I love food. Though the food I love is not particularly exotic: mashed potatoes with fresh-milled black pepper, sea salt and a dob of real butter; bananas any way they come: slightly hard and tangy when the skin is still tinged lime green; mashed on hot brown buttered toast, mashed on hot white buttered toast, mashed to a puree with skimmed milk and a sprinkle of granulated sugar to add texture, straight from the skin when it’s browning and mottled and the flesh is soft and seems just on the cusp of fermenting, fried and served hot with vanilla ice cream – with or without a swirl of Belgian chocolate sauce. And then there’s my old standby that I pass on to my stalwart PA to prepare for me about twice a week. The simple feast comes back to me in a great deep yellow bowl, steaming, the light dancing off the glaze on their skins which are the rich, deep, burnt, reddy brown of the Grand Canyon at sunset. They’re smooth and slightly firm on the outside but as you bite through they’re drier, almost crumbly, but made lush and moist by the sweet, red, tangy sauce – baked beans. It’s all glamour at LICC.
And then there are all those foods brimming with memory and significance – the raisin and apple bubbeles my Jewish grandmother made – half biscuit, half pastry, wholly delicious, unreproducable… My wife’s salad dressing – oil, vinegar, English mustard, black pepper and salt and that secret ingredient that convinces my kids that this should be sold to the world.
And there are those ritual foods – foods you have to eat sometimes because they link you to your cultural heritage and the people you love – matzos at Passover, rich dark Christmas pudding aflame with brandy and then doused with triple cream – once a year foods that you wouldn’t want all the year round but which you wouldn’t want to miss, foods that remind you that there is a rhythm to the year and that some events are marked not just in the mind and the heart but in the mouth and the stomach – or not – as in Lent.
And if this sounds altogether too epicurean, altogether too close to gluttony ask yourself: why did God give us such complex palates? It certainly can’t be reduced to a functional Darwinian need to be able to differentiate between coffee and arsenic? No, the complexity of our palates tells us a simple thing – God wants us to enjoy food and drink. We are designed for pleasure and the food we eat is meant to be more than a balanced source of vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fats, food is intended to be a source of delight.
Psalm 104 tells us that ‘God makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for human beings to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.’
Wine is not there to inebriate, though it has that potential, but to gladden the heart. Oil is there to make our faces shine which has a double meaning, not just the physical effect but also a positive psychological effect - happiness and good-will towards others. You see this idea in Aaron’s prayer in Numbers 6 where he is commanded to ask that God’s face might shine upon his people. Similarly in Psalm 104 bread is described not simply as sustaining the body but sustaining his heart – there is a pleasure in good food that goes beyond the merely physical. Indeed, as Esther understood, the way to a man’s heart may well be through his stomach. It does not, however, work the other way round. The way to a woman’s heart, I was once reliably informed, is through a good restaurant. Food then is and has always been a way to build and acknowledge relationship. Hence the importance in Jesus’ time of who you ate with. Hence, the shock that he chose to eat with Zachaeus and sinners and publicans.
But sin gets everywhere.
That’s what it does best so you’re as likely to find evidence of it in the food chain as in the heart of a toddler. And it’s certainly there – people eating what they should not – things that are bad for them, things that depress them minutes after they’re in their belly, things that fatten them, stress them, weaken them, and things that don’t need to be eaten or drunk at all but have become necessary accessories of the good life, signs of sophistication, emblems of belonging to the right set.
Indeed, if we are to some extent what we eat, then there is much to divine from the entrails of contemporary British people. First, we eat too much.
And we eat too much in a hungry world. And we don’t pay the hungry enough for the food we buy from them. Furthermore, what we eat is high in fat, high in carbohydrates, high in calories, which according to a recent study of the Amish would all be fine if we were doing the amount of exercise they do. But most of us aren’t, and it’s getting worse. In 1987 8% of men were obese, now 25% are. In the same year 12% of women were, now 20% are. In fact, we are more likely to be overweight, more likely to be obese than at any time in recorded history, at exactly the same time that we are more obsessed by body shape and by fitness than at any time in our history.
Paradoxes abound. Indeed, the viceheadmaster at my son’s secondary school recently did an assembly on the virtues of eating healthy food. “Three cheers for the vice,” you huzzah. Alas, 50 metres away the school canteen offers a menu where unhealthy options not only outnumber healthy ones but are also a whole lot tastier. You can’t even get a glass of tap water – it’s either bottled water at 60p or Coke at 60p. Now the average 12 year-old boy knows that he can get thirty gallons of water at home for nothing. No one in their right mind is going to spend scarce dinner money on water – unless of course it’s got bubbles in it or they truly hate the taste of their local water authority’s finest.
