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.
I could go on and on about the interesting manifestations of food culture of the Northwest and how they intersect with Albanese’s notion of nature religion and how they complicate this notion. But food here is also about participating and creating a regional identity in an area that, from a Euro-American point of view, has a short, diffuse, and pluralistic history. We have found a place of commonality in food. This, of course, is deeply implicated in economic strategies of the region’s culture-makers, something that I’ve written about in a previous column on nature religion in the West. Agriculture and tourism are the major economic engines of the region, so it makes sense for industries and individuals to promote food as a draw. But they are also, perhaps unintentionally, feeding the need to find a regional identity, at least in public discourse and dialogue. This is what makes the Northwest food culture so powerful. It fills a real need. It provides a place of commonality, practice, and discussion for individuals to share powerful, biological and emotional experiences with each other. I wonder if this applies to the country as a whole, in the end. Has food become part of the consumerism that is a foundation for American cultural religion? We don’t agree on politics or religion and come from very different ethnic backgrounds, but we can all understand food and communicate about our common experiences around food. Do we find—or at least seek—some kind of universal, ultimate meaning in the ritual and experience of consuming food? Have our American millennial and exceptionalist assumptions been condensed and universalized into this moment of experiencing abundance? Is this one of the reasons, perhaps, that we are always searching for more and better foods or things to consume? The experience is fleeting and never perfect, it rarely fulfills our expectations. If so, what does this mean for us as individuals living in this culture? Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Probably a bit of both. I love the connections that people make as they eat and talk about eating and enjoy those experiences. Yet I worry that food as ideal and reality has taken on more weight than it can bear and that the physical and psychological consequences for us as Americans are great.