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Essay

The following is excerpted from Lauren Winner’s new book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, published this spring by HarperOne. Each chapter explores a single biblical image of God through a mix of exegesis, cultural history, and personal essay.

 

IT WOULD NOT BE a gross exaggeration to say that the Bible is a culinary manual, concerned from start to finish with how to eat, what to eat, when to eat. Food is the first way the Bible shows that God intends to provide for humanity: all those seed-bearing plants and trees with fruit in the Garden of Eden given to Adam and Eve to eat. And food is the shorthand for our disobedience, the shorthand for all the ways we have moved far away from God: Adam and Eve eat the wrong thing, in the wrong way. Thereafter, the biblical writers often discuss God’s relationship with God’s people in alimentary terms. The dietary codes show God’s interest in the quotidian details of people’s lives (and though many foods are flat-out off-limits to Israel, there’s an abundance of food still left for people to eat—figs and apples and raisins and vinegar and cheese and wine). Food accompanies hospitality—in Genesis 18, Abraham tells Sarah to bake cakes for three visitors, who turn out to be angels there to announce a great miracle. Food carries memory and food becomes sacramental vessel: Jesus instructs his friends and followers to eat a ritual meal in his memory. And finally there is God’s own self as food: “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink,” Jesus tells his baffled audience in the Gospel of John.

That description—flesh, blood, real food and drink—is startling and graphic. (In fact, in the first centuries following Jesus’s death, pagans who overheard Christian worship and teaching accused Christians of cannibalism.) There is a decided strangeness about the metaphor—but at the same time, the pair of foods that God most preeminently is seems almost unremarkable. Wine and bread. The fruit of the vine; the staff of life.

In calling Himself “the bread of life”—and not, say, crème caramel or caviar—Jesus is identifying with basic food, with sustenance, with the food that, for centuries afterward, would figure in the protest efforts of poor and marginalized people. No one holds caviar riots; people riot for bread. So, to speak of God as bread is to speak of God’s most elemental provision for us.

Especially for people who have lived with hunger, this is a powerful, palpable image. But I admit that it is a biblical metaphor at which I sometimes find myself staring blankly. I have never been hungry for more than thirty-five minutes, and, though I always need to be nourished, I rarely notice this need, and I rarely credit God with my nourishment (more often I either take my nourishment for granted or credit myself—my labors, which provide the money to buy the food; my hours, devoted to cooking; and so forth). So for me (and maybe for you), the image of bread as provision can be a bit of a corrective, showing me how insensible to my dependence on God I really am. But instructing me in my hunger is not all this image can do. Bread is basic food, but bread nonetheless contains meanings beyond sustenance.

I once asked a circle of people from church, if Jesus is the “bread of life,” what kind of bread is He? Not a one of them said, “He’s that small round wafer we use at Communion.” I wrote down their answers. I think they make a good prayer:

a bagel
rye
toast with jam
morning glory muffins
chocolate tea bread
rosemary ciabatta
my grandmother’s sourdough
my grandmother’s challah
French toast
a crusty baguette

This gorgeous list expands our attention from the usual thought, “if God is bread, then God meets my needs,” to the category of delectation. If God is chocolate tea bread, God is not only panary provision—God is also about delight. It is one of the beauties of this metaphor that bread, like the One who made the hands that made the bread, contains both: enjoyment and necessity, sustenance and pleasure.

§

Some mornings, when I notice that I have yet again turned Jesus into an abstraction, I unpin the bread-list prayer from my bulletin board and sit down and really try to pray: I try to picture the toast with jam and the ciabatta and smell them. I picture my father’s French toast and his wife’s challah. I ask God to cultivate my yearning and to help make this day a day on which I will taste and see that the Lord is good, that the Lord is sweet.

Of course, Jesus didn’t specifically identify himself with chocolate tea bread or morning glory muffins. He identified himself with manna:

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Manna was the food God provided for Israel while they wandered in the desert. It was, says the Book of Exodus, “like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey”; or, according to the Book of Numbers, it was like “cakes baked with oil.”

The rabbis say that manna tasted like whatever the Israelites wanted it to taste like. If you were craving chocolate that day, your manna tasted like pain au chocolat; if your palate was set for savory, the manna tasted like broccoli quiche or mushroom crepes. (There were a few exceptions: as Rashi, the eleventh-century interpreter of scripture, noted, manna could not taste like leeks, onions, cucumbers, watermelons, or garlic, because those five foods might hurt nursing mothers.) It was not until I was about twenty-five that I realized this teaching about manna’s infinite toothsomeness was midrash, that it was not actually stated in the Book of Exodus. I now think it lurks underneath Jesus’s identification with manna: Jesus does not just taste like honeyed wafers. Jesus tastes like morning glory muffins or chocolate tea bread—whatever you desire.

