What’s for Dinner?

The Rev. Alison Cornish

September 30, 2007

But we have only begun to love the earth. We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life. How could we tire of hope? So much is in the bud.

from ‘Candles in Babylon,’ Denise Levertov

Opening Words (Max Coots)

Let us give thanks for a bounty of friends.

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn;

For plain friends, who, like potatoes, are so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussel Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

For serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening time;

For young friends, growing as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For this bounty of friends we give thanks.

‘What’s for Dinner?’ The Rev. Alison Cornish

I planned this sermon about food many weeks ago – thanks to the rigors of our newsletter deadlines – not knowing, not able to know, what might transpire between then and now. Ken Wisner’s death this week has cut across the life of this congregation – and me – and memories of Ken were with me as I wrote my reflections for this morning. Ken was many things to many people, but I suspect many of us remember Ken’s connection with food. Ken was an unabashed lover of eating. He ate with great joy, even gusto, especially those 3 bowls of ice cream he could polish off after a meal more suited to someone twice his size. Ken and Jeanne often opened their home to our congregation’s circle suppers; they celebrated Ken’s birthdays by grilling on their back deck; and they are charter members of the ‘lunch bunch,’ a gang of you who head out together after Sunday’s service. It is with these thoughts that I dedicate this sermon, ‘What’s for Dinner?’ to Ken Wisner.

How we love to eat! Food, glorious food! If we are fortunate in our health, eating is a joy, even an adventure – tastes, aromas – and a time to be with friends, eating, drinking, making merry.

This sermon has, as its genesis, a moment several years ago when I served as an intern with the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum. The Forum is comprised of representatives of 12 different religious traditions – the Christians and Jews are there, of course, but so are the Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. There are Sikhs, too, and Jains, Native Americans and Ba’hais. Oh, and UUs! We’re there, too. A brave, eclectic band, drawn together by a sense that all have much to learn from one another.

You can probably imagine some of the challenges that such a diverse group faces, but one very significant one was – can we all eat together? Like us here at the meetinghouse, most of these folks understand that food goes hand-in-hand with talking, socializing, getting to know one another. But – could we find a way to do that?

The problem actually started with the question, ‘who’s fasting right now?’ Is it Ramadan? The birth of the Bab? Yom Kippur? We needed to know the holy days and holidays of each tradition, and what restrictions they imposed.

But then it went on. Kosher, of course, for the Jews. No alcohol or caffeine for the Muslims. Most Hindus are vegetarians, as are most Buddhists. So could we at least all settle on vegetables? Well, then there are the Jains, who don’t eat anything which must be killed – including plants. So, only vegetables which can be harvested – no root vegetables, like potatoes, carrots and onions. The list was getting short.

Then someone paused – and looked at me – ‘well, how about you UUs? What don’t you eat?’

It was a good question, and I didn’t have an easy answer. I mean, I had my own thoughts – and practices – about what to – and not to – eat. But were those ‘UU?’ And, at the same time, I was serving a congregation that was struggling mightily with the subject of food. There were a handful of vegans – those who don’t eat any animal products at all – while most of the congregation identified as omnivores. ‘I can’t be at a pot-luck dinner where meat is served,’ maintained a committed vegan. ‘I won’t be browbeaten into feeling guilty for my BBQ ribs,’ countered an equally committed omnivore. Both groups pointed to the UU principles to support their positions, but the principles led them in opposite directions.

Until that question, ‘What don’t you eat,’ and my experience with the vegan-omnivore conflict, I don’t think I ever imagined that my own food choices – and the reasons behind them – might have a religious dimension. But that started me down a journey of reflection that is getting increasingly complex and interesting, and deepening my own understanding of Unitarian Universalist spirituality and ethics.

You see, I first stopped eating meat when I was 19 years old for purely financial reasons. I was working as an intern at a summer theater in Hartford, where my pay was $200/month. Rent was $100/month. That left $3.57 a day for everything else. Meat was a luxury, so I simply didn’t buy it.

My nascent vegetarianism got a boost when I returned to college that fall, to find that the school food service had instituted a ‘vegetarians only’ dining room. It was small, and quiet. There was no gray ‘mystery meat.’ In fact, there was food with color and flavor! I still cook one of my favorites from that time – acorn squash stuffed with apples and walnuts, glazed with maple syrup.

Once I stopped eating meat, I didn’t miss it much. Life rolled along. But then I read Frances Moore Lappe’s groundbreaking book, Diet for a Small Planet. Her point that stuck with me was the amount of protein contained in the grains that were fed to animals – so that those same animals could then become our protein. She made the case that the developed world was ransacking the developing world with this practice. It made so much sense to me to do as she counseled – eat the protein before it’s meat. Now I identify that as the first turning point in raising my own food consciousness. It wasn’t all about what I could afford, or not; what tasted good to me, or not – it was about what I consumed being a part of a world-wide web of existence, and what part did I want to play in that?

Even though I had stopped eating red meat, I continued to eat fish, which was (back then) both affordable and outside the grain-to-animal food cycle described by Lappe. Fish were wild. They ate what oceans or rivers gave them, not what humans fed them. (Remember, this was back in the 1970s – much of this has changed now.) But something else ‘clicked’ with me about fish. I grew up near the Connecticut lakes, where my brother and I loved to fish. I did it all, probably just to show my older brother that I could – dug the nightcrawlers, baited the hook, landed the perch or pickerel, knocked them out, threaded them on the line, even gutted them – and of course, ate them. I had a direct relationship with fish as animal to food. I could call this to mind even if I bought my fish at a market. Maybe I didn’t catch and kill that fish, but I had, and I could again. This made me feel, well, somehow honest, even authentic, even though I was technically relying on someone else to do the dirty work on an ongoing basis. I’d never even witnessed the killing of a chicken, never mind killed one myself – and the same for cows, lambs or pigs. Something inside me told me, loudly and clearly, that until I did, I shouldn’t eat them.

