Eating With Dr. Martin Luther King

We’ll be having a birthday cake today, to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have a dream”

Because, yes, we’ll watch the I Have a Dream speech; yes, we’ll sing “We Shall Overcome”; we’ve read the picture books and talked about the civil rights movement. But to truly mark a day as special–to show a 3 year old and a 6 year old that Dr. King’s birthday is worth remembering in a big way–you must have cake.

Now, Dr. King’s favorite dessert is reputed to be pecan pie–a deeply American dessert, a wonderful recipe for which you can find here–but that’s not a dessert my children will eat, and it excludes my dad because gluten-free pie crust is not easy. So we’ll have something else, but the important thing is, it’ll be Dr. King’s birthday cake.

{Talking to my son last night, I explained Jim Crow and segregation in mild, child-appropriate terms, and he said, with deep concern, “But what if you were white and your really good friend was black or you were black and your really good friend was? You couldn’t be together?” Bless that child.}

{What follows below is excerpted and modified from a previous post on The Help.}

While the film was criticized by some (including the New York Times reviewer) for supposedly showing only the domestic side of segregation, I loved it because of how it (and the book) used basic bodily functions to communicate both the shared humanity of and gulf of separation between blacks and whites in 1960s Mississippi. References to taming hair and clothes to meet societal expectations are pervasive, as are motifs and themes related to toilet functions.

Present also (but in the book, less emphasized) is the motif of food and the theme of shared eating. I’m particularly tuned in to food issues, of course, but there was no missing the way in which the film capitalized on images of shared and segregated eating and drinking. The black maids must take care of their physical needs furtively and shamefully–sneaking a bite of deviled egg on the sly, for example–all the while pampering the appetites of their white employers. Hilly Holbrook (a smoothly hateful Bryce Dallas Howard), will gorge herself on the food cooked by her maid, Minnie (Octavia Spencer, who voiced the same character on the audiobook), but expects her to use a designated outdoor one–even during a tornado. The film portrays the shame and belittlement of this segregation in cinematic shorthand.

{I’m sorry; I’m having formatting issues I’m as yet unable to fix…}

Where the film goes beyond the book (in its portrayal of food and eating), it aligns with my own understanding of a biblical theology of food. So much of food and eating, within the Bible, touches on issues of poverty, justice, community, and inclusion.

In virtually every culture, sharing food non-ceremonially is an important indication of welcome and friendship–Jesus’ ministry emphasized the importance of eating with those who are different as a way of not just symbolizing—but, in fact actually practicing the kind of equality and unity that he proclaimed. Early Christian writers, too,  claimed that sharing life, including meals, with persons of different backgrounds was a “proof” of true Christian faith.
So when the outcast “white trash” Celia Foote drinks a cold Coca-Cola with Minnie, it’s a foretaste not only of the meals she’ll later insist on sharing with (and then cooking for) Minnie, but a foretaste, too, of the coming healing, reconciliation, and deep friendship that forms between Minnie and Celia, and Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen.

And a foretaste, too, of the heavenly banquet.

Living the gospel acknowledges our shared humanity and need for reconciliation with God and with each other. When we sit to eat together, we acknowledge our physical needs and that shared humanity (we all eat; we all excrete) while tasting just a bit of God’s graciousness. The Help reminds me again just how countercultural that Supper of the Lamb really is, and inspires me to look for ways to taste the firstfruits of that meal in my own life, right now. And that, as the preacher in the film says, takes self-sacrifice and a willingness to hear one anothers stories. But it’s also the only way to true relationships and genuine joy.
Fresco of an early church ‘agape’ (love) feast

It’s worth asking: what is obstructing true ‘love feasts’ today? In what ways are we guilty of prejudice?

Who is crying out to God for deliverance from injustice and oppression, and what is keeping us from hearing (or heeding) their cries?

a “proof” of true Christian faith.

Early Christian writers claimed that sharing life, including meals, with persons of different backgrounds was a “proof” of true Christian faith. They were convinced that practicing the broadly–even radically–open hospitality that Jesus taught meant that they would welcome Christ himself as their guest—as, of course, Christ himself teaches in Matthew 25—and that their actions would “portray a clear message—that of equality, transformed relations, and a common life.”

