The Language of Food
As good as the pastries and drinks are, Graham’s asset is its space. We’re attracted to Graham’s because we can sit with a friend on a comfy couch in front of a fire, on a sunny porch, or on a patio surrounded by garden. Even if the Graham’s menu doesn’t float your boat, no one can beat our space. I could never get tired of Graham’s whenever I went there to study during school. You could read for hours in your own nook, play games, or lose track of time with friends. It is, in my opinion, one of the best places to enjoy people and food. And that’s what I love most about the environment of Graham’s: that it reminds us that people and food go together. It reminds us that the fundamental truth about food is that it is, and always has been, a point of connection and community. Some would say this first about language, but it’s my point that food is just as much about community as language is. And so, by pointing out the similarities between food and language, maybe we all can develop a better appreciation for how essential food is—not just for our nourishment but also for our community.
The almost unique and underpinning truth of language is that it is essentially a bridge between ourselves and that which is outside of ourselves. Language assumes this bonding property in three essential dimensions: by connecting us with our environment (the physical), each other (the social), and what has historically been considered the religious dimension (the metaphysical).
The fact that language connects oneself to others is probably its most obvious property. Community is only possible through communication, which is accomplished only through language. But the second two dimensions are less apparent.
Language connects us to our environment as a tool of comprehension and identification. For our earliest ancestors, a stick was nothing until it became comprehended as a resource. It may have been first comprehended as a weapon, or it could have been comprehended as a means to shelter, and eventually into a source of heat. But the distance between a stick and a spear, or a roof, or kindling is language. Furthermore, as we learn more and more about brain development, we learn that comprehension of surroundings will always be indelibly linked to the development of language. How we understand that which is outside of us will always be a matter of language.
Lastly, language has historically been considered to not only connect us with those like ourselves, but also to that which transcends us. Of course, this has appeared in many ways, the most common pattern is that of a divine creator that has in some form or another communicated to us or is at least able to be communicated to. For the Greeks, this took the form of an economy of satisfaction in which language and ritual was used to coerce or appease the gods. And as the Greco-Roman pantheon crumbled under Christendom, the concept of “Logos”–the Word of God–persisted in Christianity. Theology’s literal meaning suggests humanity’s ability to speak of God, and within many global theologies, most religions even argue that speech can even reach God, such as in prayer and worship. And so, language has historically connected us also to that which is beyond.
And so we have seen that language is considered to connect us to our surroundings, to each other, and to the transcendent, but it is even more remarkable how food shares in these properties as well. Hopefully, by showing how food is essentially a thing that connects us just as much as language does, we can appreciate more how food is fundamental to our being. And in this act of appreciation, maybe we will be able to relate to food better in our daily lives and, in turn, maybe relate to each other better.
First, food connects us to our environment by way of the land. One of my favorite philosophers and theologians has always been Jacques Ellul, who when he retired, began to farm potatoes in his backyard. He was giddier from his first crop than he ever was from the completion of his dissertation. He would say that food is one of the very few ways that we are connected with the land at all anymore. Much like language, food reminds us that we are not autonomous or independent, but depend on something outside of us for our very existence. And despite the fact that we tear our food out of plastic wrap and off the shelves at the market, food will only ever come out of the earth.
Second, food has historically been considered to connect us to the religious realm as well in very important ways. Since the very beginning, nourishment was considered to be dependent upon the satisfaction of local deities. From the god of rain to the god of land, one’s survival was dependent upon the gifts of those deities. Even now, many pray before meals in thankfulness. And this was not just a one way street. Early people didn’t simply receive food, but they also had to give it up to the deities as well. Locals would satisfy their gods by way of sacrificing first fruits and offering libations. The Judeo-Christian version of this is most similar to our tithe and mission of service to others. But most importantly from the Christian perspective is that the most intimate moment with our God is in the act of Communion, in which we are invited to receive a meal before God.
Lastly, it is most obvious but often forgotten how much food is meant to connect us with each other. It has always been essential to the practice of connection and communion. For many around the world, sharing food is an act of friendship and kinship. Millions every day meet over tea, coffee, beer, and wine. But it is incredible how this aspect of food can be lost. No other species of animal is capable of a thanksgiving feast, but neither does any other species of animal escape from each other with TV dinners. No other kind of animal gathers at a table to enjoy each other over food, but no other kind of animal has invented the drive-thru. No other animal has invented such creative ways to spice, combine, and cook food, but no other animal reduces its food to calories and fat contents.
The similarities between food and language is startling. And while food is often considered to be just a necessity for life and personal nourishment, both connect us to the environment, to each other, and even the transcendent. Food reminds us once again that yet another essential aspect of life such as eating is ultimately an act of connection and communion. And so before you get that coffee to go, maybe consider grabbing a mug and staying.
Of course, as we all have surely seen, the practice of food can produce the opposite effect when misused. Food can be used for the purposes of disconnecting and isolation. And so keep watch for my next blog post that goes more in depth about the abuses of food in our modern culture.