winter 2008 Edition
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no matter

where we’re from, what culture we identify with, or what religion we follow, one element unites us: food.

Food is so tied to our spiritual and cultural identities that it seems impossible to hear about it without conjuring a web of memories about our personal and family traditions. Our country gathers every November to feast and be thankful for our blessings, families celebrate weddings and birthdays and holidays with joyous meals, sometimes they fast to reflect on their lives and draw closer to what they consider sacred.

We asked four members of our community — a Methodist minister, a Jewish student, a Medieval history professor and a Paiute tribal elder — to share their knowledge and stories of food’s connection to spiritual and cultural traditions. As you read their words, you’ll discover differences in the types of food people eat and the ways they use it as an extension of their beliefs. But you’ll also see a commonality, regardless of historical time or cultural background. Food connects us with each other — and with the divine — and as we break bread together, we gather in fellowship to celebrate the values we share.

“In Christianity we have traditions surrounding the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. I ask my students to visit various churches to view a highly ritualized version of a meal where bread and wine or grape juice are used. They are a representation of the deepest mysteries of Christianity in terms of the death of Jesus and the spiritual nurture of its members.

“Some historians studying the Mediterranean world tell us that when you look at the trade foodways at the time of Christian origins, you have the Mediterranean’s largely vegetarian economy of grapes, grain and olives meeting a northern European economy focused more on dairy and meat. By the early Middle Ages, as the culture of Europe develops, the church takes on the Mediterranean emphasis, and the nobility and monarchies of Europe take on the northern approach. So meat and beer become what real men eat, and what the church eats is bread and wine. The sacred food comes out of the territory Christianity was nourished in.

“That could be replicated in smaller ways by the type of bread a particular culture makes — a Greek or Russian Easter bread, Scandinavian Christmas cookies or the breads that go with the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. Though not as central as the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, they begin to have other meaning.

“Scholar Daniel Sack wrote a book called Whitebread Protestants about various ways in which white Protestants use food. They still have communion in church from time to time, but more important in some ways is the fellowship of the informal coffee hour afterwards. Also, when somebody gets sick or dies, the ladies of the church supply food for the family. Feeding the hungry through soup kitchens and neighborhood food pantries also is a key expression of faith in many churches.

“Sack has another interesting chapter on the controversy over wine and grape juice in Protestant communion services, based on the temperance movement, which relates to Methodist tradition. Former Willamette President G. Herbert Smith was a good example of Methodist abstinence from alcoholic beverages. The year I was ordained as a deacon (1968) was the first year Methodist ministers didn’t have to sign a pledge not to drink alcohol. Methodist temperance was originally about physical and moral health, because they felt alcohol ruined so many families.

“Methodist founder John Wesley was a health food nut. He wrote a book called Primitive Physic that contained home medical cures, and many focused on diet. He was vegetarian for awhile. He believed that a little wine and beer was not a bad thing, which is interesting given where Methodism went in the 19th century. He believed that fasting one day a week was good for spiritual purposes as well as for health.

“There’s a traditional idea in Western religion that if you sit down to eat with people, you’ve created a familial bond, which means you’re not going to harm them. A companion is somebody you eat bread with, whether you’re kneeling at an altar or you’re sitting at a table. You’re thanking God for the food, for the creatures that gave life that you may have life, and you’re thankful for the people around the table with whom you’re in fellowship.”


Soul Food

christianity: from communion to coffee socials

Willamette University Chaplain Charlie Wallace teaches a religious studies course called “Soul Food” to introduce his students to the importance of eating and drinking in Western religious tradition. From accepting the Eucharist at a religious service to meeting in the church social hall for supper, food has played a long and varied role in Christian gatherings.

“There’s a traditional idea in Western religion that if you sit down to eat with people, you’ve created a familial bond, which means you’re not going to harm them.”

“During our sophomore year we said, 'Why not have a weekly Kiddush every Friday night? We can get together, light some candles, sing some songs and have some fun.’ We started off with the candles, the wine and the challah, which is braided bread. [Oregon law allows consumption of sacramental wine by minors if it’s part of a religious rite or service.] Originally we told stories every week. Last year we started singing as well.

“Our Kiddush is a bit of a non-traditional thing. We borrowed from a lot of different rituals and created something that’s relevant to our community. The most traditional Jews would have a Friday night dinner before they went to synagogue for the Friday night services. Most of us here don’t really go to synagogue anymore. So we’ve taken all the things that people like and made our own Kiddush.

