Religion and Food

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RELIGION AND FOOD. There are almost as many ways to define religion as there are religions, but scholars basically tend to think about it in two ways. Some concentrate on religion's functions in societies while others focus on grasping its mysterious, universal essence. This essay will examine how food factors into these ways of understanding religion. The connections between religion and food vary widely and are often quite complex. There are, however, several common connections between religion and food that scholars have begun to document in recent decades.


In the functionalist view, religion provides meaning, identity, and structure within what Geertz has called "cultural systems." Religion reflects the human desire for order, but it provides order because people believe it has its origins in the divine. Food often figures prominently in functional interpretations of religion. Lévi-Strauss described food as a type of language that helps human beings express their basic perceptions of reality. He observed that rules about eating cooked and raw foods in some cultures are dictated by sacred stories (myths) and prohibitions (taboos). These rules reflect underlying notions about differences between nature and culture.

Mary Douglas has shown how food communicates ideas about holiness that provide identity and order. The ancient Hebrew dietary laws functioned as controls on identity in a context in which incursion by other tribes and their gods was a frightening possibility. To be holy, in this context, is to be wholly separate. Israelites were "clean" because they remained within the bounds of God's covenantal order, not mixing with outsiders, their gods, or their ways. This separation was reinforced by dietary restrictions such as the prohibition against eating pork. Pigs are "dirty" because their physical characteristics are abnormal according to the way in which the ancient Israelites understood types of animals (i.e., they have cleft hooves and do not ruminate, unlike the edible animals otherwise similar to them like cattle and sheep). A pure and separate people does not make an animal that is not clearly like other grazing animals part of itself by consuming it. Purity of food and body help to strengthen the boundaries of Israelite society and religion. The laws of kashruth have continued to be among the distinguishing marks of Jewish identity and lifestyle through the centuries.

Functionalist understandings are especially helpful for exploring the relationships between religion and food in particular contexts like ancient Israel. They also illumine the connections between religion, food, and other culturally constructed systems such as gender norms. Scholars have shown how Graeco-Roman table etiquette affected the development of women's roles in early Christianity and may help to explain the tension around women's leadership in early Christianity (Corley). Focusing on gender and food expands our understandings of the scope of religion. Feminist scholars have shown that women may be religious experts through their control of food in societies where previous scholarship has focused on the male exclusivity of sacred knowledge. Among the Thai Buddhists that Van Esterik studied, it is the women whose feeding of monks and deities primarily determines attainment of merit and thus shapes the eternal destiny of their people both dead and living. Bynum's study of medieval Christian mysticism shows that women exercised control and spiritual power through refusing to eat or eating only in a spiritual manner.

Religious food rules may also be codes for class distinctions. The Hindu caste system, for example, is communicated primarily in terms of who can cook for and who can eat with whom. Religious purity is attached to the maintenance of social boundaries. Brahmans, the highest caste, maintain their purity by avoiding foods touched by those of lower castes. Yet Brahman-prepared food is permitted to all. In ancient sacred myth, Brahman created the world by cooking it in sacrifice, thus performing a priestly act. A Brahman's privileged status in society still is still enforced by his role as priest. He stands between the gods and rest of the world. As the ancient texts declare, the world cooked by the Brahman is to fulfill its duties to him (Malamoud).


Here, religion primarily refers to the human encounter with an irreducible sacred such as a god. Scholars such as Mircea Eliade map this experience through universally recognizable types of orientation (sacred time and sacred space), narrative (myth), and activity (ritual). Religion in this view essentially concerns the otherworldly expressed and responded to through patterns, which often involve food.

Those patterns are still important for describing and understanding religion, even if their universality has been questioned. As Jonathan Z. Smith puts it, they serve the observer as "maps," but should not be confused with the vast diversity of "territories" known to believers. They are more like recipes written by a food professional based on traditional dishes that community cooks make from scratch by heart. Sacred time, sacred space, ritual, and myth as categories only give the general flavor of a religion.

