I have used food to define who I am (or am not). I call myself a vegetarian, although I’ve long eaten seafood when I’ve known where it comes from, and now do the same with poultry. So what does it mean to label myself that way? (My mother had a friend from India who said she was vegetarian because one day a week she did not eat meat.) It is a convenient label to tell people “don’t expect me to eat meat” without going into “where does this chicken come from?”
When asked how long I’ve been vegetarian my standard answer has been, “I believe I was born vegetarian and went through a meat-eating phase.” I remember as a child not wanting to eat animals, although I didn’t make the connection that the thin-sliced ham I liked to eat came from a pig! I’m grateful that my parents did not force me to eat meat. I could always request scrambled eggs, and having that choice granted seems to have been an early manifestation of God’s grace: “Ask and it shall be given unto you.”
This food choice may have hampered my social life, as I was hesitant to eat at friends’ houses, go on Girl Scout camping trips, or other places where I might be expected to eat meat. I didn’t learn to assertively say, “No, thank you,” and I was relieved when I discovered that saying I was allergic to meat allowed me to avoid the ground beef-pasta casserole served at the church youth group. “Vegetarian” was not in my lexicon at that time. In hindsight, I imagine people thought I was a picky eater, although it’s not a label I’ve put on myself.
As a teenager, I made a different choice and ate meat to fit in with my peers. (American teens eat hamburgers, don’t they?) As a young adult, I lived in Germany where my in-laws raised much of their own food with a garden in the yard, two pigs next to the garage, and a row of potatoes. It was an efficient system: the pigs ate garbage and potatoes and provided fertilizer. One was sold and the other provided meat for the family. I didn’t have any trouble eating that meat, with whom I’d had a relationship. Years later I stopped eating meat again for ecological, political, and health reasons. I’ve had the More-with-Less Cookbook for over 40 years, and strive to eat lower on the food chain as a witness to sharing resources. The deciding factor was my unwillingness and inability to eat organ meats. My rational mind told me that organ meats are healthy (I had a health practitioner who touted their use) and it was important to me to use the entire animal. If I wasn’t willing to do that, I wasn’t going to eat meat.
Yet I can recount times since then when I have chosen to eat meat. Once was in Bolivia, when our group went to the opening of a clinic and a feast that followed. I was recouping from stomach upset and hadn’t eaten for a day. The Northern Hemisphere guests were given plates with chicken, potato, corn, and squash. It was so much more sumptuous than what the locals were offered and it seemed ungracious to refuse. I was too weak to negotiate trading my meat for someone else’s vegetables. I was hungry. It tasted delicious! It was just what my body needed! And I received fully the offering of hospitality.
I want to remember that I have this body that gives me information about what is and isn’t good for me if only I will listen. I admire the people who respond, when asked why they eat the way they do, “I feel better when I do.” I also have an intellect that can process information about the consequences of food decisions. I don’t feel good eating food when I know it is produced in ways that exploit people or resources.
Food can be my go-to when I don’t want to admit what I am feeling. It’s easier to overeat and feel full than admit that I’m sad or angry or lonely.
Through my experiences this is what I’ve learned about food:
Food has always been my “friend.” It feeds and nourishes me; it delights me; it comforts me; it shields me from big and important feelings. Food can be my go-to when I don’t want to admit what I am feeling. It’s easier to overeat and feel full than admit that I’m sad or angry or lonely. Knowing this, how do I nurture or put boundaries on this relationship? Who are my other friends?
Food is an expression of love/belonging. I come from and maintain a tradition of family meals. The fellowship, rather than the food, is what matters. And yet, the focus can shift to the food. Will there be something I can eat? Cooking tasty food is an expression of love, yet how do I know what is tasty to another? Am I hurt when my offering is not accepted? It is important to me to make delicious, nutritious meals and eat them together with my spouse. I’m grateful my spouse appreciates whatever I share with her. I’m aware of times when I have not been that gracious—complaining or breaking down when my food preferences weren’t known or honored. I remember crying at a retreat where the vegetarian alternative was a salad bar for three days in a row, while the omnivores had a variety of hot entrees. I couldn’t “stuff” all my feelings with lettuce!
Food is an addiction. I can think constantly about what and when will I eat next—what is in the kitchen and what meal can be made from it—and rationalize it as an act of love. How many hours of meditation time I have wasted this way! I can think more about food than I do about God, making food my higher power. How have years of watching these thoughts made a difference in my relationship with food? In my relationship with God?
God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of what you put in your stomach, for goodness’ sake.
When we read Scripture, we are invited to find our story in the story. This happened for me when I read this passage from Romans:
Each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience… What’s important in all this is that if you [do it, do it] for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli… God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of what you put in your stomach, for goodness’ sake. It’s what God does with your life as He sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy…. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love (Romans 14, The Message).
What seems important to me now is knowing where my food comes from and knowing what I’m actually hungering for (which may not be food at all!). I want to make aware and intentional food choices. I get most of my produce from a Community Supported Agricultural exchange or a farmers market. I try to only eat fresh, in season food, so it doesn’t have to travel from the Southern Hemisphere. I buy fair-trade chocolate. I notice when I am rigid about what I eat when I demand vegetarian fare, or when I can make do with (or accept graciously) what is offered. I notice when I make judgments about what people—including myself—eat. I am grateful that I can accept how God manifests in food with joy instead of control.
Although I still hold the belief that you are what you eat, I also believe that as a child of God I am more than that. I believe that choices make a difference; it matters to my well-being, the people who produce food, and the earth that I am conscious of what I eat. And in the end, it’s not about food: it’s about being aware, about honoring myself, respecting other people, and doing whatever I do for the glory of God. I pray that my food choices do not interfere with the free exchange of love.