Eating with Sinners, Part One of Two

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.  Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in blood, which is shed for you.

These familiar sentences from Luke’s description of the Last Supper (which occur in parallel passages of Matthew and Mark) are quoted within the central act of Christian worship, when the mystery of Him who was both God and man is revealed in the bread and wine that is also the body and blood of our Lord.  The incarnation of God experienced by the faithful in the sacrament of communion is, at least from our human standpoint, the greatest of mysteries.  

There is also, however, a more everyday dimension to the sacred scene.  Jesus is dining with his friends, and it is a very special meal: the Passover.  Like other observant Jews, they eat the paschal lamb and the unleavened bread; they drink the wine, and, although it is not mentioned, they may have also consumed bitter herbs to remind them of their bondage in Egypt.  

Pagan cults also included sacred meals that united the worshippers and brought them closer to the divine beings.  Walter Burkert, in his magisterial survey of Greek Religion, sketches the typical pattern of pagan sacrifice: 

The essence of the sacred act…is in Greek practice a straightforward and far from miraculous process: the slaughter and consumption of a domestic animal for a god.  The sacrifice is a festive occasion for the community.  The contrast with everyday life is marked with washing, dressing in clean garments, and adornment, in particular, wearing a garland woven from twigs on the head…

After a procession and the slaughter, the animal is butchered and the entrails are roasted for the god and a select group of participants, while the inedible parts are put upon the fire.  Libations of wine are poured (and later drunk) and the meat is distributed to the crowd.  Barbecues and feasting of every kind were a prominent feature of the festivals that determined the calendars of a Greek city, and, as Burkert concludes, “the order of life, a social order, is constituted in the sacrifice through irrevocable acts; religion and everyday existence interpenetrate so completely that every community, every order must be founded through a sacrifice.”  

I grew up in a non-believing household, though my sister (sent, for her sins, to a convent school) converted to the church my father had rejected.  My mother, nonetheless, preserved the holiday schedule as best she could.  I well remember the ordeal of the final plucking and singeing of the Christmas turkey, the two days of work preparing the stuffings, the Tom and Jerrys my parents served to their frozen caroling friends on a northern Wisconsin Christmas night.  Easter was inconceivable without roast lamb, and I cannot remember an Easter, wherever I found  myself, when I did not eat lamb.  The Balkans are obviously not a problem, but Rome is also famous for its abbacchio, and, when I find myself in Pisa, I go to Il Nuraghe, an old-fashioned Sardinian trattoria with excellent lamb and passionate red wines that are almost barbaric in intensity.

Catholics and Protestants have only a dim memory of the sacred meal, but my Serbian Orthodox friends turn every holiday and saint’s day into a festival.  Serbs also have a unique religious custom known as the krsna slava, the celebration of the family saint.  In preparation for the day, the family has the priest bless the house with prayers, holy water, and incense, or, if that is not possible, they bring žito and wine to the church to be blessed.  The žito, made of boiled wheat, sugar, walnuts, and nutmeg, is offered to each guest, who first crosses himself then takes a spoonful of the dish which commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ. On the day of the slava, the vigil lamp is lit before the icon of the family saint.  

The guests (traditionally uninvited, though that custom has changed) gather around the table, and the host cuts a cross into the bottom of the slavski kolač, a tall bread, often braided and with a cross impressed into the top.  This kolač, which has been made with holy water, is broken and shared by the guests, as members of the family ask themselves in their minds whether they have lived a Christian life.  After a prayer--often the family and guests stand and recite the Lord’s Prayer--the participants get down to the serious of eating: an endless round of antipasto--salamis, cheese, pickled peppers; a special sarma made with liver, heart, rice wrapped in a membrane--a sort of Serbian haggis; roast pork and perhaps lamb (unless it is the feast of Saint Nicholas or of another saint whose day falls within a fasting period).  Red wine is drunk to commemorate the blood of Christ that washes away our sins.  And although variety and plenty is the normal rule, even the poorest family may celebrate a slava so long as there is the wheat, red wine, the icon, and so long as in their hearts they are determined to lead a Christian life.