Sacred space and time. Sacred space often focuses on food and table setting. The most holy point of some Christian churches is the altar where the sacred meal of Christ's body takes place. In others, a pulpit might replace the altar; however, it is from that point that Christians are fed God's word. In Hindu temples, devotees are often separated from images of the deities by a rail from which they offer food to the gods and receive it in turn. Sacred space is the place where the divine and human communicate, very often over a meal.

Domestic eating spaces can be sacralized as well. Hindu and Buddhist homes may have shrines that are miniature temples for deities who are fed daily. Chinese kitchens contain a shrine to the stove god. In Sicily and Sicilian communities in the United States, families construct elaborate altars of food to celebrate St. Joseph's Day. During Sukkoth, tent-like dwellings outside their homes remind Jews of their nomadic ancestors as they celebrate the harvest's bounty.

Sacred time is also often delineated by food. In many religions, time is marked by periods of eating and abstention. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and the cycle of eating and abstaining from food marks its days. These are holy times, where one's relationship to food expresses one's connection to holiness through a balance of disciplined avoidance of carnal pleasures and partaking in Allah's bounty. Both feasting and fasting, in different ways, are concerned with submission to Allah.

Ritual, myth, and symbol. Eating in sacred space and at sacred times is a primary mode of ritual activity. Ritual unites believers with the holy as they carry out patterned activities that parallel those of gods or ancestors. The Passover meal commemorates and reconnects Jews with the ancient Israelite ancestors through the bitter herbs, the sacrificed lamb, and the quickly made unleavened bread. "You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons forever," Exodus 12 admonishes the Israelites about this practice. "Do this in remembrance of me" is evoked each time Christians reenact Christ's last supper with his disciples. By commemorating Christ's last meal, repeating his words and gestures, Christians re-create the sacred time of Christ and his disciples and eat with him again as they eat in community as his body. Or, Christians believe that they actually eat Christ's sacrificed body in the form of the bread host and in so doing are incorporated into it "to live forever" with God. It is first of all feeding the deity, rather than feeding on the deity, that sanctifies Hindus who present foods to the gods for their consumption. The gods then return the leftovers as sacred prasadam for devotees to eat.

Sacred boundaries of time and space and ritual activities are narrated in sacred stories or myths. For the believer, mythic truth is truer than fact; it is the way the gods did it. In the Christian Eucharist, the priest begins with the words of sacred myth: ". . . the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11) Following the mythic pattern correctly in ritual is of utmost importance since it is a recreation of cosmic order; however, religious communities often disagree about details of performance as well as interpretation. Rituals generally represent beginnings that come out of chaos or involve a change of state. Food, as something that changes state or that can create new identity in communal consumption, is often the centerpiece of ritual controversy. A familiar example is the debate over the real or symbolic presence of Christ in the Eucharist that became the most divisive theological issue of the Christian reformations of the sixteenth century.

The preparation and consumption of food are common in myth. As in the Hindu scriptures already discussed, creation and food are often related in myths of origins. In the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the origin of sin takes place in a forbidden act of eating. And it is eating the sacrifice of the Passover lamb or "Christ, Lamb of God," that restores their relationship with God for Jews and Christians respectively. For Muslims, God rescues their progenitor Ishmael from thirst by a miraculous spring in the desert. Muslims fulfilling the hajj reenact Hagar and Ishmael's quest for water as part of the pilgrimage into sacred time and space.

When myths no longer function to order human activity, when they cease to speak of the holy, they are myths in the more common sense of the term. Myths are, however, quite resilient, especially ones involving food. An underground Christian sect in Japan that survived the suppression of Christianity in the seventeenth century accommodated its situation by celebrating sacred meals with fish and rice wine rather than unavailable bread and wine (Whelan). When the buffalo were erased from the North American landscape, the Oglala Sioux accommodated by treating the cattle forced on them by the United States government as if they were buffalo, hunting them ritualistically. This not only preserved their myths, ritual hunts, and feasts, but also quickly changed their dietary preferences. Whereas they had previously avoided beef as unsavory, it quickly became an accepted food staple (Powers and Powers).

