Category Archives: Diet

More With Much Less

LivingMoreWithLess2010My good friend Michelle is starting a blog about being Mennonite with an eating disorder called More With Much Less. I love her willingness to, not only be vulnerable, but laugh at herself and approach being Mennonite, living in community and her own disorder with a sense of humor and play. Here’s her summary of what she’s up to:

“I intend to read [More With Less] and cook one of the recipes each week and blog about my experience.  You might wonder what the point of this is.  Sometimes, I wonder the same thing.  But I think it is important as Mennonites and other Christians think about the ethics of food, hunger, and the poor, that we do not shape the conversation around the idea of guilt.”

I’m very excited about her project and how it might overlap and inform the work and thinking that I’ve done on the ethics of eating here. Maybe I’ll have her guest post over here on something. So, add it to your reader and saddle up.


What’s For Dinner? (Leviticus 11)

Lev 10:10-11 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.

Leviticus 11 details the dietary laws given to the Israelites. When someone says “food in the Bible” this is probably what first comes to mind for most people, rules about what to eat and what not to eat. This is really answering the question “What Would Jesus Eat?” concretely, because as a Jew he would have observed these dietary laws. The question most people have is…Why? We’ll get there, but the first thing is to understand what exactly the rules are, then how they functioned.

What’s On The Menu?
Leviticus 3-8 explains that among land animals the rule is: split hoof + chews cud = OK. That means ruminants are in (cows, sheep and goats), but rabbits camels, pigs and rock badgers are out. Verses 9-12 concern seafood where the formula is: fins + scales = OK. So, trout, perch, etc. are a go, while eels, dolphins and catfish are off limits. Among birds (13-19) they were mainly concerned with what not to eat: eagles, vultures, owls, kites, osprey, hawks, storks, herons, hoopoes, and bats. Everything else is just fine. The section on insects (20-23) starts off strong, “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you”, and then sighs and says if they have jointed legs for hopping and fly you can eat them. This includes locusts, katydids, crickets and grasshoppers. Finally, verses 29-30 and 41-42 make sure all of our bases are covered and declare unclean “Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground” (42). This includes snakes, weasels, rats, great lizards, geckos, monitor lizards, wall lizards, skinks or chameleons.

Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?
For most North Americans, after pigs, we haven’t even thought about eating any of the animals that are forbidden here. So, what is going on? I don’t have access to a stack of commentaries here, but even John Wesley understands that these rules functioned “To keep up the wall of partition between the Jews and other nations, which was very necessary for many great and wise purposes” (quoted from free version available for MacSword). Clearly other nations, tribes and peoples around them did not keep these dietary laws and therefore clearly set the Israelites apart as a different people. Verse 45 gives a typical formula in the Torah for why these commands must be followed, “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

Others have also pointed out the wisdom in many of these laws, which may have something to do with their origin. Pork easily transmits diseases like trichinosis and it was probably safer given conditions for slaughter, cooking, storage, etc. to avoid unnecessary risks. Most of the forbidden birds are scavengers (including the beloved symbol of the United States) which would primarily feed on the carcasses of other animals, creating another possibly dangerous vector for disease (not to mention that carcasses were unclean in general thus tainting those who feed on them). Likewise some of the fish that are forbidden would have been bottom-feeders and considered less sanitary, another way of saying “unclean”. Perhaps in some ways blanket rules are easier to follow. So, eels and dolphins get swept up with bottom-feeders to make things easy (Wesley points out there isn’t a lot of water and fish where the Israelites lived anyway). It’s certainly not because the Israelites pioneered their own “Dolphin-Safe Tuna” brand. So, there may be some biological and epidemiological basis for these laws as well.

Bugs…They’re What’s For Dinner
When it comes to insects it seems obvious to North Americans that you shouldn’t eat them. Yet most of the world includes insects as part of their diet in some way. We have friends working with MCC in Zambia where their 18 month-old son loved to stuff his cheeks full of fried termites. I listened to a TED talk recently by a guy who was a big proponent of eating insects. He pointed out that they are extremely efficient at converting their food into protein, especially when compared with the large animals that we eat for protein, primarily chickens, cows and pigs. I think they produce almost one pound of protein for maybe one to three pounds of food compared with something like 100 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef (my stats may be off, but the true numbers make the same point). They are also very abundant and easy to grow. Another interview on Treehugger described ways to use insects by making a powder and substituting it in recipes. I haven’t tried adopting this practice into my own diet yet, but the logic makes a lot of sense and could go a long way toward a healthier planet.

One last interesting tidbit I found was in verses 37-38 “if a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” The rule here seems to be “keep dead things out of your garden” which makes a lot of sense. Carcasses in your garden, on the crops you’re trying to grow are going to do damage to those plants. If it happens to fall on seed that hasn’t been planted or germinated, then no big deal. As an avid humanure composter it is important for things to decompose properly. There are microbes, bugs and fungi that do that job in an ecosystem. We do not occupy that space in the ecosystem and neither do our food, plant or animal. So, you don’t want something going through the process of decomposition on or near your food source. Pretty basic stuff, but explains a lot about why dead things were such a no-no.

