Unclean! Unclean! The Spiritual Side of ‘Extreme Domesticity’


Highly Respectable Vegetables - photo by Skycladd


When I told a friend about the passionate reaction to my post questioning the hipster homemakers who pointedly bake their own bread and grow their own food, as profiled by Emily Matchar in the Washington Post, he responded, “Of course. You’ve attacked their religion.”

Maybe he’s right. I wonder if the whole thing isn’t a spiritual question after all.

The average homemaking mother (and statistically less frequent but still important father) has a chorus of critics in her head born of a mishmash of advertising, magazine articles, and seemingly perfect crunchy moms at the park. Buy the store brand of bread? “Unclean! Unclean!” they cry. Dare to feed your kids at McDonalds? “Unclean! Unclean!” Choose to buy inorganic milk or apples or peanut butter, let the kiddos drink out of the tap, let them munch on Oreos after school… and the chorus shouts out.


In a world that has rejected old fashioned notions of integrity, that scoffs at the very concept of sexual chastity, and enthrones pleasure at the top of the moral echelon, the only place you hear the word “purity” taken seriously is in ads for bottled water. We want our chickens to have lived better lives than we have and our vegetables to be of upstanding moral character.

We detox, we shop local, we do yoga, we eschew processed foods, and we cleanse our colons, or at least we feel guilty when we don’t. We live as if the only arena in which purity is possible or desirable is in fine tuning our body. If only we piece together the right combination of foods and activities, purity will follow.

A wise man once said…Okay, okay…it was Jesus, but I’m writing this post for everyone, so I hope those of other faiths will consider the argument without debating the source…Anyway, this wise man confronted a group of religious people who went around telling everyone they were unclean for what they ate or who they ate with. He said, “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him unclean, but what comes out of it.”

I think He’s right.

What we say and what we do is so much more important than what we eat. Food is important, but it is not a path to purity.

A misplaced quest for purity is one spiritual issue at the heart of our relationship with food, but there is also another: Control.

Westerners are used to having our own way, over our jobs, our finances, our free time, our fertility, our health, and our lives. In our bodies, we sometimes strive to control things on a molecular level. Deep inside, we hope if we just find the right combination of foods and exercise, we can stave off the inevitable.

This is the big daddy of spiritual conundrums. No matter how much we consume whole grains and organic kale, control is ultimately out of our grasp. Our carefully aligned macrobiotics will avail nothing when we get hit by bus. Should we avoid the bus, we will eventually die of something else.

Wrestling with our lack of real control over our mortality and that of people we love is the core of having to make peace with God.

Before you conclude that I’m saying Jesus wants us to feed our kids Kentucky Fried every night (although I’m pretty sure He has given His blessing to the mashed potatoes which must have some divine or devilish ingredient), let me say that’s not the case.

We know what healthy is. A different chorus is vying for our attention, one made of food scientists and nutritionists and TV food gurus.

“Please,” they shout from the mountain tops, “bacon is not a food group.”

“Not to judge,” they call, waving their food pyramids, “but cheesecake isn’t really a breakfast food.”

“For the love of God,” they plead, “Just eat an apple. One apple. And would it kill you to take a walk?”

More whole grains. Less fried food. More vegetables. Less soda. It doesn’t have to be complicated and it doesn’t have to be organic, local, sugar-free, quinoa, buckwheat, agave or raw.

There’s an old fashioned word which describes America’s primary problem with food and it’s not “industrial” or “agribusiness.”


We have too much and we mindlessly eat too much. It is also a spiritual problem.

To be clear: I am not addressing religious or cultural traditions which include dietary prohibitions. That’s an entirely different matter of conscience related to obedience. I am aware of food allergies and difficult syndromes, especially diabetes, which require diligence. I also respect those who truly enjoy and find satisfaction in growing their own food, canning their own jam, or making their own bread. Enjoyment, or as one commenter labeled it, artistry, is a good in itself.

On the other hand, those that smugly impose strict rules beyond common sense, calling our safe and efficient food supply unclean, reflect an opposite but companion spiritual problem to gluttony, a persnicketiness, an unnecessary fastidiousness, something we religious folk often call legalism.

In either extreme, the focus is on the self, inwardly focused instead of outwardly on God or fellow mankind. And that is always the root core of spiritual issues.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a movie critic. Check out her work on Rotten Tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • Christa

    Nail on the head. I like making my own pizza dough, mainly because its cheap, but also because its creative. I wish I had the talent and time to grow my own vegetables, because they taste pretty darn good. What I have a problem with is the judgment I feel from some people (it really is just some people) who are on the bandwagon–that if I really loved my kids I’d make sure their apples were organic or similar nonsense. Many other people who take domestic chores seriously are just as devoted to their herb gardens as I am to watching Grey’s Anatomy from beginning to end on Netflix and there is no judgment from them, just good basil. Those are the people I like.

    On a related note, I cannot find the link to it, but some years ago there was a post on The Corner that discussed the impacts of organic farming. The writer made the point that nitrogen-based fertlizer has staved off world-wide starvation and increased our crop yield per acre beyond any expectation (and is the main reason that all of the overpopulation doomsayers have proven to be wrong). If we follow the goose/gander principle and conclude that if organic is good enough for Americans and Europeans, what happens when the WHO decides that food aid to the rest of the developing world has to be orgainc too? What happens is that we can’t grow enough food because the crop yield per acre drops? Food prices go up due to shortened supply and all you’ve done is harm the people you are trying to help. Just some food for thought (sorry, couldn’t resist).

  • Rebecca Cusey

    I love your comment. I almost included that point about raising prices on Kenyan widows and Bangladeshi families, but didn’t have room in this post. Great addition!