Japanese Christians and the Oglala were able to adapt and survive through shifts of symbolism. Symbols are the building blocks of myth. Food symbols are among the most powerful because they connect the reality of life in a place to the holy in tangible and vital ways. Ghee, clarified butter from the sacred cow, feeds deities and humans in India. Survival in Japan depended on rice and rice was already sacred in indigenous religious traditions there. The Christian minority initially took bread and wine as identity markers that differentiated it from the dominant culture; but when survival was threatened, they christianized an older symbol, rice wine. While food seems to be a universal sacred symbol, meanings can vary broadly. The cow so sacred to Hindus that it must not be killed, is the "spotted buffalo" sacralized in its killing and consumption by the Oglala.

Symbols are also powerful because they communicate the holy through what they are. Wine and bread remind believers of Christ's blood and flesh by their physical properties. Christianity has debated whether the Eucharistic meal is a perpetual sacrifice, is like a sacrifice, or recalls a final sacrifice. Some early Christian vegetarians interpreted Christ's death as the end of all sacrifice, including the slaying of animals for human consumption. They marked their sacred meals with water, rather than the blood-like wine. Medieval theology, however, reinforced the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist; a bleeding host was a common element in medieval devotional stories told to emphasize the sacrifice of Christ's flesh in every ritual meal performance.

Some scholars hold that sacrifice, which literally means "to make holy," is at the root of religion. Much mythic vocabulary associates death and food in the service of life. Many religious groups deal with the death-giving-life paradox by sanctioning killing as a gift to the gods, of which humans may share and become holy themselves. Others, like the Jain of India, deal with the reality of suffering by trying to avoid it. For them, eating from plants not killed in the process of harvest and totally avoiding meat are major forms of achieving a meritorious existence. Buddhist monks avoid getting mired down in the world of suffering by refusing to kill animals for food. They may, however, eat whatever is provided for them by householders as long as they remain detached from the desire for it.

Sacred rituals reintegrate believers with each other as well as the gods; this is often accomplished in commensality. Eating the same foods, often from common vessels, draws boundaries around community, making it holy and like family. Early Christians adapted the kinbased Jewish Passover to bond spiritual brothers and sisters. Food exchanges or ceremonial meals are common in marriage rituals. The ancient Jewish wedding was essentially a meal that brought together husband, wife, and their kin. Hindu marriages still involve elaborate exchanges of food. Extension of the community through eating is not always a hospitable occasion. Again, death is often involved in a shared sacrifice. For the ancient Aztecs, eating from the bodies of human victims was a way of incorporating their strength as well as feeding with the gods (Carrasco).

Rituals often extend outside the bounds of community through food. The Christian Eucharist concludes by sending believers who have been fed "into the world in peace" to help sanctify it. Making the world holy is often accomplished by the extension of community through charitable feeding. Devotees of Lord Krishna, for example, are famous for their temple feeding programs. By feeding the outsider, they serve Krishna by extending his presence through food that has been sanctified by him (Singer). Muslims are required to practice charity and often do so by giving food to non-Muslims. Bakra Eid commemorates the sacrifice of Ishmael and is a day on which Muslims worldwide bind community through sacrificing at the same time. But the community is extended in this event, in which sacrificed meat may be portioned out not only among family and the poor, but also to non-Muslim neighbors (Murphy).

Food, Religious Performance, and the Body

Religious peoples are more likely than scholars to appeal to essential experiences of holiness when they articulate religious foodways. That is, when they consciously articulate them at all. Helpful here is the work of Katherine Bell and Ronald Grimes, who emphasize the performative character of religious behavior. This is particularly important for understanding the relationships between religion and food. Most people harvest, kill, eat, cook, serve, hunger for, or otherwise encounter food and holiness primarily through physical action and sensation, rather than through belief and interpretation. The power of foods to evoke strong memories and feelings, essential to the efficacy of religious ritual, is related to the sensory experience of food. Food rituals recall not just abstract ideas, but smells or tastes that bring back another time or place. Passover offers Jews the opportunity to reconnect viscerally with their ancestors through tastes of what their lives were like on the Seder plate.

