Food as ritual – killing the fatted calf

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Cambodians offer food to their ancestors through Buddhist monks during Pchum Ben Festival.

Further to my post about Casseroles™, I started thinking about food as ritual. It’s a massively broad category encompassing every single religious, cultural or home practice you can think of. From animal and human sacrifices, Seder, or communion host to a tradition of grinding up the ashes and bones of dead parents to make a soup by some South American natives, food is what we are.

Robin Fox of the Social Issues Research Centre, writes in Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective, “Because of its centrality in our lives, food becomes a perfect vehicle for ritual, and food rituals become central to most religions; food taboos mark off one sect or denomination from another.”

This fascinates me and I get it, because food does define people. Hindus are vegetarians, Catholics used to have to only eat fish on Fridays, Jews don’t eat pork or beef with milk. And this list goes on and on. Robin Fox goes on to talk about the conspicuous consumption of food or conspicuous fasting as a way to assert if not superiority then a branding as part of a distinct group:

“But whether we are conspicuously eating well, or conspicuously depriving ourselves and others, we mark ourselves off — either as having more than anyone else, or less; and either is made a virtue. By their food shall ye know them.”

It’s easy to think of all those special food practices that are edicts in most religions, but let’s look at food rituals closer to home – the ones that are chosen by us because they create cohesion and link us with each other and our personal histories. As I mentioned in an earlier post, dinner is sacred in my house. When I grew up, Sunday dinner was sacred – woe be the child who was late for Sunday dinner. There’s the Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, Friday night pizza, birthday cakes, the eating lobster in Nova Scotia because we always eat lobster in Nova Scotia ritual. There are almost no events, celebrations, get togethers or even casual gatherings that don’t have an element of food ritual attached.

This post could literally be hundreds of pages long. But I think you get the picture. So share with me your food rituals. Daily, weekly, annually. Is there something that you do that has food at its centre that defines you, your family, your relationships?

For more information about food and religion, check out http://faithinfood.org for some great information about food rituals in various faiths.

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