An Exploration of Food Culture among Friends
One time I went to a Quaker potluck—admittedly, a large one—and there were, no lie, seven bowls of hummus! However, in my 40 years of attending Friendly feasts, I have been served blue Kool-Aid exactly once. Does this perhaps amount to an unspoken culinary creed? Hummus is good; blue Kool-Aid is bad.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that hummus has many virtues. It is versatile, vegan, gluten-free, environmentally friendly, healthy, inexpensive, and arguably “simple,” and many of us like it pretty well. I am not here to argue against hummus!
But what of the Kool-Aid? It is vanishing rare in our gatherings—like many other foods that are elsewhere common but never seen at Quaker potlucks. Is Kool-Aid sort of the tip of the culinary iceberg of things not invited to meeting?
Here is another question: If something so common out there in the world is so rare at our meals, does that tell us anything about who we are choosing to break bread with? Does it tell us anything about the reach of our efforts to build the blessed community? The folks who know how to make hummus and quinoa salad—and who know not to bring Kool-Aid—comprise a somewhat limited group, no?
If something so common out there in the world is so rare at our meals, does that tell us anything about who we are choosing to break bread with?
To be sure, food is just one cultural marker, and there may be others that turn people away from our meetings long before they ever get to the potluck. But if someone did show up with Pop-Tarts, how might they feel when they saw the other offerings? What message would they hear? Make way; kale rules! Stand back for the arrival of the hummus! This is hallowed ground: no Pop-Tarts here!
When we try to gather folks to break bread together, yet reject much of what a lot of people experience as “bread,” might this cost us in terms of our ability to build community across some current social divides?
Food goes really deep into the fabric of who we are, how we experience family and community, how we define celebration, and the gifts we feel emboldened to bring to the world. Sharing food together gets to the heart of how we give and how we receive; how we find and offer comfort; how we celebrate, define, and share abundance; and how we take care of others and get taken care of by them. There are layers of symbolism in how we break bread together! This symbolism exists whether we are breaking baguettes, tortillas, chapatis, teff pancakes, lefse, rice crackers, or Twinkies.
When we reject—subtly or overtly—locally common food, are we rejecting a different and widely spoken culinary language? Might we also be inadvertently rejecting the message it was meant to convey: a message of love, abundance, comfort, and celebration?
Please bear with me for a brief detour.
I have spent enough time abroad to have had quite a few experiences of being a culinary outsider. Things I have been challenged to eat or drink include a fermented beverage made with corn that had been chewed and spit into a bucket, a pig’s tail, soup with cockroaches floating in it, fried grasshoppers, stewed armadillo, lizard soup, stomach-lining stew, horsemeat, many varieties of head cheese, snails, chicken feet, an endangered species of shellfish, illegal turtle eggs, and varieties of home-distilled “firewater.”
Many of these things were presented to me with fanfare as an honored guest. Discreet, private refusal was not an option. Early on in my travels, I made some choices that are painful to recall: rejecting what I was offered and causing, I think, anguish and hurt among my hosts. Eventually, I learned to mostly swallow both my doubts and the food. I learned to privilege the relationships and the ceremonial occasion and to accept the honor my hosts wished to bestow on me. I had many memorable experiences as a result of their generosity and my (sometimes rather forced) willingness to open my mind and my mouth to their gifts. I did refuse the turtle eggs, painfully explaining why to my abashed Nicaraguan host (it turned out he knew quite well that they were illegal and why). I still feel guilty about the shellfish, which I ate without comment—but with a side of moral anguish—in an isolated, impoverished fishing village in southern Chile.
Food is a language of love. But oh dear, how often we fail to hear each other aright!
I have also been in the position of trying to build bridges to people via food and of having my bridges unceremoniously collapse. There was the time I made spinach and cheese stuffed cannelloni, and our red-meat-eating Chilean friend Oscar threw up his hands in disgust and announced he couldn’t eat it (I cried when he went home). There was the time I served the Ripon College women’s basketball team a vegetarian chili that happened to have raisins in it, and most of them ate almost nothing (my willingness to serve college athletes never recovered). Once I served my Chilean guests fruit salad with some of the apple peels left on for color, and they delicately cut the confetti-sized piece of peel off of each tiny piece of apple before eating it. I complained to my neighbor about my finicky guests, and she gasped, eyes wide in horror, at what I had done (ouch). One early year of the Monteverde Friends community, I am told they served American-style baked beans for the community Christmas dinner, and some Costa Rican neighbors found them so disgusting they couldn’t eat them.
