Prophetic Gastronomy: Activism for a Sustainable Commonwealth

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Global Care: Why We Need More Than One Earth Day in a Year. Read other perspectives here.

With no thought of texture or subtle notes of anything listed on a bill of fare, she reluctantly gave the smoldering cigarette to her free hand, spread her anxious fingers into the soil, and unearthed a potato that quietly became a protest and a prayer. Drawn from the margins of Southern Appalachian hillsides and gathered together with other forgotten neighbors on this raised-bed of a parking island where merchants once sold coal, she comes to garden. Her curiosity lingers amidst the laughter that is charged with the holiness of deep-rooted discovery. For those watching her harvest potatoes for the first time, she is utterly transfigured by delight and hasn't even tasted a thing.

Her prayers and potatoes will mix with other fixings in the soup kitchen nearby, and, for a moment, her noontime eating becomes a wordless protest of the mono-cultures of the hyper-palatable that make her sick and fill her stomach. This moment of prophetic gastronomy, shared with shut-ins of maladies that can't be named, all started with a potato, and it is surely a good enough symbol of God's commonwealth where people are fed abundantly with something other than high-caloric charity. It is now and not yet. And, in this place, the care-taking impulse of Earth Day is enacted with every sacred bite.

On the eve of the 45th celebration of this day, in a year that promises to be a turning point in the movement for ecological justice, much can be said about the detrimental impacts of our eating. Our industrial food systems threaten the health of our watersheds, the biodiversity of agricultural ecologies, and the life of our soil. As a whole, it is estimated that 25 percent of CO2 emissions are produced by agricultural sources. In other words, our eating plays a critical role in the unraveling of Eden. All the same, if we are truly formed from the soil, as Genesis 2:7 suggests, then our eating can also help to put the world back together and repair each other in the process.

In the Christian tradition, taste invokes images of wedding feasts and wine, revelations of bitterness and honey, and beatitudes of saltiness that can't be restored. Taste happens every day for those who are fortunate enough to eat, and it is more integrated into the cadence of life than solar panels or carbon credits. For this reason, I am borrowing the wisdom of gastronomy from the lexicon of the foodie and lending it to the activism of the good enough prophets who labor in our unseen fields and pour their hearts into haphazard meals for God's hungry children. Why? Gastronomy is broadly concerned with the art of eating and suggests a necessary obsession with taste. I believe that taste might help us declare our responsibility to celebrate Earth Day throughout the year and in-form an activism of eating that is both sustainable and attainable enough for those of us who cannot afford to march in New York City for climate movements or buy local foods at our farmer's markets.

In the age of industrial agriculture, with the shuttering of family farms, and the reign of genetically modified organisms, taste and the collective health of our communities have gone into hiding. Human nutrition, the vitality of watersheds, and resilient plants and animals all depend on a proper balance of nutrients in soils. As a result of practices in our fields that compact the structure and inundate the ground with toxic chemicals that harm healthy soil biology, there is a scarcity of delight at our tables. The rich sensation of sweetness in carrots, the bitterness of coffee, the sourness of lemons, and the umami taste of cheese are frequently absent from our foods because they rely on a balance of nutrients in healthy soils that are as endangered as the giant panda or the whooping crane.

Prophetic gastronomy, a model of good enough activism for a sustainable commonwealth, critiques this scarcity because delighting in food is sacred and nearly impossible without taste. As a Christian trying to make sense of a sacred vocation to care for the earth, if I dare to approach any food with the expectation of delight then I must also temper this gift of taste with the responsibility for critique of where our food comes from, who grows it, and what it does to the land.

Ultimately, eating good food is stranger than we like to think and prophetic actions are more common than we care to imagine. Prophetic gastronomy, like good food, does not simply appear from rarified air. It is nurtured by healthy soil and mundane acts of courage that are nearer to us than the ground beneath our feet. It begins in the kitchen of the efficiency apartment, the urban orchard in the interstate margin, and the porch side container-garden jammed with plastic bottles and racing tires. It happens in the community garden with forgotten neighbors who choose to grow their food without chemical inputs while giving the harvest away because someone else is always hungrier. It resides in our souls, in every moment of eating when transfiguration is possible, because of delight ... which brings us back to potatoes, protests, and prayers.