Where prayers and food preparation meet

Before we get going with what I’m sure will be a heavy duty week in GetReligion post (and yes, I have a couple of posts I’m writing right now on coverage of religious freedom issues) I had to share something from NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday.

An editor sent it along with the note that it was “beyond parody.” And I had to laugh because when I’d come across the piece, I was simply pleased with the inclusion of the last question. This may indicate some kind of Stockholm Syndrome on my part.

In any case, the piece in question is a lovely interview about grilling. Host Scott Simon asks the great Alton Brown a few questions. Here’s how it begins:

May 26, 2012 – SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This Memorial Day weekend, many Americans will fire up a grill to cook dogs or burgers, tuna, zucchini or tofu. That’s our focus as we begin the occasional WEEKEND EDITION series all about seasonal food and drink called Taste of Summer. Alton Brown joins us now, the food historian and scientist. He’s best known for his award-winning Food Network show “Good Eats” and for hosting “Iron Chef America.” He’s currently one of the celebrity chef mentors on the reality competition “Food Network Star.”

Alton Brown joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALTON BROWN: I’m glad to be here, especially when we’re talking about my favorite cooking subject of all time.

SIMON: Grilling.

BROWN: Absolutely. I grill, therefore I am.

We then get questions and answers about the difference between grilling and barbecuing, what happens when food hits the flame, the three kinds of heat transfer, how to avoid burning food items, the importance of a clean grill, why meat should be dry when it hits the grill, things to remember about grilling vegetables and fish, whether gas or charcoal grills are better, and the best fruit to grill.

And then:

SIMON: Let me ask you a question that doesn’t have anything to do with grilling but has a lot to do with you, while we have the chance.

BROWN: OK.

SIMON: You say grace before a meal?

BROWN: I do. Yeah. I say grace. I’m a big believer in grace. I happen to believe in a God that made all the food and so I’m pretty grateful for that and I thank him for that. But I’m also thankful for the people that put the food on the table.

The people that grew the food, the people that got the food to me. I think that being grateful, being thankful, makes food tastes better, actually, and it’s something that we should take time to do. I do.

SIMON: Might be a good thing to remember on a weekend like this, wouldn’t it?

BROWN: Might be.

The editor who submitted this piece pointed out that the question just comes completely out of the blue. I also got a kick out of how the host says the question doesn’t have anything at all whatsoever to do with grilling. (How does he know?) And then he says it does have a lot to do with Alton Brown.

Now, I really like Alton Brown and love his various food television shows — from the instructional “Good Eats” to the shows where he travels (and wipes out on) his motorcycle. So I enjoyed every part of this interview, from how to grill stone fruit to the importance of saying grace.

But after the piece was sent along, it did kind of remind me how weird it can be to be a Christian — or religious adherent who thanks a deity in prayer — in this media environment. I mean, when I think of my family members, the people I go to church with and almost every other Christian I know at the level of having eaten with them, we all say prayers before our meals. It’s something that happens before every single meal. It’s completely typical to the point that if I went over to a Christian friend’s house and we didn’t pray before eating, it would be seriously weird.

And yet the subtext in some media environments, I can’t help but notice, is that praying before a meal is the abnormal or atypical thing worth asking a question about. It’s just kind of interesting, isn’t it?

Image of flames touching juicy burgers via Shutterstock.

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  • John Penta

    To be totally fair to NPR (just this once), Mollie, I think it may have something to do with heritage, denomination, and just plain family habit. My family almost never says the blessing before meals (except maybe on Thanksgiving), and never has, even my relatively devout Catholic grandparents (on both sides). It’s just never a habit anybody got us into, though it may have something to do with both sides featuring fairly large numbers of kids (and by this point, rather religiously split too), so getting everybody together for meals is a bit of a nuthouse on a good day.:) It *seems* to me that the practice is (and may have always been) generally more common among Protestants than Catholics, for example, too. (I know there are a few versions of a blessing before meals for Catholics…But in all my years, never heard em used.)

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Go to a restaurant, Mollie, and see how many people pray before their meals. I would venture the guess that it’s not many. Hence, it is not just the media environment, but the general environment.

    And John Penta, I’m surprised at your lack of experience with prayers before meals among Catholics, especially among your devoutly Catholic grandparents. In the Catholic circles I run in, it’s ordinary for us to start meals with the Sign of the Cross and “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” And even in some places (though this is very rare), to end the meal with the Sign of the Cross and “We give Thee thanks for all Thy benefits, O Almighty God, who livest and reignest world without end. Amen. And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

  • Suzanne

    I know that our family always says grace before meals at home, but rarely if ever when we’re out at a restaurant. Don’t know why, it’s just how things shake out. Both sides of my family, Catholic and Protestant, always did it that way.

    From a journalistic standpoint, I like how Scott Simon handled this. He took the time to find out that Brown was a man of faith and put it into the interview in a reasonably graceful way, tying it back to the fact that it was Memorial Day.