Food is a language of love. But oh dear, how often we fail to hear each other aright!
Let Your Menu Speak
As I see it, there are several contradictory principles crashing into each other here. On one hand, we want to “let our menu speak,” as it were. Many of us want our food to reflect conscious, educated, enlightened choices about health, the environment, and animal welfare. Choosing hummus over blue Kool-Aid may be, in part, a principled rejection of a food with arguably no nutritional value, probably nasty dyes and additives, a flavor not found in nature, and roots in an industrialized food system that many of us lament.
Many of us may also choose principled culinary simplicity, perhaps defined as foods that are minimally processed, close to nature, low on the food chain, etc. This approach would certainly argue for steering clear of Kool-Aid and for embracing those seven bowls of hummus at the potluck.
But to me it is a bit more complicated than that.
How might it feel to be the bringer of an item that is common outside of Friends’ circles but virtually never seen among Friends? Might finding that you speak a different culinary language dent your confidence in your future among Friends?
While I don’t think simplicity is actually a hallmark of a lot of Quaker potlucks, it is a stated aim at our Simple Meals fundraisers. There is an important message in the simple meal concept: a reminder that we have other worthy things to expend effort and money on, and that we and the earth would probably be healthier if we ate more rice and beans. On the other hand, a simple meal as a goal presupposes that we are prone to excess, which itself may presuppose some economic privilege. The message we are sending when we elevate the status of a simple meal is that we are a privileged community. If privilege and overabundance are not someone’s experience, they may see a “simple meal” event—and their local Quaker community—as not exactly speaking to their condition! It’s also possible that they will see it as smug and self-righteous, in which case neither the community nor its meal will necessarily be a draw.
I was ashamed that our critique of what we were offered was so harsh, so blindly grounded in the privilege of choice, and so self-righteous.
The economic privilege issue was thrown into relief for me recently at one of our yearly meeting annual sessions. Our annual session meets at a Lions Club camp. About a third of the people in the yearly meeting participate in a Simple Foods option rather than the camp cafeteria. The Simple Foods option involves organic whole foods minimally processed by volunteers. The camp’s food could be characterized as Midwestern child-friendly. (Full disclosure: I am one of the grateful Simple Foods people.)
One year we had some Salvadoran visitors with us. At one point, a Friend gave an impassioned plea for us to talk to the Lions camp about its non-sustainable, non-organic, non-simple foods. The speaker was quite vocally unhappy with the pancakes, sloppy joes, fishwiches, etc., that made up a typical meal. The Salvadorans looked at each other in alarm and dismay, and one of them said to me, “You must have suffered greatly when you were with us in El Salvador!”
It was an excruciating moment for me: a moment when our best intentions to “let our menu speak” caused insecurity in our guests. Our Salvadoran visitors experienced the food at the camp as a small miracle of abundance, variety, and ease. (They cook their own food at their yearly meeting annual session. I witnessed their clerk on tortilla duty after hours of clerking—no rest for the weary there—and sometimes they ran out of food before the line ended.) I’m sure they figured if we complained about the Lions camp food, we were very difficult indeed to satisfy!
Honestly, I was ashamed of our kvetching about the food. I was not ashamed that we aspire to eat in a thoughtful and principled way, and not ashamed that concern for sustainability and health are among our witnesses; these are good things. But I was ashamed that our critique of what we were offered was so harsh, so blindly grounded in the privilege of choice, and so self-righteous.
Listening in Tongues
I’ve always liked the concept of learning to “listen in tongues”: to listen to what is behind people’s words and try to avoid being triggered by terms that belong to someone else’s language of faith but perhaps not our own. It rightly puts some of the responsibility for successful communication on the listener.