§

In one of those endless imagery loops, God is the meal and God also provides the meal. Not just fruit and trees for Adam and Eve, and not just manna in the desert. God also spreads banquets (both temporal and eschatological banquets, it seems): “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” says the psalmist. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines,” says the prophet Isaiah. Jesus likewise describes God as one who throws a banquet, and Jesus tells us that God feeds even the ravens. Jesus Himself provides wedding guests with wine, feeds the five thousand, and, after the resurrection, gives His friends a beachside breakfast of fish and bread (it’s really bruschetta, one book I read notes). Over and over, the scriptures show that God indeed is the one who fills the hungry with good things.

I wonder what it feels like to God, providing all those meals.

There is little I enjoy more than getting into the kitchen for a few hours in the late afternoon and cooking up a storm. I enjoy planning the menu, I enjoy chopping all the vegetables, I enjoy the chaotic whirl of a kitchen when you are trying to concoct three different courses at once. I enjoy the satisfaction of laying the table with china and silverware and platters heavy with food, especially if I am expecting two or four or five friends to drop by for the repast. Does God enjoy preparing banquets for us?

At the same time, weird things happen to me when I get into a kitchen—all sorts of complicated feelings around cooking for other people, providing food for them, creating meals for others to eat. I feel a deep delight when people seem grateful for the food and a prickly resentment when they do not. Also, I feel possessive—jealous of my own place in the kitchen and strangely threatened if, say, my husband tells me he wants to do some of the week’s cooking. The rational part of my brain knows that this is egalitarian and great, and that in reality I don’t have time to be in the kitchen two or three hours every night. But some less articulate, less rational, more 1950s part of my brain rebels and wants to seize the whole cooking field for myself. Nourishment, delight, power, gratitude—all those things and more are whipping around the seemingly simple task of serving dinner.

Maybe God feeds us not just because that is what a god does—provide; maybe God gets something out of it. Maybe it makes God feel good to feed us. I wonder if God experiences feeding us as a really pleasurable thing, as a way of giving us not just something we need but something that delights us. I wonder if providing food makes God feel, as it makes me feel, needed and important. I wonder if God feels possessive of the kitchen, as I do. I wonder if God feels a sense of accomplishment, if God steps back from the table laden with food and takes deep satisfaction in all that finest wheat and honey and manna.

The poet Maxine Kumin wrote an essay about making blackberry jam. She says it is a lot of hard work, and that her property in Warner, New Hampshire, is so overrun with wild blackberries that in fact she is a little sick of them. Nonetheless, she writes, “making jam…is rich with gratifications. I get a lot of thinking done. I puff up with feelings of providence. Pretty soon I am flooded with memories.” She remembers her mother, who used to visit during the canning and pickling and jamming season. Now her mother is dead, and Kumin finds herself talking to her mother as she stirs.

Kumin’s mother would go home after her visits to New Hampshire with a package of jelly and pickles for fall eating. “When she died,” writes Kumin, “there were several unopened jars in her cupboard. I took them back with me after her funeral. We ate them in her stead, as she would have wanted us to.” There is something oddly Eucharistic about this jam.

I wonder if, while baking our manna and spreading our banquets and putting up preserves, God remembers. I wonder what memories flood the jam-making God. I wonder what beloved person, dead and gone, God talks to while sugaring the blackberries.

§

To say that God is bread is to say something about variety and delight. There are quick breads and slow double-rising breads. There is limpa bread, full of anise and orange peel, and there is French country bread. There is pain de campagne and Russian black bread and banana bread and cornbread and brioche. There is anadama bread and Irish soda bread. There is Amish friendship bread, which the bookkeeper at my new church made to welcome me. There is injera, oatmeal bread, gingerbread, panettone. There are biscuits and crumpets and scones.

At the altar, at the Eucharist, that profusion of bread shrinks. I have never seen morning glory muffins at the altar.

Sarah and I made chocolate zucchini bread last week; I’ve been using this recipe since college, but this was the first time I had grown the zucchini, which were the size of my husband’s forearms. Sarah and I wondered aloud about celebrating a Eucharist with this bread, with our families or with friends from across the street, but it was a half-wondering, and in the end, we did not. Sarah sensed we would have to explain it—there was “regular” bread in her kitchen after all, so why opt for cocoa and zucchini? Jesus hadn’t meant cocoa and zucchini, surely.

