Niklas is far away from his hometown of Östersund Sweden. This week he is an intern at one of Mexico City’s finest restaurants, Pujol. He finds himself at the heart of the Mexican kitchen, the tortilla station. The tortilla has been a staple of Mexican cuisine for over a thousand years, and is eaten in the streets, homes and the finest dining establishments. Niklas watches as the chef uses a simple wooden press out little balls of masa, a corn dough, and turn out perfectly round tortillas. Niklas’ tortillas are not turning out as well, little oval, a tear in the dough now and then. This is not surprising considering that he is going up against generations of know how in handling the delicate masa dough, a recipe so old that it’s imbedded in the native creation story as the very substance that formed it’s first people. The significance of this food in Mexico is religious, so crucial to the sustenance of its people that their very existence and essence is tied to it. The plain corn tortilla shared in every home in Mexico, connects them to thousands of years of cultural history, ancient practices of food processing, knowledge of their land and agriculture, and today connects every Mexican, rich and poor, to their shared cultural heritage and identity. The tortilla is an example of how food practices transcends sustenance, forming, perpetuating and expressing peoples’ connection to their land, their cultural identity, history, and one another.
Niklas is Niklas Ekstedt, Swedish chef and host of Niklas Mat. The program follows Niklas’ one-week internship at any one of many renowned restaurants in the world, where he gets to know the local ingredients, the food culture, and foremostly the host chef. I believe the show captures a longing in the Swedish public that is lingering in their growing interest in food. The longing is not merely for delicious food, but really the transcendent character of food that can connect people to their land, their history, and a sense of shared identity. Unfortunately, as Niklas Ekstedt has recently shared in a TEDx talk in Stockholm, Sweden has been too quick to embrace the modern kitchen and incorporate new ingredients and techniques that they have failed to preserve their own food traditions. In Sweden's case, modernity has very much detached food from its land and its people; there is a rootlessness in how Swedes eat. I believe a part of the fascination with foreign foods in Sweden is to capture and taste that transcendence that is lacking in our own food culture. What we are seeing now in the food discourse is an effort to reclaim this connection; a reconciliation through food.
One clear way this longing for reconciliation has expressed itself is Swedens growing ethical concern over the environmental and social consequences of what and how we eat. The sale of ecological products are exceeding industry projections, we seek more information on where and how cattle are being raised, we are concerned for local small farmers, and in the case of non regional foods, will even choose to pay extra to insure fair trade and agricultural practices to farm workers abroad. This trend offers two important entries for Christian reflection and engagement.
Firstly, it’s a valid critique and reaction to the commoditization of food that has disconnected people from the social and ecological cycles of food. We are acknowledging that in our search for cheaper and more abundant produce, we have failed to treat with dignity the persons working in the agricultural industry, increasing the pressure to produce more for less pay. We have treated other living beings as a consumer product, objectifying their existence to satisfy our own ends. The land and sea are becoming overworked and depleted as our desire for immediate gratification raids natural cycles of restoration. There is a growing disparity in the distribution of food in the world, where roughly an equal number of the poor suffer from malnutrition as the wealthy do from obesity. Secondly, this food discussion illustrates a holistic understanding of personhood; what we do with our bodies is connected to the mind and soul. Eating is not simply a biological process, but reinforces and expresses our values and is even formative to our identity. Ecologically and socially conscious eating habits expresses an awareness of impact our eating has not only on ourselves but also to our environment and other creatures, both human and non-human. The church, if we are to take seriously our confession of God’s good creation and the longing of a redeemed and just kingdom, should applaud and support this movement. But the church should also enrich this thoughtful food discussion from it’s own rich tradition of food practices. I present four food practices that will help us engage our societies interest in food and longing for reconciliation.
Our first practice is saying grace. The tradition of giving thanks before a meal may appear innocuous but its presumptions are a stark critique of the commodification of food. The act receives food as a gift, recognizing God’s generous provision for our sustenance through his creation. This contrasts the attitude to earth’s resources fostered in consumerism as simply a commodifiable product to satisfy our desire. We feel entitled to our food, consumers have earned and bought the rights to our product, as opposed to understanding that our sustenance is not merely dependent on our labor, but on the yields that nature provides, not to mention our own arbitrary placement in the globe with it’s historical benefits. The simple act of giving thanks undercuts such self-righteous assumptions and correctly recognizes that life, all life, is dependent on grace. In receiving food as a gift, we can acknowledge the life that was given in our food that nourishes us. Author Norman Wirzba describes this relationship of food as natures own eucharistic cycle; the death and sacrifice of one life giving itself so that another may live. I’ve prayed a countless number of prayers before a meal, but I will never forget my devout catholic friend’s prayer when I had him over for lunch during lent back in college. To my ignorance, I had served him steak, but he graciously received it, but not before he solemnly gave thanks for the very specific cow that was killed so that he may eat it and his life be nourished by its sacrifice.