Well, I think we need to listen in tongues in a more literal way too! Could we embrace whatever food comes our way in the spirit in which it is offered? What would it be like to see a jug of blue Kool-Aid at a potluck, and think: Ah, sweetness! Because love is sweet! and Ah, blueness, because beautiful colors are a gift to the world! Ah, Kool-Aid! Those happy childhood memories!
I see that this idea—to embrace things like Kool-Aid—goes directly against the witness of some Friends whose ministry regarding food is so central to their overall faith that giving ground would lack integrity. To these Friends I say, “Thank you for the clarity and strength of your witness. Thank you for making clear the relationship between what we eat and our carbon footprint; our water use; our impact on the world’s forests, wetlands, and oceans; and our impact on other people and other species. Many of us are blessed with the freedom to make choices; thank you for reminding us that we could often make better ones.”
And I would ask you, Friends, to understand that my witness is a somewhat different one: one that at times elevates human community and human connection over other good and important witnesses, one that expansively welcomes the different languages of love that can show up at a meal.
To paraphrase Wendell Berry, to sacrifice principle for the sake of community is a bad thing, but to sacrifice community for principle may be even worse, for it is to sacrifice the only ground on which principle can be enacted.
I am not asking that we abandon what is principled, what is simple, what is abundant, what is us expressing love and faithfulness in our collective ministry of the edible. We have much to offer and celebrate, and I have seen newcomers really jazzed by our potlucks! But I would ask us to also be aware of the ways our menu may speak messages we don’t intend, like you are one of us if you eat like us. Tater tots? Try the Methodists.
Our worship group has a potluck every time we gather, and we celebrate every birthday with a cake (we pretty much stagger from cake to cake from mid-August through November). Much—perhaps most—of what we eat would meet with the approval of organic/vegetarian/sustainable/earth-friendly Friends, whose proclivities many of us share. But we don’t pretend our cakes are healthy; they are more like soul food perhaps. Our group’s exuberant cooks and eaters embrace tofu; ribs; Jell-o; kale; and good, old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs. Our potlucks rock. Every time.
And once, there was blue Kool-Aid. I still remember it because of who we were that day: an improbable and beautiful collection of people who might never have met if it hadn’t been for the Quaker potluck. The Kool-Aid was a culinary Tappan Zee Bridge—what a span! I think God smiled on us.
If there is a bridge to another soul or another culture through food, I hope we will cross it—especially if it is a bridge to our very large collective population of neighbors: nice, ordinary, miraculous folks who might not recognize quinoa or seitan at the potluck but who seek the Spirit just as ardently as we do.
Feeding people is a ministry. The ministry of food can extend our reach, welcome those who are physically as well as spiritually hungry, and draw people deeper into communion with each other and with the Spirit. And eating—an act of surrender, an act of humility, an admission of need—is just as much a part of the ministry as feeding. There’s a soup kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin, at which volunteers are required to eat too, sitting at a table with everyone else. The director has learned the danger of those who would serve “selflessly.” Serving without eating instills pride and distance from those served, not selflessness! Perhaps eating what someone else cooks, whatever it is, prepares us in some small way to receive grace. And cooking for others is to participate in divine graciousness.
I once read about Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s adventures in creating meaningful rituals to jar people out of their spiritual ruts. He found that surprising juxtapositions were particularly effective. So, for example, if a religious service took place in a church, projecting images of gritty urban scenes on the walls was powerful. If the service took place in a gym, stained glass on the walls and organ music transported people. If the familiar ritual was communion, offering unconventional “bread”—literally everything from tortillas to Twinkies—was powerful. Wow!
Well, if Harvey Cox dares to offer Twinkies for communion, what are we waiting for? If there is a bridge to another soul or another culture through food, I hope we will cross it—especially if it is a bridge to our very large collective population of neighbors: nice, ordinary, miraculous folks who might not recognize quinoa or seitan at the potluck but who seek the Spirit just as ardently as we do. I hope we will look for opportunities to break bread (or roti or corn dogs or matzoh) and give and receive exuberantly, with open hearts and mouths, the gift of food with whomever we find ourselves.
And next time someone offers us blue Kool-Aid, I hope we will see that of God in it!