I am excited to read the new collection of essays on food and religion in North America (Religion, Food, and Eating in North America), published by Columbia University Press and edited by Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Nora L. Rubel. We don’t know nearly enough about the intersection of food and religious practices and religious identity. And this extends beyond institutionally based religious identity and to the intersection between food and what Catherine Albanese would call cultural religious identity. For instance, where I live in the Pacific Northwest, food is an important part of regional identity, and beliefs, practices, and dialogue around food have religious resonances. This focus on food is part of the diffuse nature religion of the region. The food carts and the wine industry are probably the best-known aspects of this “foodism” outside of the region, but there are plenty of other facets. “Locally grown” and “organic” are buzzwords that appear everywhere and drive a thriving network of farmer’s markets throughout Oregon and Washington, particularly in urban areas. Regional chains of grocery stores use these concepts to promote their products and stake a claim on ethical high ground. This doesn’t even get into the restaurant infrastructure that helps to fuel the regional economy. One local magazine recently announced on its cover: “25 Sandwiches that Will Change Your Life.” And I’m leaving out diet-based subcultures of vegans, paleo-eaters, gluten-free enthusiasts. Each of these aspects of the regional food focus intersects with the others and each could be the subject of an entire book!
The way folks in the Northwest talk about, think about, and eat food is complicated, but many aspects resonate with Albanese’s description of nature religion: nature is seen as an expression of divine will and power and a place where humans can experientially connect with the divine. Food as a facet of nature is potentially an important part of this connection. By the nineteenth century in the U.S., we have wellness movements centered on food and based on this set of assumptions. The Northwest regional focus on locally grown and organic taps into these assumptions about establishing a direct and authentic connection with nature. I’ve noticed a foraging culture in the area—the local paper has even published a year-round foraging calendar for those who want to take advantage of the bounty of the wild! Here, foragers go back to the most pure and unadulterated of nature’s bounty as they eat as if they existed in an Edenic time before the establishment of agriculture.