I think of my good friend Rachel Stone every time I buy a fresh baguette at the Hartford Baking Company or La Petite France. In today's fraught food culture, something as straightforward as an authentic French baguette has become complicated. For anyone who eats Paleo or gluten-free or low-carb, a baguette is off-limits. Some reject the baguette unless it is certified organic. Others perceive the white flour in that baguette as a serious health hazard.* For Rachel, author of the lauded book Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, a fresh, authentically made French baguette smeared with butter is simply delicious. It is a gift from God, to be eaten with gratitude for how it nourishes body, soul, and community.
In Rachel’s vision, our modern American relationship with food is equally distorted by factory farms, ubiquitous and addictive fast food, pro-ana (anorexia) web sites teaching girls how to starve themselves, and diet gurus who preach a Pharisaic vision of food purity, in which no unclean thing (including carbs, sugar, dairy, and pretty much every other category of food, depending on which diet one is following) shall pass through your lips. In Eat with Joy, she spends time parsing each of these distortions, and more (including her own history of an eating disorder in which she was convinced that God would be honored by dietary asceticism), as well as their opposites and remedies—the integrity of pasture-fed beef and farmstand produce, the pleasures of home cooking, the healing nature of meals shared with others. She encourages readers not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, to make incremental changes (cooking one or two meals a week from scratch, purchasing a local CSA farm share, inviting the neighbors for dinner) toward eating in ways that are healthier (in a broad sense) for our bodies, the earth, and our communities.
Throughout Eat with Joy, Rachel points us toward a God who gave us food not only for our bodily nourishment, but also for our pleasure and connection with one another.
Surely God could have designed us with some kind of human photosynthetic process, or created our refueling mechanisms in a way that would afford about as much pleasure as I imagine my laptop derives from being plugged into the electrical outlet. I suspect and prefer to believe that God made eating sustaining, delicious and pleasurable because God is all those things and more.
She also reminds us that, just as Jesus used occasions of eating to break down barriers between people and point them toward God, we are called to make choices about food and eating that honor and connect us to other beings, from the animals whose flesh we eat to farm and meatpacking workers and those with whom we dine—our families, neighbors, and strangers.
For someone who has never thought about where her package of discounted hamburger meat came from, has never been to a farmers’ market, or is accustomed to picking up take-out on the way home from work every night, Rachel’s thorough treatment of the problems with modern food production and consumption, and proposed remedies, might be overwhelming. But beside her repeated call to make incremental changes, Rachel also offers a holistic, grounded, and generous approach to healthy eating. This is not a book with hard and fast rules. Rather, it offers a vision for how truly healthy eating (in physical, emotional, communal, and environmental terms) can come about. How such eating will be manifest in each reader’s habits and home is left for him or her to discover, although Rachel offers some suggestions and questions at the end of each chapter for readers to ponder.
Reading Eat with Joy has changed how I approach and perceive my family's meals and eating habits. Take one weekend last spring when our family ate three very different meals, all of which can be considered "good" or "healthy," according to the vision that Rachel articulates in Eat with Joy.
On Saturday night, Daniel and I went out for a rare splurge at Fleming's Steakhouse to celebrate his birthday. While I ordered such healthy staples as salmon and plenty of vegetables, the meal was still a splurge, financially and dietarily. We ate some things we wouldn’t normally eat (we shared a piece of carrot cake, for example) and had real, sustained conversation with one another.
On Sunday afternoon, we took the kids to a nearby park with a maple sugar shack. They collected a huge pail of sap (Daniel, of course, got to carry it back to the shack), then watched as the sap was boiled and listened as the park ranger explained the process. They each got a tiny cup of pure, warm maple syrup to taste. We bought a pint of syrup to bring home, to enjoy for many future pancake breakfasts (and dinners). Daniel is our chief pancake maker, while Ben helps mix the batter and Leah is an expert pancake flipper. Our kids gobble up homemade pancakes topped with butter and maple syrup (which is just about as local a food as you can get here in central Connecticut). It's one of the few meals that everyone is guaranteed to love. That the kids help—really help—cook the meal elevates it above our ordinary meals.
On Sunday evening, I made soup without a recipe, using produce that I had on hand, including greens, mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Foraging in the cabinet, I added quinoa and chickpeas. We ate the soup with honey wheat bread I made the day before in my bread machine (a concession to my arthritis, which makes it hard to stand in the kitchen for lengthy periods of time).
Each of those encounters with food, though all very different, were healthy, when we define "healthy" not merely in terms of nutritional profile. I am grateful to Rachel who, through her friendship and her book, has helped me to understand that healthy meals are not defined solely by which compounds they do or don’t contain, that eating with joy and gratitude means being conscious of the foods we eat, how and with whom we share them, and the God from whose hands it all (the food and the company) ultimately comes.
I will be leading a two-week book discussion of Eat with Joy after the 9:30 service on February 23rd and March 2nd. Please join us! You can purchase the book for $12 directly from the St. James's office. It is also available in e-book format for Kindle and Nook. If possible, please read the introduction and first two chapters before the first session.
*I'm aware that many people have medical conditions that make gluten-free or other specialized diets a necessity. But many of today's fad diets exclude entire food groups based on questionable science and in response to a culture that equates "healthy" eating with self-denial, the ingestion of particular foods/nutrients, and the absolute avoidance of others.