Many churches, including my own, use wafers instead of bread at Communion. Wafer bread or unleavened bread was first used in churches because people assumed that Jesus was using unleavened matzoh at the Last Supper. In the last century, small manufactured wafers have come to owe their popularity more to tidiness; they are often used at churches where partakers of Communion practice intinction, dipping the wafer into the cup rather than sipping from the cup directly. If all the communicants are dipping bread, the chalice fills up with soupy crumbs. Hence the ubiquity of wafers.

Some days I wish our Eucharistic meal in church were a bit more like a real meal, thick slices of focaccia and glasses of cabernet. But I have come to appreciate the small wafer, the small sip of wine. In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and a small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.

When real bread is used for Holy Communion, it seems usually to be some sort of nicely shaped white bread. I have never seen pumpernickel or rye; exactly once, for a potluck Eucharist at my home, I baked two loaves of whole wheat. At the chapel of the divinity school where I teach, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper with commercially produced Kings Hawaiian Bread—our chaplain buys it at Harris Teeter, for $4.50 or $4.75 a loaf. “It tears well,” Chaplain Bates notes, “right through the crust,” and it is slightly sweet, refined in both senses—elegant, and made with refined flour. Some of the students refer to it as “sweet Jesus.”

White bread has an interesting history. For centuries, people have been striving to produce ever whiter flour and ever whiter loaves. This is a story of cultural preference and symbolism, and it is also a story of technology. According to food activist and writer Michael Pollan, “The prestige of white flour is ancient and has several sources, some practical, others sentimental. Whiteness has always symbolized cleanness, and…the whiteness of flour symbolized its purity.” For centuries, white flour was hard to obtain; only the rich could afford white bread. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, roller milling—in which millstones were replaced with metal or porcelain drums that were arranged to grind the flour more finely—made white flour inexpensive, readily available, “and whiter than it had ever been.” So even people of modest means began to buy porcelain-white flour and bake pretty white loaves in their ovens.

Within a few decades, further technological innovation—developments in “microbiology, cereal chemistry, climate control, and industrial design”—had again reshaped people’s daily bread: in 1890, 90 percent of bread eaten in the United States was made by women at home; by 1930, 90 percent of America’s bread “was baked outside the home by men in increasingly distant factories.” In a study called White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain suggests that the appeal of “modern bread”—industrial white bread—went beyond convenience. People loved the “streamlined” look of company-baked bread. When the first automatically sliced bread was sold in the United States (in the summer of 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri), a reporter wrote, “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows. So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” The guaranteed perfection of a store-bought loaf appealed to an America in love with science and captive to fantasies of scientific perfection. Ladies’ Home Journal wrote in 1923 that in contrast to the housewife who baked by guesswork and was likely to produce the occasionally underdone or misshapen loaf, “modern inventions have made an exact science of baking, and there is no reason whatever for failure.”

Americans loved the bread’s predictable uniformity, and they loved its whiteness. Echoing Pollan, Bobrow-Strain argues that white bread “had long stood as a symbol of wealth and status—and in America, racial purity,” but in the early twentieth century, Americans’ preference for white flour took on still new meanings. In an era obsessed with hygiene and sanitation, the color white came to represent “scientific control”—all those white lab coats, all those sparkling white kitchen appliances. Physicians took to the pages of national magazines to urge families, especially immigrant families and poor families, to whitewash their walls; dark walls would camouflage dirt, but on white walls dirt would, in the words of one pundit-physician, be “so conspicuous that shame” would “compel…the Polacks and Hungarians” to clean. The modern designer Le Corbusier was more succinct: “Whitewash,” he wrote, “is extremely moral.”

So, in short, the history of the lovely white loaf may be found in America’s optimistic quest for scientific perfectibility and in America’s history of shaming immigrants and shaming women.

It seems an odd genealogy for the bread that, week in and week out, Christians name as Jesus. Jesus, who consorted with shamed women. Jesus, who is neither orderly nor predictable. Jesus, who, with his parents, became a migrant to Egypt when his own country turned inhospitable to him. Jesus, who makes possible our immigration to the Kingdom of God. Jesus, whose skin was darker than the flour we prize.

Of course, it is easy to imagine the well-meaning pastor at all-white First Mainline Church preaching a chaotically horrible children’s sermon about a pumpernickel loaf. May the good Lord spare me from ever preaching that sermon. Still: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” wrote Paul. My zucchini loaf is misshapen and a little burned around the edges. But maybe it comes closer to the loaf Paul meant than does the modern white loaf, with its perfection, its refinement, and its shame.