So, clearly these dietary laws held some embedded wisdom about what foods were safe. They also functioned to distinguish the Israelites from the people surrounding them. Is there anything more that we can glean from these laws about our relationship to our food, the earth and our fellow humans? Anyone who has had dietary restrictions, whether vegetarian or vegan by choice, or kosher or hallal by religious practice, knows that it makes you much more aware of what you are eating. You have to ask questions of your food. My journey with food started 11 years ago when I decided to try a vegetarian diet. As a Texan this meant turning my back on my people. I was very aware of all the things I could no longer eat and my food choices began to take on more importance. So, dietary restrictions at least force us to think about what we are eating.

Holy, Holy, Holy
I began this post with the verse from the previous chapter of Leviticus, because I think it holds something helpful. It says, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” What does this pairing of “holy and common” and “unclean and clean” mean? First, I think the translation “holy and common” as opposed to “holy and unholy” is helpful. It’s not just holy and something that is the opposite of holy. “Common” is something shared among the people; something to which everyone has access and knowledge. “Holy” is not simply the opposite. It is not something to which we don’t have access or knowledge (though that is partially true). Instead it is something Other. It is something not shared among everyone.

The division between sacred and secular serves to divide the church from the state and create a privatized faith impotent to speak to the Powers. This is not the distinction made here between holy and common. So this idea of distinguishing between the holy and the common is put along side the distinction between things and food that are clean and unclean. These are also not the same distinctions, but apparently they are related. Perhaps it has to do with how we relate to the world around us. The distinction between clean and unclean relates to all that we can know and experience in the world around us (the modern day realm of science), yet all of creation is considered good. The holy gives us some anchor in another reality that in some way reads, interprets, judges and ultimately redeems the common, which is what is divided into clean and unclean. (I’m immediately skeptical that I have just created a hierarchy where there is none, but I’ll go with it.)

In other words, there is something Other that judges and interprets the material world and our relationships within it. There is a Reality underlying what we see, hear, smell, taste and experience that is not separate from it, but Other, transcendent perhaps. Maybe Tillich’s idea of the Ground of Being or the idea that God is the eternal observer that keeps reality from disappearing by constantly perceiving it are shadows of what I’m grasping at like the blind men and the elephant.

I think of the Eucharist. It is a meal of simple elements, bread and wine. These were among the most common foods of the time and shared among people every day. Yet they constitute the most important ritual in the Christian tradition. So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live? What role does the idea of clean and unclean continue to have in our world today? Even though the Jesus movement clearly chose to do away with these restrictions (particularly because of the experience of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, a favorite passage of mine), we still use caution, discernment and cultural cues to decide what to eat and what not to eat. In many ways the question of the ethics of eating is our modern day version of clean (organic, local, sustainable, fair trade, etc.) and unclean (processed, underpaid migrant labor, subsidized, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified, etc.). These lines are not as clearly drawn as those in Leviticus, but what the followers of Jesus seek is, not a new law to replace the old one, but the ability to be led by the Spirit. May we feel that breath and follow the wind into all truth.

Turkey D-Day

Today is turkey D-Day. About 40 birds will be prepared for the Thanksgiving Day table… in other words butchered. Tomorrow about 40 more will meet their maker and become someone’s dinner. I recently “talked” on facebook with a friend of mine from Fort Hood and shared about my transition to farmatarianism, eating only meat that you know personally. I was a vegetarian for eight years. I wasn’t a really good vegetarian, whatever that means. I was more concerned about the way meat was produced and what was in it. I was also concerned about the effects of excessive meat consumption on our bodies and the planet. I wasn’t concerned that animals should never be killed for food.

Anyway… it was probably strange for my friend to hear that I would be helping slaughter some 80 birds and what’s more I would happily eat them given the chance. I still don’t eat a lot of meat. It’s not often an option at the farm, but when it is I appreciate the life of the animals that we eat. Our turkeys are free range in every sense of that word. They roam free all day, foraging for food and stretching their legs. Our goats and cows also spend the majority of their time in pastures eating their meals straight from the soil. That is worlds apart from how your Big Mac or even grocery store meat is produced.

So, every year Cargill (God bless ’em!) donates about 100 turkeys to the farm along with their bedding and feed. We raise them and sell them for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We could ruminate on why Cargill would donate these birds to a farm that teaches methods of agriculture directly opposed to large industrial-scale production. Perhaps it’s a form of penance, an attempt at reaching some sort of redemption. Perhaps someone in the company has a subversive ironic streak. Regardless, it is a good things for these birds and the people that buy them.

Clearly, these turkeys have been bred for one thing and one thing only… meat. These are dumb animals. These birds see a large predator (aka me or Edwina, the wayfaring farm dog) and think to themselves, “Hey let’s all go check that out! Guys come over here! Look a predator! Let’s all go say hi!” Needless to say they would not last long in the wild. Unfortunately they also don’t last that long on the farm. One turkey randomly had a heart attack one day and became dinner. It seems they are looking for ways to die. Apparently it is not really true that turkeys can drown from looking up at the rain, but they’re so dumb it seem plausible.

