COMMENTARY: Food has the power to nurture the soul

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Each year at Thanksgiving, the scent of sage-stuffed turkey and cinnamon-spiced pumpkin pie fills my house with the perfume of old memories. Like photographs, these aromas trigger nostalgic images of holidays past.

That food has the power to evoke memories seems proof of its magic to feed the soul as well as the body. Breads and grains, fruits and vegetables, it seems, do much more than provide us with nutrients. Rather, festive meals celebrate the passage of time, linking the past with the present and creating a communion of love.

The idea that food can be a source of spiritual nourishment has been with humankind since ancient times. In nearly all the world’s religions, food is endowed with mystical significance. And holy days are often celebrated with rituals involving food.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims conclude their daily fast with multi-course meals. In the Hebrew tradition, Passover is celebrated with a Seder dinner punctuated by prayer and scriptural readings. At Mass, Catholics receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Native Americans honor the cycle of the seasons with special feasts.

In fact, most ancient religious festivals were associated with the planting and harvesting of food. Thanksgiving, as most everyone knows, originated in 1621, when the Plymouth colonists celebrated the first bounty of their crops with neighboring tribes. A uniquely American holiday, it is a day that is especially dedicated to showing gratitude for the goodness of God and abundance of the Earth.

To some contemporary psychologists, however, modern society has lost touch with food’s sacred dimensions. Eating disorders such as anorexia and obesity, they say, are indications that food no longer serves its ritual function to join communities together, as well as offer thanks to God.

British Jungian analyst Eve Jackson, author of”Food and Transformation,”(Inner City Books) says that contemporary dilemmas around eating are due partly to the fact that in most Western societies, food is unnaturally abundant. Though it is true that many people still go hungry, she says, the failed crops and food shortages of centuries past don’t affect the more affluent members of the human community as they did in the past.

Thus, says Jackson, our psyches have become separated from the rhythms of nature. The modern convenience of grocery shopping has made it more difficult to connect the food on our tables to the miraculous confluence of nature and grace that put it there. It is only recently in human history, she says, that blessings, or”offerings to the gods,”have been omitted from mealtime rituals.

Though food has lost the spiritual significance it once had, Jackson says it shows up in our dreams. Often, she says, her clients will dream of childhood kitchens, or family dining room tables _ places rich with emotional associations.

Dream food may be symbolic of unconscious needs: Jackson recalled one client who sought therapy because she felt detached from the world around her. The woman related having a vivid dream of a luscious pineapple and pondering that fruitful image, the woman realized how she hungered to be a full participant in life.

Recognizing food’s importance to the soul, some psychotherapists prescribe cooking as a way to heal mental ills. In his book”The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life”(HarperCollins), Thomas Moore writes that people who suffer from depression often find a measure of peace through rediscovering old family recipes. Re-creating the familiar but forgotten smells and tastes, he writes, restore the broken connection to one’s religious and cultural traditions.

Increasingly, however, says Jackson, people are prevented from sharing in the pleasures of such traditional repasts because they live alone. This growing lack of community, she says, has meant that society has lost the knowledge that”the exchange that goes on around the table isn’t just about the literal, concrete food.” What is it that gives food its charmed ability to melt differences and warm the hardest heart? The act of eating together, explains Jackson,”is archetypally human and basic to social organization _ a ritual through which we affirm our common identity as a family or a group.” In Japan, for instance, there is a saying about”people who eat rice from the same pot.”And in the English language the word”companion”comes from sharing bread with another person.”Hospitality,”as well, refers to the alliance that is formed when we eat with someone. It is not uncommon, for instance, for people of disparate political beliefs to come together harmoniously over a meal.

Thanksgiving, says Jackson,”is one of the great bonding rituals of America.”It is a day when people gather together across ethnic and religious lines to eat the same traditional dishes. Historically unique, it could be said to be a festival that celebrates both our multicultural richness, as well as our shared inheritance as Americans.

But Thanksgiving is more than that. It is, at heart, an opportunity to give thanks for the wealth of beautiful food that sustains our spiritual and physical lives _ and to the Earth that so generously provides it.


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