Food as America’s newest religion
Meanwhile the eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them. When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated. Jesus came up and spoke to them. He said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’
Christians among readers of Grist will recognize the preceding passage as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus’s call to spread his message to the world. Religion, of course, takes many forms, but its most interesting form to date is food. Many folks, it seems, have embraced food, or food activism, as a new religion.
I don’t toss this out lightly: I’m religious myself—I’m involved in a ministerial training program at the Buddhist temple of which I am a member—and having converted from one faith to another, I think I’m fairly adept at recognizing others who share my affliction. Zealotry, passion, conviction, and a touch of self-righteousness in many cases, are all markers of religious faith.
None of this is surprising, really. How many among us are chasing after miracle foods, downing gallons of pomegranate juice, or wolfing down goji or açaí berries, convinced they’ll somehow give us health and happiness and, perhaps, make us sexier to boot? I remember a smirking Twitter posting I saw months ago: “I’m having goji berries and green tea.” Had the poster been in reach, I might have given him a wedgie…just because.
Others throw themselves into food fads or specialized diets: locavores, vegans, low carbs, wheat free, dairy free, raw milk—the list is very long. There are, often enough, sound bases for many of these decisions: actual allergies, for example, or other health concerns. I am a firm believer that buying local is better, and buying organic when feasible is a smarter choice.
With the release of the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., I was astounded at the number of people who announced the film had changed their lives in an almost Pauline-road-to-Damascus kind of way. It was, absolutely, a very good movie and like past food-industry exposés—Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is the obvious example—it brought a level of awareness to the public that has and will continue to improve conditions not only for people who eat, but for farm workers, farmers, and slaughterhouse employees, as well as the animals we raise for food.
Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, on which the film is heavily based, have inspired a new religion that might be called born-again carnivorism, as exemplified by a post on Food Inc’s Facebook page from a woman excited by her discovery of a farm that raises organic chickens on actual pasture. And as with all religions, old and new, there are sects that insist on a very different path to salvation. The woman’s post elicited some strident replies from vegans, some as self-righteous as anti-abortion activists. Promoting organic meat is “like saying that its [sic] ok to keep slaves as long as they are feed [sic] well!” wrote one respondent. “How about raising your children to be compassionate, not just ‘organic’?”
I am the last person to decry anyone who has made food a pillar of their lives. I cook professionally. As a journalist, I cover food safety and sustainability. As a food writer, I write about cooking. Clearly, food is something about which I am passionate. There is little doubt, as well, that our food system is desperately in need of an overhaul and that, in too many cases, profit has been put well before the needs of the public. I am heartened by the numbers of people who are willing to work for, and to make, those changes.
But we must remember that many of the changes we are working for, many of our goals as activists and consumers, are vulnerable to new developments in technology or, simply, changes in societal tastes and priorities. Just as many of the advances made in agriculture over the past half century have ultimately been found to come with costs that outweigh their perceived value, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that some of our own goals may prove to have been not quite what we had hoped. To draw on a core teaching of my own faith, change is inevitable and that includes changes in what we know and believe. There are no ten commandments for food.
Food is so many things: it is vital to life, it is a source of nourishment and of pleasure as well as an outlet for creativity. It fosters cultural identity and comforts those far from home. But no matter how ethical it may be, or how many antioxidants it contains, it will not save us. When we season our food with dogma and self-righteousness, we give it an unhealthy power over our ability to rationally consider its already vital place in our lives. If what you eat has become your religion, take care to serve up your message peacefully and palatably.
Because it’s just food.