05 November 2010

Life was Sacred

This is from my archives, originally published in May 2006.  I was taking a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, which is why this starts with a quote from Deuteronomy, but even if you're not a Jew or a Christian the thoughts this reading triggered about food and what we do with it are still relevant.  When I wrote this four years ago there was a burgeoning awareness about food and the importance of knowing where your food comes from but it was not as widespread as it is today.  Even now though, there are plenty of people who think that what we eat and how we eat don't matter.  What we eat and how we eat and who we eat with all matter.  There is more to food than calories, more to nourishment than the recipe you choose.

Nevertheless, you may slaughter your animals in any of your towns and eat as much of the meat as you want, as if it were gazelle or deer, according to the blessing the LORD your God gives you. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat it. But you must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns—and you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to. Deuteronomy 12: 15-18

And thus was the act of worship divorced from the act of slaughter and meal preparation. Originally, the slaughter of a domesticated animal was a sacred act, a recognition that all life was sacred. As part of the reforms in Deuteronomy worship was centralized at the temple in Jerusalem. In order to make it possible for people in the outlying areas to have meat for their meals, the rules were changed. Now only the animals that were part of the tithe needed to be slaughtered in the sacred way. The day to day relationship that people had with their meals changed.

For most of the ancient Israelites, the fact of slaughtering an animal for meat probably wasn't all that different before and after the reforms. Everyone would have been aware that the lamb roast in front of them had been fuzzy and bleating just a few hours before. Even for the wealthy, the connection to food was tight. But by removing the act of worship from meal preparation, the connection began to loosen. Slaughter became a more casual act.

Most modern Americans have no grasp on how their food gets to their table. Meat comes packaged in styrofoam trays. Muscle is yummy, and good grilling. Stomach and pancreas are gross and no one should ever eat them. Leather can be skin so long as we don't actually discuss it. Americans eat more meat per capita than anyone else. But we don't want to think about it. We don't want to think about what's left over when you remove the meat from a carcass, and we don't want to think about what happens to those leftovers.

We don't really want to think about our vegetables, either. No one wonders where their broccoli comes from, or how their potatoes got to their supermarket from Idaho. No one ponders the life of their asparagus. Sure, it's just a vegetable, but it was once alive. That's how it is able to nourish us. We cannot thrive on inorganic material. We are life, and life needs life.

There's another issue at stake as well, that of preparing the meal. No matter how the food gets to your kitchen, it's not a meal until it's been prepared and served. If it hasn't been prepared and served, then it's still just food. A meal, prepared by you or for you is a nourishing thing. A meal is alive in a way that food is not. I like feeding people, and generally they're quite appreciative. Most of the people I feed are single, and food tends to be whatever they reheated, eaten in front of the television. It's not a meal. It can be yummy, and even healthful, but it's not a meal.

They don't need to be exciting, these meals we feed each other. Soup and salad is fine. Macaroni and cheese is fine. Chicken parts and green beans are fine. It is the act of preparing and serving that make them special. Sure, if you're me, you worry that the breadcrumb crust on the mac and cheese isn't brown enough, but the people you're serving don't care. I never care about stuff like that when someone has served me a meal. A little burnt around the edges, a little late because it took longer to cook than you thought, a little simple because you don't know how to do anything else? It all counts. It's the action that matters. Preparation and serving are still sacred acts. Without them, a meal is just food.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny ... our CSA ends next week, and I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'll be happy to be done with the cabbage and turnips and other things I never selected for myself in the grocery store. On the other hand, I'll be sorry that I won't be washing vegetables thinking about those fields we've visited any more.

    A friend of ours is a farmer of sorts, and kills his own chickens for meat, occasionally. He always talks to them and gives thanks before doing so ... as a gesture of respect, and acknowledgment of his connection to them.

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