  • Rebecca Cusey

    From a friend via Facebook:

    This is what our last conversation left me thinking: People who are outwardly “devout” about anything, and also judge-y towards others (often as result of *them* being pure enough to maintain their “devoutness” in the face of someone else’s collapse) is really annoying.
    I’ve been thinking about this in personal terms. In order to find a job that will reasonably support 4 kids in the long term, I decided to take of my head scarf and “fit in”. The people who didn’t want me to wear it in the first place were so relived I finally came to my senses, and the people who thought all “good Muslims” wear them were really upset that I have turned towards a life of sin. (er, Sin, with a capital S, in fact)
    For me, I started wearing it because I felt like it was an outward reminder to myself to *not* get to caught up in the trappings of this world, it was a spiritual practice that helped me to stay focused on things I think are ultimately important, like charity and kindness. (Yes, of course it is possible to be charitable and kind and not wear a headscarf, but for me, it helped move my daily life more in that direction. I liked it.)

    Anyway. Life is a long road that brings many things to bear, you know. And who am I to look at someone else’s food and judge them. Everyone likes to think they are making “good decisions”, and if a family ends up eating at Mcdonalds 6 nights a week, odds are high that the adult paying for it has some how explained this to themselves as a “good decision”.

    So, the judge-y aspect of this “back to domesticity” thing bugs me. I think that many of the people in North America who seek out this kind of lifestyle have never spent any serious time with people who actually live in an agrarian economy, where sick kids and/or bad weather can result in death.

    HOWEVER, Becky, (yes, you) I think what we eat and how we eat, how we feed our families, the types of nurture and sustenance we supply for them *are* spiritual issues.
    The forces amassed behind headlines like “agribusiness” are massive and global. it is not just one (or hey, 200) wealthy families tipping the balance of the harvest in their favor, it is genetically modified seeds that could wipe out sustainable agriculture forever, (since genetically modified seeds don’t re-plant themselves, they must be re-purchased every season. Who has the money for that?) it is the mass slaughter houses and world wide destruction that fast food brings with it.
    It is the overall marketing campaign that preaches to us that the “easy way” the “modern way” the “best way” the”western way” means eating heavily processed and unsustainable food products. Products which will slowly kill us, as could be argued out of the rise of diabetes 2. Anything other than these “modern” choices are “difficult” “demanding” or “not worth it”.

    I think that caring for ourselves and others in a responsible and sustainable way *is* a spiritual practice. And that’s OK, and it should be alright to follow that path, if you are able. I think that to make an effort to do so consistently over time means making a serious lifestyle choice that often flies in the face of everything you have been taught about “success”. But, our “success” will kill us all, so who will stop us, if not us?
    It is one thing to say “Well, Jonny can’t come over to your house to play, because we only eat home-made kale chips, and he might be exposed to potato chips over at your place”. Fair enough, that sounds judge-y and rude. But to make your own kale chips, and offer them to people around you in a gracious way, I think that is an effort that should be celebrated. It is one person making the effort to make the world a little bit healthier, maybe a little bit tastier, and a little bit more inviting, maybe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to have some control over what you eat, where it comes from, supporting local small farmers in the process. That is admirable. The issue only comes up (for me) when people become so “devout” about what they eat that they can’t see other people around them might be struggling with the same issues but maybe not have the same resources.
    Personally, I think we are all on some kind of a spiritual journey, and different people are at different places. Who am I to run around and judge you for where you are (or aren’t) on this path? The only thing I can do is things that are within my control, and what I eat, what I buy, how I prepare it, these are things that I am lucky enough to have to knowledge and resources to control, so why wouldn’t I?

  • JLD

    Hello Rebecca,

    I agree with much of what you said and I know I have been guilty of freaking out way too much about our food. I became to religious about what I thought I should be eating or what my kids should be eating. I’ve also come to believe that any health benefits derived from the high quality food I obtain and prepare are lost when I am so stressed out about all the work it takes to bring it to the table. I am a much happier person and probably healthier feeling gratitude for all the food I have even if it is not my ideal.

    That said, I cannot ignore what I have learned about nutrition and our food supply and choices over the years. I have learned that what I eat makes a difference. And because of that I am more at peace with the time and energy I put into shopping and cooking. It has become more of a joy and a way to take care of myself and my family. Believe me if I could feel great by eating take out pizza regularly then I would do it. But I know from experience that doesn’t work well for me. If it does for you then more power to you! I read an interview of Jay Leno once and he said that he never eats vegetables and he mostly eats pizza. Wow! He seems to function great and appears to have lots of energy. Good for him!

    Finally I wanted to share a short video I thought was interesting and related to both of your blog posts and the discussions that followed them. It is about how processed food is engineered to be addictive. I believe that this phenomena is an important contributor to the increase in overweight and obese. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7389748n&tag=contentBody%3BstoryMediaBox

    Hopefully that link worked. It’s a 60 minutes piece called Tweaking Tastes and creating cravings.

    Thanks for sharing your opinions on these topics!

  • http://holy-food.org/ Spiritual Food

    Whether the person is good or bad but everyone has the spiritual side.

  • http://www.brknpoet.com Laura

    Very thought provoking. I think you have to add idolatry to this list along with gluttony and the rest. We seem to live in a world that is all about self, me, my body. When you wrote about control I thought that we don’t worship foreign gods or statues, we worship ourselves and give in to every physical excess. Thought provoking indeed. Thank you

  • Jackie F.

    Rebecca C….. You are just a breath of fresh air. When I read your ‘Extreme Domesticity’ post, I knew precisely who you were talking about…. THOSE… THEM… The ones who are better than the rest of us. I enjoy your perspective. Keep up the good work!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thank you, Jackie! Very encouraging.