§

For some people—people who have tricked out their kitchens with top-notch speakers and who are usually drinking a glass of wine when they cook—the kitchen is leisure space. For other people, cooking dinner is work. If you have small children underfoot or arguing teenagers in the next room, if you are a harried single parent, if you cook night after night with no help and with an endless sense of obligation—then cooking might be more stressful than leisurely, more hectic than meditative.

I wonder: when is God’s experience of providing us food leisurely and when does God find the kitchen a chore? Is Mary sitting companionably at the breakfast bar drinking a beer? Or are there angels standing in the corner, squabbling with their siblings? To borrow sociologist Michelle Szabo’s terminology, does God find providing food for us to be “foodwork” or “foodplay”?

Standing in my own kitchen—which is filled with books by Alice Waters and Laurie Colwin, and which is awash in quinoa—I realize that I am at some risk of turning the God who provides food into a “foodie” for whom cooking the right food at the right time of year has become both a pleasure and a mark of status. Surely our image of God as provider of food might also include my mother, home from a long day at work and utterly without the energy to cook, microwaving a bag of popcorn for herself and opening a can of Chef Boyardee for me. Wait, one might object. With all due respect to your mother, how can that picture have anything to do with the God who offers us flavor and nourishment, the God who created all those vegetables in Eden, the God who wants to provide for us abundantly?

My answer to that objection is this: God became incarnate, and God knew exhaustion and finitude, and God has a preference for those with no margins in their lives, and out of solidarity, God probably sometimes hands around a can of SpaghettiOs to the saints.

§

I do a lot of reading by the bookcase in my kitchen, seated in a brown leather chair, which some students once dropped off for temporary storage, and which I hope they never reclaim. Tonight, I am sitting in the chair reading a terrific monograph, Psyche A. Williams-Forson’s Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. It is about the many uses, from money making to self-expression, African American women have found for cooking chicken. I get this experience three times a year, if I’m lucky: a book I want to stay up all night reading, a book that excites me more than I can convey. Williams-Forson darts from antebellum fiction to the beguiling silhouettes of twenty-first-century artist Kara Walker, from black women’s collaboration (and sometimes competition) in church kitchens to discussions of chicken in African American etiquette guides. (And yes, I have made a note in my sermon notebook to return to this book next time the lectionary comes around to the Jesus-as-mother-hen passage; I am willing to bet that if I think about Jesus alongside what Williams-Forson is teaching me about chickens, I will have a different sermon than if I stick to my tried-and-true commentaries on Luke.)

In chapter 4, which is about food and travel, Williams-Forson recovers the history of black women packing up shoe box lunches for family members who were setting off on a trip. These box lunches allowed women who themselves might not be able to leave home to “vicariously” travel, and helped African Americans navigate the hostile landscape of the Jim Crow South, where few restaurants would serve them. Williams-Forson illustrates this with a quotation from a cookbook-memoir, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences by Norma Jean Darden and Carole Darden. The Darden sisters recall how exciting it was to stay up late the night before a trip and help their mother pack the box lunches, which contained a bounty of goodies: fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly, deviled eggs, chocolate layer cake, nuts, raisins, and cheese. Except for the thermos of lemonade, “everything was neatly wrapped in wax paper” and tucked into shoe boxes, “with the name of the passenger Scotch-taped on so that special requests were not confused.” Even as young girls, the Dardens knew these lunches were about traversing dangerous terrain:

These trips took place during the fifties, and one never knew what dangers or insults would be encountered along the way. Racist policies loomed like unidentified monsters in our childish imagination and in reality. After the New Jersey Turnpike ended, we would have to be on the alert for the unexpected. So, as we approached that last Howard Johnson’s before Delaware, our father would make his inevitable announcement that we had to get out, stretch our legs, and go to the bathroom, whether we wanted to or not. This was a ritualized part of the trip, for, although there would be many restaurants along the route, this was the last one that didn’t offer segregated facilities. From this point on, we pulled out our trusty shoe box lunches.

Sitting in my kitchen in the borrowed chair, I think back to other books I’ve read about the era of Jim Crow, and I realize that what the Dardens recall was by no means unique (although, before reading Williams-Forson’s analysis, I hadn’t noticed it as a widespread cultural and political strategy). Other memoirs on my shelf discuss the same practice. For example, Gail Milissa Grant, who grew up in Saint Louis in the 1940s, recalls her mother doing something similar. Grant’s parents:

…often went to the Union Station not to pick up anyone but to feed their friends. My mother would prepare a meal and carefully select the menu for its shelf life since it might have to last for hours without spoiling. Negroes could not “receive service” on trains until later in the 1950s, so they had to travel with their own food. The Negro Pullman porters couldn’t even serve other Negroes. She usually included fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, a few candy bars, and ice-cold sodas and placed them all in a shoe box or hatbox. Their friends would give Mommy plenty of notice, by telephone or telegram, of their itinerary before boarding the train, so she had time to cook. On long journeys, my mother’s would be one in a string of meals, with other friends doing the same thing along the route.

Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Grant’s food preparation is the best picture I have found for understanding God as a provider of food. Here is God preparing food for the Israelites journeying in the wilderness: God is not just abstractly raining coriander flakes down from the heavens. God is staying up late to prepare shoe box lunches for people on a perilous journey.

And this is the bread with which Jesus most explicitly identified—manna, journeying bread. Jesus as manna: fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, deviled eggs, chocolate layer cake, all carefully packed into a small box. Jesus, a traveler’s lemonade in a thermos. Jesus as manna, the bread that sustains oppressed people on their journey through an unwelcoming land.

§

From a study of women with eating disorders: two-thirds of the women who regularly participate in Eucharist report that they have decreased the frequency with which they receive Communion because they fear the calories in the wafer and the wine.

This seems sad, but it doesn’t seem unintelligible. Although I have gotten through almost four decades in a female body without dancing too close to an eating disorder, the statistic makes sense to me.

Throughout this book I have been inviting us to consider what our day-to-day lives tell us about biblical metaphors. Just as men and women of the first century drew on what they knew about shepherding when they heard “feed my sheep,” I have been inviting us to consider what we know from our own experiences of smell and clothing and friendship as we ponder the Bible’s images of God.

Here is what I know about bread and wine: I know many women who don’t eat bread, don’t keep it in their homes, refuse the bread basket at restaurants. I know that I have bread around the house only because my husband insists, and he does have to insist. I often tell him about the glory days before we got married, when my kitchen was a breadless nirvana and I rarely ate sandwiches or toast. I know that every year, around February, I decide the most efficient way to lose the weight I gained in the deep-winter holiday months would be to forswear alcohol and to stop eating foods whose primary ingredient is flour. (And doesn’t it seem strange that so many of the weight-loss diets that are popular today take aim at staple foods, foods that are inexpensive and easy for the earth to yield? The instruction to lose weight by avoiding carbohydrates and eating more meat seems like an instruction to eat the food that is costliest for the planet to produce.) This is not so many steps from panicking about Communion bread. A few steps, but not many.

I can’t imagine that this is what Jesus meant for us to think about when He called Himself bread and wine; I don’t think He imagined twenty-first-century women whose visceral response to bread and wine was fear or a triggered self-disgust.

Or maybe He imagined just that. Maybe He sees it now, looking down from heaven with sorrow and understanding. Maybe one of the invitations He was making at the Last Supper was an invitation to anxious middle-class women two millennia in the future—the invitation to let His bread and His wine and His Eucharist reshape the way we hold and eat and sip and feel about all bread and wine.

In the Middle Ages, several female mystics compared the soul in union with God to bread that soaks up—and grows engorged with—honey or mead. This is a good image, especially so for a society in which women are told to make their bodies shrink or disappear. Jesus means for us to see bread as a metonym for Him, for His body, for His nearness. The mystics’ prayers would suggest that our own bodies, too, are metonymed as bread, bread that expands with Jesus when we draw close to Him.

One of the women who used that image of bread and honey was a thirteenth-century Saxon mystic named Mechthild, who had two mellific visions. In the first vision, she saw Mary cradling the infant Jesus, and Jesus’s own name was written across His chest in honey. In a later vision, Jesus asks Mechthild to place in His left hand all her “pains and adversities,” so that they may be “sweetened” by union with Him, “just as a crumb of bread dipped in honey takes on the honey’s fragrance.”

This is a reverse Communion image. Usually, at Communion, we draw near to God by opening our hands to receive a crumb of bread. In Mechthild’s vision, we draw near to God and find God’s hand opened to us. I like picturing the old woman Mechthild, and the ten-year-old girl down the block, and the man at my church whose brother just died, and Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Grant, and that journalist who reported on the first-ever mechanically sliced bread, and myself, all sidling up to Jesus, placing our crumbs of pain and adversity in His hands, knowing they will soak up His honey.

“Dry is all food of the soul if it is not sprinkled with the oil of Christ,” says another mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux. “When thou writest,” he instructs, “promise me nothing, unless I read Jesus in it. When thou conversest with me on religious themes, promise me nothing if I hear not Jesus’ voice. Jesus—melody to the ear, gladness to the soul, honey to the taste.”

I like to picture the soul drawing closer to God; I like to picture this soul as bread that absorbs honey and finds its pain and adversity converted to the Lord’s sweetness as it does.


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