Introducing "Tables of Plenty": A Yearlong Exploration of Christian Food Practices

It's a new yearlong adventure for the Goodwin family and a new blog called "Tables of Plenty" to connect with others around the themes of food and faith. Go here to see the new blog.

Starting on November 28, 2011 with the Orthodox Nativity fast, our family is dedicating a year to explore the role of food in Christian spiritual formation, one month at a time. Our monthly excursions will include following kosher food laws and eating in the tradition of the early church. We'll plant community gardens with the Benedictines, go vegetarian with Seventh Day Adventists, and vegan with the Orthodox. We'll even explore the spiritual depths of potlucks and jello-salad with our own tribe, the White Bread Protestants. We'll be reading, reflecting, blogging, and eating our way through the year at the Tables of Plenty blog.

It was almost four years ago that I started blogging about our family's Year of Plenty in which we committed to consuming only items that were local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Here's the linkto the first blog post with pictures of our fated attempt to make a flamingo pinata. It has been four enriching years of learning and writing about food, agriculture, consumerism, the environment, and faith. Our YoP experience has led to wonderful friendships and conversations that have sparked our imaginations for more learning and more exploration, especially when it comes to the role of food in Christian faith practices and spiritual formation. 

In recent years I've been struck by the strong connection between faith formation in the Bible and food practices. I've developed what I call a foodie hermeneutic of the Bible, reading the Bible through the lens of food and food practices, and I've been amazed at how central food is to the unfolding story of God's people in the Bible. It starts with the words to Adam, "You are free to eat," and ends with the grand vision of a feast. From manna during the exodus to Jesus fasting in the wilderness to Peter's hunger-induced vision of unclean foods in the book of Acts, the path to following God's will is often negotiated at some point on food's journey from field to table.

In contrast to this prominent role of food in the Bible, I've been surprised by the relative absence of food as a means of spiritual formation in my experience as a Protestant, evangelical, North American Christian. I never thought much about it until our YoP experiment led us into conversations with locavores, slow food foodies, vegans, sustainable agriculture activists, and others who all seem to understand the powerful role of food choices in the formation of a person. In these communities we have found people fleshing out the meaning of life and embracing food as a central practice in that process. While most of these movements are considered "secular," they often have a sacred feel to them.  

For example Novella Carpenter writes in her book Farm City about her experience raising a pig named Harold:

Although I usually call myself an atheist, a lonely universe offers little comfort to a person confronting death...But to hold Harold, this amazing living creature, to know that his life force would be transferred to me in the form of food, felt sacred.

Michael Pollan writes at the conclusion of The Omnivore's Dilemma about a dinner with friends that he calls the "perfect meal":

The stories, like the food that fed them, cast lines of relation to all these places and the creatures living (and dying) in them, drawing them all together on this table, on these plates, in what to me began to feel a little like a ceremony. And there's a sense in which the meal had become just that, a thanksgiving or a secular seder, for every item on our plates pointed somewhere else, almost sacramentally, telling a little story about nature or community or even the sacred, for mystery was often the theme. Such stories food can feed us both body and soul..."

Bestselling books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, preach the gospel of food as spiritual formation and the message is resonating.

Alexander Schmemann, a prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian sums up this situation well in his book, For the Life of the World:

Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that ‘something more’ is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.

Just as our Year of Plenty experiment was launched out of a desire to answer questions about how our faith speaks into contemporary issues around consumerism, this Tables of Plenty project is motivated by a desire to answer questions about how our faith speaks into these contemporary conversations around food. With Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter, we have a sense that there is something sacred about what we eat and we suspect that there is a rich Biblical and historical tradition in the Christian faith that has been mostly lost in current expressions of church. Like so many, we are hungry and thirsty for a sacramental life, so we're going to read, and explore, and eat our way through the year, hoping to reconnect with sacred food practices and maybe even help others do the same.

Each month we'll focus on one historic tradition and eat all of our food according to those rules. Here's the calendar so far:

December - Eastern Orthodox Nativity Fast

January - Getting Kosher with Jewish Food Laws

February - Eating With the Early Church

March - Fasting with the Desert Fathers, Ascetics, and Monastics

April - Celebrating the Eucharist and the Lord's Supper (Roman Catholic Tradition)

May - Seeking Social Justice with the Mennonites

June - Planting Community Gardens with the Benedictines

July - Eating Vegetables with the Seventh Day Adventists

August - Harvesting with the Hutterites (and Amish)

September - Soul Food with the African-American Church

October - Potlucking with White-Bread Protestants

Along with eating we'll be reading and reviewing books, sharing recipes, and hopefully making new friends to gather with around the table.

We also hope to crowd-source this endeavor. Please let us know if you have recipes, experiences, or insights into the role of food in Christian spiritual formation. Is there a unique tradition that we've left off our calendar that we should explore? Are there books that you would recommend?

As was the case with the Year of Plenty, it's hard to say at this early stage if we'll be successful in carrying this plan to the end. We may run into unexpected roadblocks that require adjustments along the way. Noel, Lily, and I have committed to taking on a larger role in the kitchen and I'm excited to expand my culinary skills. I'll continue blogging here at Year of Plenty and sharing some content between the two blogs.

You can follow Tables of Plenty on Facebook and Twitter. I'm still working on getting the RSS feed up and running.