In some rural parts of Greece, on Easter eve, they take part in a long liturgy that concludes after midnight.  The entire parish or town, by now famished with fasting,  then proceed to a barbecue, where they consume  vast quantities of slow-roasted lamb with potatoes cooked in the lamb fat.

To Americans, who treat eating as either a shameful necessity--the worse food tastes, presumably, the more moral is the consumer--or as an opportunity for displaying a lifestyle choice, the sacred meal is a notion even more alien than the good meal.  Americans eat worse than any wealthy nation in the history of the world.  By “worse” I do not mean simply the bad food we take in every day--the carbon monoxide reddened but unripened tomatoes, the hormone-cultured meat products that have made tofu a reasonable substitute for beef, fat-free milk and flavor-free fruits--or the synthetic starch-and-tallow meals warmed up in chain restaurants, ranging from the cheap and bad (McDonalds or KFC) to the not-so-cheap but just as bad (Applebys, Fridays, and Olive Garden).  Chain restaurants, no matter how expensive, are for the servile proletariat.  But even the best restaurants are all too often show places rather than places to enjoy a meal with friends.  

Even when, as in many American restaurants, there are good dishes on the menu, the proprietors either do not know how to serve them properly or are forced by their customers to violate all the protocols.  Once, on a flight to Paris, a middle-aged man across the aisle, asked me , "Vous parlez français?"  He spoke fairly decent English to the waitress--I mean flight attendant--but was clearly tired of using the language after several weeks in America.  He was a teacher in a lycée (which means a great deal more than high school teacher), and wanted to share his impressions of America with an American.  I should have feigned ignorance, but I was bored.

He had been awed by the American West and enjoyed New Orleans--though he wondered why so many shops and restaurants deceitfully put up the sign, "Ici on parle français."  Outside New Orleans, he was appalled by American restaurants.  In the Southwest, he observed, one can get much better beef than he was accustomed to eating in France, and it was wonderfully cooked, "But," he complained, "they dump it on the plate with potatoes and vegetables and make a one-dish meal."  I chuckled as I thought of what we were facing on a United Airlines flight.

American restaurants are only a symbol of what is wrong with American eating habits.  People who ate well at home simply would not put up with the poor service, worse food, and false pretensions of the average fine restaurant.  American women do not, by and large, know how to cook--they have more important things to do, they say, like clerking in a store or minding other people’s children or teaching sociology.  And, once mom or dad has heated up the frozen food in the microwave or dumped the Chinese take-out on the table, the members of the “family” either go off to separate entertainment centers or sit, dressed in their shorts and t-shirts, jeans, sweats, stretch-pants, just long enough to bolt down the food and argue over sports, politics, the weather, or anything else they have only experienced through television.

For human beings, eating is a social act.  Of course we must occasionally dine alone, but a normal person will rarely enjoy a solitary meal.  (How dismal must be the condemned man’s final steak, fries, and ice cream, since he cannot share it with his mates on death row!).  In my travels, I often go back to the same restaurant, if I am alone, because a familiar place takes some of the sting out of eating alone.  Eating is one of the three necessities of human life, and all three of these necessities--eating to sustain life, having sex to continue life, and fighting to defend life--require other people.  A rich gourmet who likes to dine alone might as well make love to himself.

*          *          *          *

This is another old piece, only slightly revised.


Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

15 Responses

  1. Khater M says:

    So what can we do individually to combat the trend of bad eating?

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    The nine to five work day, working away from home, etc., lead to powdered gravy, frozen biscuits in cans, and McDonald’s. Even when something is easy to make from scratch, we still go for the instant, powdered, or frozen storebought version.

  3. Dominick D says:

    Well the women just wanted their food to keep,
    Instant potatoes and rubber meat.