The trouble is millions of Brits are not in their right minds, no doubt addled by all the e-numbers in all the take-aways we are eating. In fact, we’re drinking more and more bottled water believing that it’s better for us. However, according to the University of Geneva (BBC News Online 3.5.04) and recent research reported in the Guardian, (3.3.04) most bottled water is a thousand times more expensive, a great deal less environmentally friendly, and usually no purer than the crystal nectar that comes out of our taps. Nevertheless, a huge number of people believe it is. And pay accordingly – duped again by alluring images of the French Alps above Evian or the green hills of Buxton, and enticed by the undoubted chic of carrying a plastic bottle of designer water around in the hand that isn’t carrying the mobile. What did we do with our hands before we had such props?
Of course, though schools may well be aware that better diets lead to better academic results, and incidentally better behaviour, the argument might well be to claim that the money coming in from canteens and sugar drinks and crisp machines is vital to balancing the budget. Ah, how are the mighty fallen, how easy to sell their birthright for a fizzy drink? If schools haven’t got the long-term health of the kids they are there to serve in mind, what kind of schools do we have? Answer: the same schools that sold off their playing fields to pay for the maintenance of their buildings – which is one of the reasons, along with increased fear about children walking or riding to school on their own, that our children simply do less exercise. Indeed, if you are looking for the really big difference between private and public education – it’s not in the value added at GCSE or even at A level, it’s in the playing fields. Some have lobbied the culture secretary Tessa Jowell to ban junk food ads too, but long before we need a ban on ads for junk food, we need a ban on government schools serving junk and selling junk. And some basic teaching about healthy eating in our schools – around 60% of 11 to 15 year-olds are, according to MORI confused about what a healthy diet actually is. And of course you don’t need the government to do that, you just need a few determined parents and a few determined children. But you have to be very determined. In one school it took six months of persistent lobbying before any diet drinks managed to slip their slimline way into the drinks machine.
Still, it can be done. Indeed, Queensbury School in Dunstable, has, according to The Times (04.02.04) become the first secondary school “to replace the junk food in its vending machines with healthy alternatives.” Bye bye chocolate bars, hello muesli sticks. Auf wiedersehen cola, guten Morgen mineral water. Nigel Hill, the Headmaster, put it succinctly:
“Do you put students’ health first or the money you can make from selling chocolate and fizzy drinks?”
Still, if overall we are increasingly consigning our kids to junk food, are we adults doing any better? Not much. And so wonder diets abound - from Weight Watchers to Vorderman’s detox to Atkins we’re told that we can be slimmer, healthier, fitter, more confident if we follow their regime. It does work for many. And no harm in that, though if the world followed the Atkins’ menu the West would indeed need the higher yields that GM crops are meant to bring us so that we can feed all the animals that we’ll have to slaughter to keep us in meat.
And of course it is no bad thing to try to stop ourselves overeating, no bad thing to try to look one’s best and to care for the bodies God has given us, the temples of the Holy Spirit, the instrument he has given us to do the good works he has prepared for us. No bad thing at all. The body is after all one of God’s most wondrous creations – and no creature on earth matches the overall human body for complexity and overall capacity. Gluttony is an abuse of the body and an affront to its creator and though obviously not all those who are overweight overeat, it is worth considering what, apart from the relentless propaganda for food and the vast increase in places to buy it, is fuelling our apparently irreversible trundle into national flab? Is it related to exhaustion which our weary, work-torn bodies respond to by baying for sugar and caffeine? Is it related to our increasing relational isolation and the yearning of our hearts yearning for intimacy and comfort? A full belly is not as satisfying as an overflowing heart but it’s a comfort nevertheless. Is it related to our lack of purpose which some of us seek to alleviate by seeking the sensual pleasures of food?
Like everything else in today’s world food had become fraught with anxiety, and laden with ideology but for all that it is a gift of God. And it’s surely no accident that the great party that Christians look forward to is a banquet. Imagine: God’s got something better than bananas on the menu. Can’t wait.
Mark Greene’s new book Imagine – How we can reach the UK? is published by Authentic priced £4.99.