Though I am a devout Christian, I don’t have a problem with Feuerbach’s famously cynical aphorism, “man is what he eats.” Of course, as a materialist 19th Century German philosopher, he was attempting to assert, with a certain amount of wit, a vision of human life devoid of any transcendence in which we all are but meat. But I embrace and celebrate the fact that I am what I eat and food and cooking are surely some of the most spiritual of enterprises. It is a bit odd that modernity has found nothing curious about the simple observation that all the earth’s creatures, humans included, abide in the world only as long as they consume it, literally taking the earth into their bodies to abide within themselves. No, we think that the chief end of cooking is to sterilize our food of all its “living” properties such that we render for ourselves an effective means of “nutrient” ingestion, the chief end of eating.
And yet there is something intensely spiritual about such matters, as it is with all things whose primary nature is one of union. As an example, people often forget that the foundation of the Christian Church’s life is not firstly a subscription to a creed or confession, though that is certainly central, but rather, it is a meal, one in which the object of feasting is the very body and blood of the Lord. The Church is what she eats. And in describing this meal, Jesus said that those who eat of his flesh and drink his blood shall abide in Him and He in them and ultimately receive eternal life. Coincidentally, that is the same condition for life on earth. To have life requires feasting. This is not to elaborate upon eucharistic theology, but merely to express that the simple fact of eating, a practice that all living creatures share, seems to be woven into the very fabric of Creation; it is a form of life. And at the same time, eating seems to be intrinsically redemptive as well, both with physical satiation as well as with sacramental eating. But one need not only consider the nature of the sacraments in this discussion.
Whatever the specifics are, if one believes that God did in fact create the world, there is truth in that God took that which was “formless and empty” and ordered the cosmos in such a way to make things new. But the newness of the original Creation did not remain static, nor was it intended to remain so. The creatures upon whom God bestowed his own image, human beings, have never passively received the creation that surrounds them. No, we have instead, in many cases, taken the rawness of Creation and refined it, perhaps even redeemed it. Now, of course, we have “refined” our sugar and flour but that’s not what I’m talking about. If we have the ability to redeem the cosmos, then we also have the ability to desecrate it. No, I’m talking about sweet cream butter. About Burgundian Pinot Noir and Camembert de Normandie.
In Christian theology, eschatology denotes the contemplation of those things that are final, ultimate, and conclusive. It seeks to understand this seemingly unrelenting movement towards coherence, union, and culmination that the earth continues to display to us. We do live in a world whose mountains groan. But the realm of “last things” is not the only category in which the eschatological can be seen. Ironically, the moment of Creation was eschatological in that the chaos of the cosmos was ordered and redeemed in the most fundamental of ways. In this framework, we have profound reason to see the singularly human practice of cooking in a gleaming new light. Cooking is mini-redemption and if the Greek word eschaton, from which “eschatology” is derived, denotes an “unveiling” then how else could one describe the moment when a crème brulee is finally graced with that beautiful flame? If humans are the single creatures who possess the Imago Dei, then no action in which the raw resources of Creation, our own “chaos”, is taken and renewed into something better can escape possessing that essentially redemptive nature. And this should give us reason to enjoy food and cooking even more than we already do. I am trying to understand that pot of marinara on the stove as a “sacrament of sustenance” because while that simmering sauce is actually nothing more than its constituent parts of tomatoes, garlic, basil, and oil, once I’ve stewed it and stirred it, can it ever go back to being its original ingredients? Of course not. It is something new or, rather, renewed. The ingredients have been redeemed.
I will now enjoy it alongside some bread slathered with eschatological butter.