Fasting is another longstanding Christian practice that invites us to connect with our shared creatureliness. When we fast we become more aware of our mortality, we realize that without the food provided by others organisms, we, just like all other living creatures on this planet, will die. Historically, fasting and feasting periods in the western Christian calendar was aligned with nature’s own season of restoration and harvest. Though global trade and modern technology have virtually made all foods available regardless of season, observing fasting could be another way to incorporate patience, appreciation, and respect for the natural rhythms of creation that we are quick to overpower for our own convenience. We are not particularly mindful of food in our abundance, as we are readily able to alleviate our hunger and thirst with a flurry of convenient alternatives. Fasting, to a degree, also helps us to identify with the near billion people who go hungry and the near 800 million who lack clean water. Perhaps a deeper identification would alert us to question the unfair distribution of the world’s resources and reflect on our collective responsibility and response. In Christian tradition fasting has always been coupled with almsgiving and prayer. The early church taught that true fasting should benefit the poor, Christians were to calculate the money saved during fasting so it would be given to the poor and needy among them. Fasting sets apart time to contemplate over our relationship to the gift of creation and again humble us as creatures in prayer before our Creator.
Perhaps the single most formative eating practice of the church is the eucharist. The early church would meet together on Sundays to celebrate a shared meal on the day of Christ’s resurrection; while on Wednesdays and Fridays they were to fast to commemorate Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion. The rhythm of fasting and feasting would instill the story of the passion directly into every week. The church’s eating habit united their week to the great salvation drama of Easter. How they ate invited them to participate in a story transcendent of themselves. Today, as we break the bread and pour the wine, like generations of Christians before us, we confess God becoming a part of creation and offering himself as real life giving food to the world. The sacrificial character of Christ becomes the model for the church, as he was given for the sake of the world, so is the church, as Christ body on earth, is to live likewise. Communions also recognizes the deeply communal aspect of eating. As we share the bread and wine, we confess that we are members composing one single body; that we belong to one another. Food is no longer primarily about private consumption or personal satisfaction but a gift to be shared to meet the needs of community. This is a subversive way to food in a culture driven by marketing that often panders to our most primal and sensate cravings. Instead of gazing lustfully to satisfy our cravings the Eucharist encourages us to instead look towards the hunger of others. The Eucharist is also a meal that is to overcome the barrier of ethnicity, class, and gender. Eating together has always been an intimate gesture of belonging, and at the Eucharist we are expressing that belongingness to Christ is a greater unifier and sense of identity than any
other demographic marker. When food today is readily used as a means to separate people of different social standings, the Eucharist challenges the church to ask who are we eating with? Who are missing at our table? Who are we keeping out of the banquet?
Rooted in the Eucharist and the eating habits of Jesus, is the practice of eating with the other. Jesus was often seen and criticized for eating together with those he ought not to, but all the same he continued to cross religious, class, and cultural boundaries to sit and eat with them. He encouraged his disciples to do the same, saying that when they throw a party they should invite the poor, the blind and the lame. Jesus was displeased when a dinner party became a battleground for social distinction and exclusion; it went against the grain of the kingdom table manners. Jesus eating company reflected the inclusive nature of his kingdom, and in this radically different social order, we saw people eat together who would otherwise have no business doing so. This new social order challenges us to extend hospitality to those different from us. Perhaps this practice is particularly pertinent today in the Swedish context when considering the strong negative reactions to people from other impoverished EU nations asking for money in the streets. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters are noble hospitable practices of the church, but there is always the inherent risk of a patron and benefactor dynamic that does not bring about the transformative of relationship from stranger to guest and maybe even to friend. Inviting the stranger among us to our homes for a shared meal together however opens up for the potential for such transformation. For the church to be a people changed by the generous hospitality of Christ, eating together ought to humble us as we share in our indebtedness as receivers of God’s good gifts.
Niklas is excited about his new restaurant Ekstedt. The entire cooking process is done over a birch wood fire pit. He will only use cast iron skillets, and the primordial tools of flame and smoke to prepare the most Swedish of dishes. No electricity, no gas. The restaurant celebrates that nature will steer the cooking rather than the cooks controlling nature. Here the menu varies with the seasonal provision of local agriculture. The decor is of heavy Swedish influence using alderwood, leather, copper, limestone, and timber, all reminiscent of Niklas’ own upbringing in Jämtland and Skåne, the two landscapes that has instilled his love for food. Niklas worldwide journey has brought him back to his roots and the recovery of ancient practices long forgotten. He is reconciled to his childhood land and eager to share it with his guests. I have presented four food practices in the tradition of the church. They have the potential to be deeply formative practices for the church today. They speak of our inherent need of the Creator’s gifts, as well as our interdependence with all of creation. They celebrate the news that God has invited us to eat real food that satisfies and give life. And they invite all of creation, to participate in a kingdom unlike this world, a kingdom where the lowliest will find a seat at the banquet table. May we rediscover the richness of our food traditions and invite the other to a meal. Perhaps it will be in the traditions of the church that the Swede will find the authentic food that truly reconciles all things.
På podcasten Aten och Jerusalem har jag fått förmånen att prata med Josefin Holmström om kristet författarskap, Antarktis och undergång. Lyssna! Klicka på bilden!