  4. Dot says:

    I think American eating habits and food choices and meals stem from the early settlers of the 17th century from the English and Irish – the Irish due to the potato famine in the early 18th century. I think our economy of competition and profits, of meals cheaper than what can be made at home, plays a big part in people’s eating habits. It also plays an important part in obesity of Americans. Because people eat out frequently, they eat far more than what they need.

    Yes, eating is a social act. But many people eat alone.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Which came first, working women or powdered gravy? In general, when I was growing up, it was the exceptional wife and mother of school-age children who worked outside the home, and yet, in my experience, American cooking in those days, both at home and in restaurants, was very bad. The intrusion of TV into American households changed dining patterns irrevocably. Frozen and freeze-dried foods were sold to people of my mother’s generation as the latest fruits of the scientific revolution that was liberating women from household drudgery. It turned out, of course, that liberated women had nothing better to do than watch television, shop, or gossip. Small wonder some of them sought fulfillment in jobs that drained their energies.

    In general–though of course one could fill the ether with exceptions–people do what they think they want to do within the limits of their resources and abilities. If a teacher tells you he/she is really a novelist but has not yet found the time to work on a book, you know you are confronted with a case of self-deception. When husbands and wives promise to eat better and cook better but have not found the time, they might ask themselves how many hours they spend watching TV and surfing the internet.

    When my children were growing up, I insisted that my wife stay at home. It meant making a few minor accommodations that people I knew did not have to make, but it vastly improved the quality of daily life. Several times a week, I would volunteer in advance to make dinner, and, as soon as I got home (around 5:15-5:30) I set to work. My older daughter and younger son were dragooned into chopping and assisting, while my younger daughter made me a Martini. We played music on the radio, and generally had a good time. The younger son is now a chef and the older daughter is a wonderful cook, who takes care of her husband and two sons.

    Life consists of choices, but the trouble is that so few of us even perceive what the choices are. The shepherds of the people–no longer kings and bishops but athletes and film stars–set the example that most of the rest of us follow. So, to answer Khater’s question of what we do? We decide what is important to us–taking some care to examine the criteria and authorities that guid our decision. If the rituals of familial dining are important, then we make time for them. This may exclude obsessive participation in sports, but that may be a good thing in and of itself. Honestly, while I am sometimes too tired and bored to relieve my wife, when she is too tired and bored to cook supper–last night, for example–there is always bread, cheese, scrambled eggs or take-out food. If you don’t have gravy mix, freeze-dried potatoes, and a microwave oven in your kitche, then you won’t be tempted to use them. I am far from suggesting the life of the gourmand who insists that every night’s supper be a food tasting. Simple fresh food, easy to prepare without commercial additives, is within the reach of everyone.

    PS I happen to know that Dominick D microwaves his green beans.

  6. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    And I microwave my squash.

    I took over as cook when I retired over five years ago. As I am a native of Wisconsin and my wife lived much of her life in Hawaii and near the Chesapeake Bay, I often make a seafood dish for her and beef or pork for me. We also eat a lot of chicken, but never fried.

    We also go out to eat at least once a week at our favorite restaurant where my wife always gets a crab cake salad and I usually get a burger or a prime rib sandwich. Recently I tried the pork chop with baked potato. I think it is now my favorite; the best pork chop I have ever had. Thick, juicy, and tender.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    No microwave. That was a period at the end of the sentence!

    Fried chicken, properly cooked as my wife does it and I cannot, is perhaps America’s greatest contribution to civilization, though Tuscan fried chicken is excellent.

    My friends in Italy and the Balkans, when they take me to restaurants, typically encourage me to order individually, but as we get to know each other. I encourage them to order for the table. My wife and I have differing tastes, but we often order different dishes and split. Conclusion? It’s not so much a real communal meal when family members and friends order just what they like. Speaking as a finicky individualist–which is against my own philosophy–I have to say that sharing, as opposed to free choice, should be the dominant note. I am not trying to hand down a law, only drawing conclusions from experience. Fastfood leaves little choice, and that ought to be a hint.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    My mother was famous for her fried chicken. All of my friends always asked her to make it when they were invited for dinner. Her cheesecake (made with cottage cheese) and her pineapple upside down cake were very popular too.

