Mile Diet: Encourages people to think local when eating and purchasing food (www.100milediet.org).
Local Harvest: Helps people find local farmers' markets and family farms (www.localharvest.org).
FoodRoutes: Teaches consumers about the impact of their food choices (www.foodroutes.org).
Zoë Romanowsky blogs at InsideCatholic.com. She is a life coach and consultant and can be reached through www.theintegratedwoman.com.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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