“Our attendance increased quickly, with everyone squeezing into my dorm room. We were excited about having it in my dorm room because there’s an important Jewish value about inviting people into your home. If you’re about to have dinner, you always have to open the door first and check outside on the street if there’s anyone out there who might be hungry. You have to invite them in. So we didn’t want to hold it in a meeting room or a classroom. It needed to be in a nice welcoming warm space.

“Whenever we serve kugel, everybody shows up — I’ll have 40 people come to my dorm room. Kugel is a traditional dish. Imagine a bunch of noodles squished together with bits of apples and raisins and brown sugar and a little bit of egg, and usually with some sort of crumbs on top. It’s so good.

“The food is one of the strongest identity elements in Judaism, especially for people like us, when most of it has become cultural rather than religious. On Yom Kippur, everyone fasts for the whole day. From sundown to sundown, no eating, no drinking, nothing at all. We just focus on praying.

“After last year’s holiday, one of the girls in the youth group I lead said, 'My mom wants all of you to come over to our house afterward to have matzo ball soup.’ These people knew that matzo ball soup was exactly what a bunch of Jewish college students need when they’ve been away from home for three months. That’s what we miss about home. Obviously no one makes matzo balls as good as my mom does, but these were very good.

“Seder is another tradition that involves four hours of 15 different rituals. Some of them are smaller, like taking the leafy greens and dipping them in salt water and eating them to commemorate the tears of the Jews who were slaves in Egypt. And there are longer parts like the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt.

“The thing to realize about all Jewish events is that they will have food. You have to have food there, or else people are going to be disappointed, because they assume there’s going to be food. It’s how we connect as a culture. Everybody enjoys eating the food, and while we eat the food, we schmooze, which is Hebrew or Yiddish for talking to each other. But not just talking, we’re catching up and talking about anything and meeting people and making connections.”


Soul Food

judaism: gathering around food

Noah Zaves ’09 is co-president of Willamette’s Jewish Student Union. He and several other Jewish students revived the group four years ago to host campus gatherings that fit their non-traditional style of Judaism — more cultural and less religious. Despite their less conventional style, the students do stick with a longstanding Jewish tradition: food.

“If you’re about to have dinner, you always have to open the door first and check outside on the street if there’s anyone out there who might be hungry. You have to invite them in.”

“The Marion-Polk Food Share recently launched the Women Ending Hunger campaign to tap into the long association between women and food, but also between women and social change. I am primarily involved with the campaign as a community member and a mom. I’m a part of their harvest team. When someone has a bunch of extra apples on a tree in their backyard and they want to donate them, we have teams to go pick the fruit. My daughter and I have done that. It was important to me to have my daughter know about the importance of this issue and also be involved in fighting it.

“Medieval women were often involved in charitable food distribution. My class is based on research by Caroline Walker Bynum, who wrote a book called Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Women were associated with food preparation, and food was oftentimes the only resource they controlled.

“The first women’s movement in the West emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was called the Beguine movement. Women gathered together in houses and lived a life of fasting, prayer and chastity.

They began to funnel resources toward the urban poor. If you look at Cologne around 1390, you’ll see 30 percent of the town’s unmarried women belonging to the Beguine movement. A lot of the women would make a vow of belonging to the movement even while married, and they would manifest their vow by beginning this redistribution of food to the poor.

“One practice around food and medieval women that appeared frequently in the later Middle Ages was intense fasting — choosing not to eat. There are descriptions of women saints who went for months existing simply on a crust of bread and a sip of water, or who literally ate nothing at all and yet were miraculously kept alive. Part of the impetus for fasting was to imitate Christ and a life of simplicity and poverty.

“But there was also this issue of control. Medieval women were often able to do things like avoid marriage by fasting. They would point to the miraculous sustaining of their body without food as evidence of their sacred status, and as a result, they could be put into a monastery as opposed to a marriage. And that, for a lot of medieval women, sounded like a good choice, if you consider the lack of power women had in marriage and the high rate of death during childbirth.

“They also carved out places of power and influence in the public sphere. In the late Medieval period, the idea of being directly connected to God via visions was upheld as the ideal. Somebody who had direct access to God — a mystic or a saint — had great power. Women’s fasting was a sign of their spiritual devotion, which garnered them respect and allowed them to do things like advise kings and popes.