    One local restaurant that we like often has a surf n turf special. When we go my wife gets all the surf and I get all the turf.

  9. Dominick D says:

    Wrong, Dr. Fleming. . .my wife does!
    Except of course those rare cases when I am in charge of dinner – in which case I maintain the dignity of cooking the mac and cheese on a stove top or the pizza in the oven while shaking up a martini. My daughter doesn’t do them for me, but she does love the pimentos.
    I hasten to add that the wife is a wonderful cook who could get along very well without a microwave just as I could get along just fine without running water or electricity.

    My previous comment was meant as humorous agreement to the premise of the article and taken from an 80’s pop song – maybe a Chestertonian laugh at our present state.

    Andrew G Van Sant – does Buddy’s still do the Sunday champagne brunch? That was always 13 bucks well spent.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    St Dominic would chastise you, Mr., D., but I shan’t. You know, I have secret sources of information!

  11. Dominick D says:

    Secret sources are fair enough, but St Dominic’s chastisement is a pretty aggressive standard for most mortals!

  12. Dominick D says:

    But I suppose this is the Fleming Foundation after all. I will shut up and go read the next installment.

  13. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dominick D – My wife and I have not eaten at Buddy’s in recent memory, so I am not sure if they still do Sunday brunch.

    Unless we are with friends who want steamed blue crabs, in which case we eat at one of the many local restaurants on the water that specialize in steamed crabs, we almost always eat at Adams Grill, our favorite. In fact we had dinner there tonight. My wife had her crab cake salad and I had the pork chop with mashed potatoes and broccoli.

  14. Robert Peters says:

    I learned to fry chicken from my grandmother. At almost all family gatherings, I am asked to fry the chicken. We have a family tradition of banana pudding. My mother taught me how to make it. She learned it from her mother, who in turn, learned it from her mother – my great grand mother Alabama Jones, née Madden. At a Madden family reunion, I brought Great Grandma Alabama’s pudding. There was another pudding on the table which looked just like mine and which, I found out later, tasted just like mine. It was brought by a much older cousin, twenty years older, who was descended from Great Grand Ma’s sister – Tennessee Stewart, neé Madden. The common denominator was Samantha Worshim Madden, Alabama and Tennessee’s mother. So, Great Great Grandma Samantha gets the credit – we call the sweet Madden Puddin’.

  15. Robert Peters says:

    I tell my students that there are four sacred places: the marriage bed; the supper table where the family gathers for spiritual, intellectual and physical nourishment; the Lord’s Table where the Church meets her Groom; and the garden – the flower garden for beauty, the vegetable garden for nourishment and the graveyard, groomed in beauty, at least traditionally before flat gravestones and plastic flowers, for the graveyard marks the consequence of the fall, namely death, but is, when all things are made new, our hope in the Resurrection. The Madden line of my ancestors meets twice a year – once in October and once in May to walk among the ancestors, to groom the garden which on that day will give forth its fruit, and to celebrate with food, stories and laughter. On a serious note, although not without humor at the expense of my great uncle Arthur, my cousin Billy, about twenty years older than I, asked if I were present at Uncle Arthur’s burial. No, I said, I was in Germany. Billy reminded me that Uncle Arthur was an atheist. Billy said that Uncle Arthur knew the Bible, backward and forward, but that he did not believe a word of it. After that brief conversation, Billy said that for that reason when Uncle Arthur died in the late seventies in his early nineties, they buried him with his feet to the headstone. Billy quipped that he did not need to be facing Jerusalem on judgement day! Those waiting for That Day in our graveyard are all facing east.