It is important to underline this embodied nature of the connection between religion and food. Because religious experience via food is a physical experience, it can vary widely even while following the same ritual practices. This does not make ritual less powerful; rather, it helps to bring it alive for devotees. Paradoxically, religious expression is all the more real, meaningful, and transcendent because it is new each time even if it is as old as the world. Each time a religious act involving food is performed, it is experienced by the body in the moment of receiving, smelling, and tasting, and this strengthens feelings and beliefs about the presence of holiness in the activity.

Because of the ambiguities in some traditions associated with the body, food and eating can be powerfully complex signs of both the profane and the sacred. The "perfect ones" in dualistic groups like the ancient Manichees and medieval Cathars starved themselves to death in rejection of the body and all things earthly. Fear of the female body particularly has driven the ascetic impulse in several religious cultures to sanctify the renunciation of food. Some early Christian writers associated female fasting with rejecting the sexual body, holding that the fasting body made virgins "more attractive" to Christ, their bridegroom (Shaw, 250252). Lelwica and Griffith have noted parallels between traditional female holiness and dieting among contemporary American women.

Food, Meaning, and the Secular World

While it is a common observation that religious tradition and belief have shaped diet and foodways in the past, modern observers tend to focus on the waning of religious influences on eating. Reformed Judaism, which does not require adherence to the dietary laws, is an example often cited. The persistence of irrational dietary traditions, as among the strictly kosher Hasidim, is viewed as a rejection of modernity.

Even people with a disenchanted, scientific world-view may unconsciously act according to sacred meanings. Ordinary profane experiences of eating may be meaningful bases for memory, reflection, and orientation and can be recognized as such to the extent that they are patterned on hidden sacred structures. Indeed, what constitutes a meal is often based on unconscious associations with primordial meals. Meals can return even the most secular person to another time and place. The language often used to describe such experiences is the religious vocabulary of symbol, myth, and ritual. American Thanksgiving, a secular holiday that celebrates consumerism as much as anything else, still centers on a meal modeled on sacral elements: sacrificial fowl and harvest fruits. What remains of its semireligious origins is perhaps a quick prayer and traditional dishes (some of rather recent origin). As anyone who has tried to vary a Thanksgiving menu knows from familial reaction, the sacred survives in turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.

Furthermore, postmodernity has seen many conscious attempts at re-enchantment through foodways by those exhibiting what Eliade called "nostalgia for origins." Elizabeth Ehrlich's recent memoir of her progression from being a secular Jew to keeping the kosher kitchen of her foremothers is a good example.


Examining connections between food and religion helps to illumine how religion functions in cultures, and why religious experiences are powerful for believers. It can also underline the fact that food feeds many hungers. Scholars have only just begun to examine the myriad ways in which this is true for religious peoples. It is safe to say that most scholars of religion would agree that religions provide humans with meaning-making structures that often involve food. These structures reveal the essence of the sacred through eating, sacrificing, preparing, or serving food to believers. They may serve as paradigms for all ordinary foodways as well. This domestication of sacred foodways in turn helps to perpetuate the process of meaning-making that is the function of religious practice and belief. Believers may or may not reflect on the importance of food for their religious identity. Knowledge of food's centrality for meaning-making is not limited for believers to theological abstraction. To use Ronald Grimes's phrase, it is more often felt "deeply into the bone" through the rites of preparation and consumption that help to order life every day as well as to mark special occasions. Brillat-Savarin's "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are" translates in the words of one woman recently interviewed after cooking a family meal, "Food is Judaism for me. I don't think about it. It's who I am."

See also Buddhism ; Christianity ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals and Fasts ; Gender and Food ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Judaism ; Last Supper ; Sin and Food ; Women and Food .


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Corrie E. Norman

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