Barbara Kingsolver’s account of trying to get her turkeys to reproduce and hatch eggs is a riot. The reason industrial turkey sex is so funny is because it simply does not happen. Imagine a couple of full grown adults who are supposed to be well versed in the birds and the bees, stumbling over what’s what and what goes where like a couple of pimply teenagers. Add to the lack of knowledge the fact that these guys are bread to be a tub o’ meat on toothpicks. They are no longer physiologically shaped for reproduction. In case this hasn’t been made abundantly clear let me say it. The turkeys you buy in the store do not have sex. They all have to be artificially inseminated in order to reproduce. That in itself is not humane.

There are heritage breed wild turkeys out there that you can buy. Those guys are smart and they know how to have sex. So, think about the life of turkeys this holiday season when you’re sticking that Butterball in the oven or deep fryer. Support turkey sex and happy turkeys this year and buy your bird from a farmer.

Synergistic Motivational Speaking at USDA Listening Session

chris farley motivational speaker

Well, I survived my first listening session with the USDA today. Some may understand the headline from my tweets from the session. For those who missed it the word synergy was used way too often and in too many forms: synergy, synergism, synergistic. Unfortunately no one used the form a friend of mine invented on facebook… synergistic-expialidocious. Brilliant.

To top it all off a man who did NOT make it into the NBA who works for/is a motivational speaking group came down the aisle wearing a santa hat and carrying a smiley-faced basketball. He proceeded to treat all of us to what kids in gyms across America can barely sit still for… a motivational speaker.

I found many things interesting after listening to 20 people from a wide variety of organizations speak. The most interesting fact of all to me was that farmers were not represented at all. By all appearances farmers are not interested in ending childhood hunger or obesity (this was the main thrust of the session). I know this is not in fact the case. Real farmers were probably to busy doing real farming. So where were the groups that represent farmers? So, in my comments I pointed this out and shared some of my thoughts about the Farm Bill and what we do at World Hunger Relief. Here’s the highlight reel:

  • Jeremy Everett of the Texas Hunger Initiative (and WHRI alum) gave a good big picture overview of their vision for bringing together existing federal, state and local resources and people to help them communicate, coordinate and organize their efforts for maximum impact. Basically the resources are already there to end hunger. We just need to get organized. Good thinking!
  • A representative from Dairy Max a part of the National Dairy Council went on at length about the virtues of flavored milk in school cafeterias. Best moment of the day was when another lady said that there was as much sugar in a bottle of flavored milk as a soda.
  • Best moment #2 was when someone from Texas Food Bank Network walked up with a grocery bag from the HEB down the street. He pulled out an organic apple and said this cost $1.75. Then he pulled out a bag of cheese puffs and said he paid $1.50. If I have $2 in my pocket and hungry kids in the back seat, which one am I going to buy?
  • At least two people really wanted USDA to mount expensive media campaigns to deal with obesity. That is not a solution and does not work.
  • One speaker suggested creating or at least discussing the possibility of a national school lunch menu. Interesting idea.

It was a good experience to see how something like this works. Though I am skeptical of government and bureaucracies ability to do good and make change, I also recognize that governments and bureaucracies consist of people who do not have hearts of stone. Listening sessions and town halls is what we need more of, not less. There should be room for disagreement over flavored milk (and other things) without resorting to hateful mischaracterizations and threatening speech. We’ve reached a fever pitch in our political discourse and I’m not sure what will bring us back to reality. I’m happy to report that at least one government listening session in these times was respectful. What it accomplishes has yet to be seen.

Scriptural Bulimia

I’ve never been very good at memorizing Bible verses. I used to feel bad about it. Even after three years in seminary I sometimes feel like I should be able to quote more of the Bible as proof of…something.

Thinking about consumption, Christmas and Christianity recently reminded me of Ezekiel.

Ez 3:1-3 Then He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this scroll. He said to me, “Son of man, feed your stomach and fill your body with this scroll which I am giving you ” Then I ate it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth.

We should consume the word like Ezekiel. This means we should chew on it, savor it, swallow it, digest it (maybe turn the inedible parts into compost) and allow it to nourish us. When we consume something it becomes part of us. Ezekiel eats the scroll and speaks to the people, because the word has become part of him.

When we treat scripture as if it is something to memorize and regurgitate, we become scriptural bulimics. If you don’t swallow it and digest it, it is of no benefit.

bulimia |boŏˈlimēə; ˈlē-|nouninsatiable overeating as a medical condition, in particular (also bulimia nervosa |nərˈvōsə|) an emotional disorder involving distortion of body image and an obsessive desire to lose weight, in which bouts of extreme overeating are followed by depression and self-induced vomiting, purging, or fasting. Also called binge-purge syndrome . an eating disorder in which a large quantity of food is consumed in a short period of time, often followed by feelings of guilt or shame.

Does this accurately describe the way we sometimes relate to scripture? I have met so many people who feel this pressure to be spiritual super men or women. They have some church activity every night of the week. They overeat on the church and eventually they will purge somehow, only to binge again later. Why do people go through this in the church? Probably for the same reason as bulimics… guilt and shame perpetuates the cycle.