When there’s a birthday, we bake a cake. During Lent, we eat fish and often give up some other type of coveted food item. Yom Kippur and Ramadan see us not eating at all…at least during the day. We make food, limit food, and withhold food all in the name of ceremony.
Food does not give us meaning, but we always seem to find ways of expressing our meaning with food nearby. Perhaps this was the happy medium brokered when we realized that eating the hearts of fallen enemies does not, indeed, give us their powers. But for many Christians, in the nearness of the right person and often only in the right place does bread and wine transform into something much greater reminding us of our deepest convictions.
The holiday-laden months of November and December witness much ado about food and ceremony. For too many – myself included – these events become more about the food and less about ceremony. Or perhaps they become more about the ceremony and less about the food. For too many, the once kindred tethering of what we eat symbolizing something important has faded.
In the middle of October, my computer started to die. Overseeing the death and resurrection was a man named Isaac. Sent by my computer’s manufacturer to replace the bits not working, Isaac stopped by three times. While he would work, we talked.
Small talk of weather and outright narration of what he was doing evolved to stories of back home. For me this meant boring stories of life on a farm in rural Minnesota. For Isaac, his home involved a village in Ghana, Africa. And because it was me asking the questions, Isaac’s story also involved some small amount of food talk.
“You allow it to soak in the water for three days, and it will then ferment but will not grow,” described Isaac. “You then take it out of the water, grind it to a powder, and soak it again for another two or three days.” Isaac was talking about something he had almost every day back home, something called kenkey.
While he talked, I thought hard about foods I grew up with that are just as time intensive. Falling short – aside from canning – I searched for foods I’d eat every day, foods that meant something to me because of this. Isaac went on. “Then you form it into a ball and wrap it in a corn leaf. It dries. Then you put it in water and boil it for maybe two or three hours.”
I told Isaac that we have nothing like this where I come from. He looked away for a moment and smiled. “In my village, when a baby is born, after about a week, we all get together. During this time, we’ve been soaking some corn in water. We take some of this water and put it on the lips of the baby,” Isaac explained. “Oh,” I gasped. “And this is the first food the baby tastes!”
“This is the first food,” Isaac confirmed.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I immediately thought of “The Lion King” during the unveiling of Simba to the kingdom…and was jealous.
We pass out cigars…but now they might be the kind made out of gum or something else that’s edible and won’t give you cancer. We might send out a card or a plant. We do nothing at all but remember to ask if we have the opportunity. These things we do when a new child comes into the world. At some point, there’s usually a gathering for the baptism or bris or some other religious ceremony. But rarely do we get together for the corn water, if I may be so blunt.
This image Isaac shared with me about the village has haunted me for months. Are we so divorced from our food we have no ceremony left? It’s just food or ceremony, but never the twain shall meet, at least not anymore?
My family will be happy to hear that I eventually remembered something we eat that is almost as time consuming and certainly has meaning. It is called lutefisk, and its smell can drive the most stoic among us to tears. My people used to eat this when starvation was the only alternative. Many years later, I’d see my family eat this as if it actually tasted good when in reality, they were just enjoying the massive amounts of butter, salt, and pepper. Gone were the stories of starvation and the will of a people to survive. We have, it would seem, forgotten our story.
Isaac eventually fixed my computer, but what I was perhaps more grateful for was the gift of his food story as I now seek to remember and rediscover the latent stories and forgotten ceremonies of the foods I eat…