Yet, the Christian habit of sharing meals regularly and with “the least of these” all but disappeared as a significant moral practice in the 1700s, along with the major societal and economic changes of that era. Today, if churches feed the poor, they usually do so in the context of ministries like soup kitchens and food pantries; it is the rare group that—like the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier—regularly practices sharing meals across the boundaries of social class and backgrounds.  But it would seem that this kind of sharing more closely approximates Jesus’s ideal. As Christine Pohl writes, “meal time, when people sit down together, is the clearest time of being with others, rather than doing for others.” When we eat with others, we sit on the same level with them, acknowledging our common creatureliness as we stop and do the necessary, joyful business of eating. When we eat the same food, the same food goes into each of our bodies, building up our cells, becoming, quite literally, a part of each of us. We may or may not share much conversation, but we are nonetheless bound to each other in breaking bread together. And Christ is with us.

Sadly, in our society, shared meals of any kind are quickly becoming a rarity—many people regularly eat alone and on the run. A few years ago, the BBC presented a magazine article titled “Portrait of the Meal-for-One Society,” reporting that half of all meals eaten in the UK are eaten alone. The article attributed this trend, in part, to the ubiquity of ready-to-eat meals and to the dramatic rise of single-person households. When I lived in the UK for three years, I noticed how very many people ate while walking around town—the pedestrian culture’s alternative, I suppose, to drive-through food and drink consumed in automobiles. Although I was not able to find data suggesting just how many meals are eaten alone in the US, current research regularly reports a steady decline in the number of meals that children eat with their parents; in a 2007 study, for example, just 39% of 12-17 year olds reported eating with their parents 6 or 7 times per week; 30% ate with their parents three times a week or less.

If eating together is so much a part of being human, and if extending our tables to those who are different from us is such an essential part of living the Gospel, what does it mean that meals shared—even among family members—are on the decline? At the very least, I suspect that it’s a sign of ill health, both physical and spiritual.

Speaking Out, Part Three

{I’m away this week. In addition to the delights of being with family & friends, I had the opportunity to speak to a MOPS group in New Jersey. I’m going to share some of the talk with you here. If I get my tech stuff together, I might even go all fancy and post it as a podcast so you can hear my squeaky little voice. Here’s the final part of three parts.}

I’m really certain that eating together–as families, as friends, as women–and enjoying food–is powerful, powerful stuff.

  • It can help kids do better in school.
  • It can help kids avoid substance abuse.
  • It can keep kids at a healthy weight.
  • It’s even been shown to prevent eating disorders in girls–provided there’s not that “fat talk” going on at the table, of the kind I grew up with.

And yet, family dinners are on the decline:

  • We’re busy.
  • Everyone likes and or hates different stuff.
  • Kids are gross to eat with sometimes.
  • All that is true. But they are still worth fighting for.

Some of the very practical, ordinary strategies I have for making dinner happen:

  • Planning. Make a REALISTIC menu for the week. Don’t go all Martha Stewart on yourself. Start with where you are.
  • Cooking ahead. Kids are crabbiest at dinnertime. Don’t try and cook when the crew is already plotting mutiny. Do as much prep as possible during a happier time.
  • Cooking once, eating twice. Make intentional leftovers. If they don’t like eating the same thing 2 nights in a row, do this: make 2 casseroles at the same time (not that much more work than making 1) but freeze one.
  • Relaxing about what the kids will eat/won’t eat. Young kids–and my kids are still young–are forming their tastes. It’s great to introduce them to new foods. But don’t be surprised when they rebel at new foods. It can take tasting something 10x before you decide you like it.

Try the division of responsibility:

Dietician Ellyn Satter says that parents are responsible for the “What” and “When” of eating, children are responsible for “whether” and “how much.” That doesn’t mean that they can choose cake over carrots. That means, if they choose to eat mostly rice and hardly any stir-fry, it’s a good idea not to micromanage that. We want to protect their sense of enjoyment and self regulation. In our house, when I make something I’m fairly certain the kids aren’t going to want to try, I ask them to try it, but I don’t make it a fighting point. I let them eat the rice, or whatever. It’s a good idea, too, to have ONE consistent fall-back plan. For some families it’s a PB&J. One of our favorites is apple slices and peanut butter. As in, you don’t like the curry? Ok. You may eat the rice. You may have apples and peanut butter. But that’s it. No special meals.
Again, the point is to ENJOY food and ENJOY one another’s company. Fads and fallacies regarding health can come and go. This is about the lifelong lesson. This is about connecting with one another over shared meals. This may even be about connecting with God through food.
Sometimes people get nervous when I talk like this about food. Like it is too permissive, too undisciplined. This doesn’t mean that you can’t follow your vegetarian convictions, or your local-food preference, or your organics or whatever. I have a few of those kind of convictions of my own. But I really believe that we won’t get well as a culture of disordered eaters until we give ourselves the permission to enjoy food and be satisfied with it without guilt. That’s at the heart of eating with joy. And you know what? The geeky studies I can’t help referencing support the idea that this right here does lead people to healthier weights, healthier self image, better cholesterol, whatever. Enjoying food in an un-conflicted way turns out to be good for us in lots of ways.
And that’s because, for example, when you feel comfortable accepting food–the way very young children do–you are in touch with your feelings of hunger, you’re in touch with your feelings about the food, and you’re actually less likely to overdo it. For example, let’s say you go out to eat and instead of getting what you really want–chicken tenders, fries, and a chocolate soda–you get a salad and diet coke. Except that’s not what you really want. And so it doesn’t really satisfy you. So when you get home, or whatever, to your next stop, there are M&Ms there. You don’t even like M&Ms, they’re not your favorite, but you’re feeling deprived and not quite satisfied, so you eat some, more than you want to, and then your stomach feels weird, sort of bloated, and you spiral into a bunch of negative thoughts about yourself, your weight, food, whatever.

Is it going to make you super-skinny? It probably won’t, unless that was your body type to begin with. But is it going to free you up to be more fully, happily, and contentedly the person that you were created to be, and to help your kids become more fully, happily, and contentedly the people they were created to be?

It probably will.

Why Eating Together Matters

All right, I was a little fired up yesterday.

(My mom’s response? “You’re like that critic in Ratatouille. Authors will be afraid of you reading their books.”)

Actually, I try hard to be generous in my readings. This may sound corny, but a number of years ago a teacher said that we ought always to “love the author”–as in, “love your neighbor,” and the author is your neighbor–and that has always stuck with me. But sometimes? Sometimes there is just nothing good to say about a book, and yesterday was one of those times!

But if I rack my brain, there is one good thing to say about the book: it brings attention to something that matters a lot: eating together. It’s something close to my heart, something I’ve written about quite a few times (here, here, and here, and also in several undisclosed locations.)

And it’s something that I try to live daily: ever since my husband and I married, we’ve made eating together a priority in our lives. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is because eating together with him is one of the things that helped me heal from years of disordered eating and thinking.

But even before that–in my tortured starvation years, when the thought of eating clenched my stomach and filled me with fear–I could eat heartily with my mom. Once, when I was 17 and just a few days away from a very serious operation, she came home from work to find me curled up, filled with anxiety, and very hungry from a day of self-inflicted fasting. She took me straight to the diner for a Belgian waffle topped with ice-cream, which I ate with gusto. In her presence, and hers alone, I could eat with childlike abandon, even if elsewhere I was disordered as ever.

Interestingly, numerous studies have confirmed what I have experienced: that meals eaten together are good medicine. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you start talking about “studies,” so I’ll keep it brief and name just a few:

  • A University of Minnesota study published in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that frequent family meals led to better nutritional intake, and a decreased risk for “unhealthy weight control practices” (read: eating disorders) and substance abuse five years after the initial study.
  • A Harvard University study published in Archives of Family Medicine showed that eating family dinners “most” or “all” days of the week was associated with eating more “healthfully”–families eating meals together ate meals that were lower in fat, higher in fiber, and richer in important nutrients than families “never” or “only sometimes” eating together.
  • Another University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that children who ate family meals consumed more fruits, vegetables and fewer snack foods than children who ate separately from their families.
  • Other studies (like a Lou Harris-Reader’s Digest national poll) showed higher scholastic scores among students who frequently shared meals with their families; another survey of high-achieving teens showed that those who ate a lot of meals with their families tended to be happier and more hopeful than those who didn’t.

Sadly, in our society, shared meals of any kind are quickly becoming a rarity—many people regularly eat alone and on the run. A few years ago, the BBC presented a magazine article titled “Portrait of the Meal-for-One Society,” reporting that half of all meals eaten in the UK are eaten alone. The article attributed this trend, in part, to the ubiquity of ready-to-eat meals and to the dramatic rise of single-person households. Although I was not able to find data suggesting just how many meals are eaten alone in the US, current research regularly reports a steady decline in the number of meals that children eat with their parents; in a 2007 study, for example, just 39% of 12-17 year olds reported eating with their parents 6 or 7 times per week; 30% ate with their parents three times a week or less.