“Changes in the church liturgy at the time also emphasized the importance of Christ’s connection to food. With an emphasis on the celebration of the Eucharist, the body of Christ was increasingly seen as food. One iconographic image shows Jesus with a shaft of grapes coming out of one side of his body and a shaft of wheat coming out of the other. It supported the idea that Christ is present in the grain, and in the grapes, which infused those items with a sense of sacredness. A loaf of bread had a sacred quality to it because of its association with the body of Christ.”


Soul Food

medieval women: food as power

Students in Wendy Petersen Boring’s “Women and Gender in Medieval Europe” course not only learn about the centrality of food in medieval ritual and culture, but also about the way gender shaped the consumption and distribution of food. Feeding the poor was central to a Medieval women’s movement, and today’s women, including Petersen Boring, continue fighting hunger through modern campaigns.

“Medieval women were often able to do things like avoid marriage by fasting.”

“For Native American people, it’s always a part of our culture to have a feast connected with a special event. It’s a calling for people to come together to eat and talk with one another, and share with one another. In the old days, we came together to celebrate a harvest. For our people, we gathered around rabbit hunting. Whenever we did a rabbit drive, people would come together to feed the hunters and their families, to provide them with nourishment. Recently we had a Veterans’ Day dinner to celebrate our veterans and recognize the people who aren’t with us today.

“For the opening of The Art of Ceremony, we wanted the dinner to represent Indian culture and Indian contributions to the Americas. We had food from our different tribes, and in the Northwest, that’s pretty much salmon and other seafood from the coast, root vegetables, as well as some native grains. We had fry bread, and stew with elk and deer meat.

“I brought some plums from my yard. Every Fall our people in the southern part of the state and northern part of California gather a wild plum that grows way up in the hills. People appreciate these plums because it’s so hard to climb up into the hills to gather them. They’re kind of a delicacy. I transplanted three tiny bushes in my yard years ago, but it takes a long time for them to produce.

“Our people still go out and gather roots, and we’re really strong about making sure our children know what they’re gathering in the spring. We gather bitterroot and lomatium cous, which we call biscuit root. Those are the main staples for our people.

“ A lot of hunting continues. Many families hunt deer and elk, and a lot of our people fish for brook trout or steelhead. In my family, my daughter and my grandson are my hunters — they provide me with deer meat, and I love to make jerky. When I was a child, my mother made muslin bags full of dried jerky, and she knew how many bags to make to last us through winter. Most of our food is prepared by women. When the hunter brings in the meat, usually women cut it up or process it.

“For Indian people, food represents a spiritual connection to the Earth. We feel that the Earth is the provider of food for us, for our bodies, our minds and our spirits. We take in the food to give us balance. We respect the plants that we gather and make sure that we take care of them because they provide for us.

“The water is very precious to Indian people. It’s precious because that’s what keeps us alive. We have to take care of it. It’s a blessing to have good clean water. We consider it sacred, along with the plants that we gather from the ground. We have to only gather clean food to put into our bodies. We were always taught to never put things into our bodies that would hurt us or cause us illness. We have to take care of the resources in order for the resources to take care of us.”A lot of hunting continues. Many families hunt deer and elk, and a lot of our people fish for brook trout or steelhead. In my family, my daughter and my grandson are my hunters — they provide me with deer meat, and I love to make jerky. When I was a child, my mother made muslin bags full of dried jerky, and she knew how many bags to make to last us through winter. Most of our food is prepared by women. When the hunter brings in the meat, usually women cut it up or process it.

“For Indian people, food represents a spiritual connection to the Earth. We feel that the Earth is the provider of food for us, for our bodies, our minds and our spirits. We take in the food to give us balance. We respect the plants that we gather and make sure that we take care of them because they provide for us.


Soul Food

native tradition: the earth is sacred

Minerva Soucie of Burns, Ore., is a Paiute elder and a member of Willamette’s Native American Advisory Council. The Burns Paiute Tribe is one of the nine federally recognized state tribes showcasing regalia in the Hallie Ford Museum of Art exhibition, The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon. Soucie, a talented basket weaver, contributed many of the items in her tribe’s section of the exhibition. She also helped plan one of the integral parts of the event’s opening ceremony: a feast of foods important to Oregon tribes.

“For Indian people, food represents a spiritual connection to the Earth. We feel that the Earth is the provider of food for us, for our bodies, our minds and our spirits. We take in the food to give us balance.”