  • Matt

    But after the piece was sent along, it did kind of remind me how weird it can be to be a Christian — or religious adherent who thanks a deity in prayer — in this media environment. I mean, when I think of my family members, the people I go to church with and almost every other Christian I know at the level of having eaten with them, we all say prayers before our meals. It’s something that happens before every single meal. It’s completely typical to the point that if I went over to a Christian friend’s house and we didn’t pray before eating, it would be seriously weird.

    And yet the subtext in some media environments, I can’t help but notice, is that praying before a meal is the abnormal or atypical thing worth asking a question about. It’s just kind of interesting, isn’t it?

    You assume that your experience, or the experience of your social circles, is normative. Is it? Think about the amount of fast food people in this country eat. We live in a culture — not just a media culture, but a broader culture — in which people put food into their bodies as fast as they can.

    I understand that this site exists to point out the media’s failings, but it’s a mistake to minimize the degree to which American culture more broadly, including American religious culture, doesn’t “get religion.” Using the media as a boogeyman is the right-wing equivalent of blaming society’s woes on the 1%.

  • Xander

    Go to a restaurant, Mollie, and see how many people pray before their meals.

    But can you tell whether people are praying? Protestants aren’t likely to be making the sign of the cross, so there’s not that clue that grace is being said. When I was growing up, my family which never ate without saying a blessing. But in a restaurant, that took the form of what my parents termed “a Quaker blessing” — silence while everyone prayed on their own. It could easily pass notice from others in the restaurant. Yes, there is broad indifference in American culture to the idea of giving thanks to the Creator for food, but I think there is also a lot of failure to notice when it is happening.

    If I recall correctly from some his comments, Scott Simon is Quaker.

  • Jerry

    Susanne’s point is important. The reason the question about prayer was asked was that Alton Brown’s religion is part of the public record. http://eater.com/archives/2010/09/28/alton-brown-on-next-iron-chef-faith-vessel.php for example and more can be found with a search on “alton brown” christian.

    Matt’s point about normative behavior is also important to include here. Whether or not Christians say grace before a meal is a valid question given the state of religious practice in America today.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Seems kind of hard for ‘the media’ to win on this one. If they don’t ask about grace (or at least, religion in the context of food), would they catch heat for ‘ignoring a ghost’?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Well, for those who don’t think grilling has a religious side, consider St. Larence of Rome.
    :-)

  • Ben

    44% of Americans almost always say grace before a meal, 46% almost never do.

    http://blog.chron.com/believeitornot/2010/11/thanksgiving-blessings-half-of-americans-say-grace-half-skip-it/

  • sari

    Matt’s point about normative behavior is also important to include here. Whether or not Christians say grace before a meal is a valid question given the state of religious practice in America today.

    Whether anyone says grace before eating is a valid question. Another would be to examine the meaning of says. We are taught to verbalize the blessing when other Jews are present, so that they have the opportunity to say Amen, and to be less obvious (subvocalize) when in mixed company. Either way, obvious or not, the blessing is said.

  • John Penta

    sari: There lies a point I didn’t know. I love it when comboxes are educational!:P

  • Maureen

    Anime almost always shows Japanese people saying “Itadakimasu” before the meal and “Gochisosama” afterwards, but the translations used for it today are not standard at all. Some turn it into a flip thank you to the cook, while others literally have Japanese non-Christians saying grace.

    And this is weird, because previous generations of anime translators already had developed standard ways to translate these words into English.

  • Jofro

    Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, I have seen and I’m one of those who do pray in restaurants, but it is very very subtle :)

    I’ve usually done what is known as the “invisible-fly-swatting-sign of the cross” and I merely bow my head as I mutter the grace underneath my breath and then make a sign on the cross over the food. Mostly, its just a sign of the cross on the food and quick grace under the breath, mostly cos I’m not that religious and I don’t want anyone to look at me and think – oh look a “holier than thou” is in the restaurant eating his blessed meal! Hope he chokes on it, the religious fundie!

  • Stacy

    When me and my family go out to eat, we say grace 100% of the time. We’re the type that couldn’t care less if you liked it or not. You shouldn’t be embarrassed. People making fun of this need a reality check. If you don’t like it, don’t look. America is still a free country. It’s the same thing if I said I was offended by the fact that you don’t pray before a meal. Don’t worry about what others think. That will be left on them. You do what YOU feel is right. You don’t answer to them. Although, I have to say that I was listening to a recent interview of Alton from the Nerdist site and I was crushed. I know he says he reads the Bible. One Commandment is not to take the Lord’s name in vain. But 3 minutes into the interview, that’s exactly what Alton did. I was very disappointed because I look up to him. He’s very intelligent. I love his ‘Good Eats’ show. Christians don’t ever say the G.D. word. EVER!! Why would you damn the one who saved you? There was also a couple of f’s and s words thrown in, too.


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