Every culture attaches high significance to eating together. I’ve read of cultures in which it’s considered inappropriate for engaged couples to eat together before being married. Thought of in this way–as an act of serious intimacy–it’s no wonder that Jesus came under fire from the religious folks for eating with sinners. In that act, he was getting dangerously close to them, dirtying his hands with their stains, so to speak. But for Jesus’ followers, sharing meals became very important. It became one of the primary ways of celebrating their unity and of reaching out to other people. In the early church, the oddity of people of various backgrounds eating together constituted, for some, a “proof” of the gospel.

Eating together is what people do. I think it’s kind of what we’re made to do; it’s one of the things that helped human culture develop. It’s only specialization (and, you know, things like microwaves) that makes eating alone feasible at all. And we don’t really need university studies to tell us that it’s just good to eat with others.

{look at all the people THEY can fit around the table!}

But that makes me think: there are plenty of people who, for various reasons, eat alone. If you’re one of them–or if you know one or more of them–why not find a way to create a ‘family’ for sharing meals with? In our own home, this has meant extending our table often, but in a casual way, as in “join us for whatever we’re eating, even if it’s just noodles and broth.” It’s the kind of sharing that, to me, is least like charity, because whether we’re the ones accepting or extending the invitation, we’re going to be blessed.

Coffee Cake Communion

(or, the dilemmas of Sunday Coffee Hour)

Recently I talked with a woman who’s in recovery from bulimia. “We’d never bring a bunch of recovering alcoholics into a room full of booze,” she said, “but you can’t really avoid food, and especially not at church.” Indeed, eating and drinking together is an important part of the community life in most churches, whether it’s limited to the celebration of communion (or Lord’s Supper, Mass, or Eucharist) or extended in “coffee hour” and potlucks. Eating together–as in MOST DAILY MEALS together–was an important part of the life of the early church. And it’s still important, though it’s different and in some ways, more complicated.

Some people really struggle with overeating, and I’ve heard from some folks, firsthand, that the platters of doughnuts and coffee cake and other goodies set out after church entice them in ways they don’t fully understand and want desperately to resist. (Before you’re tempted to cry out “they need willpower,” consider that the food industry does all it can to press the right ‘buttons’ to get us attracted and addicted to their offerings; if you don’t believe me, read this book.) Other people struggle with various forms of under-eating, and dread having to attend potlucks.

Eating in front of other people can be embarrassing, complicated, and messy in ways both literal and figurative. Maybe that’s partly because, despite all the rituals surrounding cooking, serving, and eating, eating is still so primal–such a naked acknowledgement of need. But I still think we’re meant to eat together. Eating together is good for what ails us–whether we’re inclined to binge, restrict, or whatever. A number of studies suggest that eating family meals protects children and teenagers emotionally, physically, psychologically, and socially. The most effective treatment for anorexia involves little more than love and meals eaten together. And people who eat with others are likely to be better nourished and at a healthier weight than those who eat alone.

So I think it’s important that churches eat together–especially when they eat together in ways that really focus on the togetherness. That’s not possible in all churches–say, in really big ones–but it’s more than possible in small churches and small groups. I do wonder if we’d not serve one another (and maybe even the Lord?) better if in these settings we’d be careful to meet the needs of those who are struggling with food issues in one way or another. I won’t say “no desserts!”–but I do wonder if communal meals (or snacks) that focus on simpler nourishment–like soup and bread, or fruit and cheese, or vegetable platters–would better serve the needs of those who (given the dismal statistics on these things) are likely to be struggling with food and weight.

At the same time, intentionally simpler and more mindful table fellowship can draw our attention to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper–which points us to Christ, our Bread of Life, and unites us to one another, Christ’s Body. “Don’t eat and drink without recognizing the body!” St. Paul wrote. Our food sustains us, as Christ sustains us–and as we sustain each otherthe body of Christ. Eating is complicated, unduly alluring for some and unimaginably anxiety-producing for others. When you eat with others today–whether at church, at home, in a restaurant, or outdoors (lucky you!)–consider how you might build the body.