Now I knew that my ‘food principles’ – to eat lower on the food chain in order to maximize the protein available for all, and to eat what I myself am willing to gather or hunt, kill and prepare – were full of loopholes, inconsistencies and gaps. Nonetheless, they served me as a modest entry point into the vast maze of the modern food industry. They easily kept me away from fast food joints. I found most of what I wanted in a grocery store by traveling its perimeter – dairy, vegetables, fish, a few staples. I might even attribute my relatively good health to this eating pattern. But in pondering these principles more recently, I’ve found them to be too minimal. And I’ve had a yearning to see them more directly connected to my religious, or spiritual, life.

In exploring these questions, I have enjoyed immensely Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s a memoir of her family’s efforts to ‘eat local’ for a year, both from what they can produce themselves on their Virginia farm and also what they can buy from local producers. The book is far more than a ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ style adventure. It’s a thoughtful reflection on this country’s critical need for a ‘positive food culture’ – one that honors local traditions and conditions; is healthy and offers justice to people, plants, animals and the planet as a whole; and minimizes the use of non-renewable resources. Kingsolver names this a spiritual task as she writes:

Our culture is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded

commodity. We’re just particular about what spiritual arguments we’ll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Acceptable: it’s prohibited by a holy text. Set down a platter of country ham in front of a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, and you may have just conjured three different visions of damnation. [But] Generally unacceptable [arguments]: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Is it such a stretch Ö to make moral choices about food based on the global consequences of its production and transport? [Unfortunately], the conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners. (Kingsolver, 67)

For me, this book by Kingsolver (and her co-authors, her husband Steven and daughter Camille), as well as Frances Moore Lappe’s latest effort, Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, and Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals are helping me explore more deeply my two ‘food principles,’ but also to understand the spiritual aspects of food beyond that question ‘what can’t you eat?’

It has me looking to our Unitarian Universalist principles for guidance, but realizing that they contain starting points, not answers. Here are just a few questions that seem, to me, to call us to find a spiritual basis for the choices around the food we eat:

  • How do I express my gratitude for the elements of sun, earth, water and air that conspire to feed me?
  • How much do I really know about the welfare of the farmers, field workers, packers, shippers, truckers and supermarket workers who are responsible for the food that arrives, season after season, nearly on my doorstep?
  • How is that food is so plentiful – and becoming moreso – the world over, and yet there are those that go hungry, in my own town, across Long Island, the world over?
  • What are the benefits – and what are the costs – of looking at my dinner plate and seeing there the products of the world, sometimes from thousands of miles away from where I sit?

I wish that we had the time to really dig into all these questions touch, but this is a vast topic, and our time together short. So let me suggest a few ways that each of us might approach the subject of what I’ll grandly call ‘the spirituality of eating,’ or perhaps ‘ethical food.’

The first step is mindfulness. It starts with thanksgiving for what we have, for the bounty before us. It could be a moment of grace before a meal. But mindfulness could also be a moment of meditation on a question – where does this food come from? How was it produced? Who helped it to get to my table? Steven Hopp tells us that each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. (Kingsolver, 5) Talk about food for thought! It might take a world almanac, the world wide web, and a few science textbooks to really work out the answer Ö but, as a spiritual practice, the point is to not take this food before us for granted. It is the product of ancient and wondrous processes, of strangers and neighbors. Without it, we perish – quickly.

The second step is to take this mindfulness about what we have, and ask some tough questions generated by our principles. For me, the most important UU principles for this task are ‘justice, equity and compassion in human relations,’ and ‘respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.’ Regarding food, then, the four questions I would ask are:

  • Are the fruits and vegetables being grown sustainably? That is, will the air, water, soil and water where they are farmed be healthy enough for our children and grandchildren to eat well, perhaps even better than we do?
  • Are the farms, processing plants, packing operations and transportation companies that brought the food to us worker-friendly? If we ‘peeked behind the curtain,’ would we find workers being treated and paid well?
  • Are all the operations related to getting the food to our tables fuel-efficient? In this country, agriculture consumes 400 gallons of oil per year per citizen. That’s an enormous drain on what we know is a non-renewable resource.
  • Finally, is the food on our tables cruelty-free? If we do choose to eat meat, has the animal had a quality of life that it deserves as a living, breathing sentient being? Has it been treated with respect both in its living and its dying?

I don’t know about you, but if I asked myself these questions about each and every one of my meals, I could not offer very satisfying answers about much of the food I eat.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by how far away we are from an ideal relationship with our food. But that’s another reason that I’ve so enjoyed my reading on this subject – there are a lot of people advocating for, working for, and accomplishing – a new direction. Call it a mission, a movement, a migration – call it what you will – there are a growing number of people who are calling for, and making it possible for all of us to eat more healthily, sensibly, and locally. And for people everywhere to reconnect with where their food comes from, how it gets to their tables, and the miracles that involves. Even so, it’s logical to ask – given the nature of agribusiness, can any such movement make a difference? As a partial answer, consider this – if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.

Small changes make a difference.

In my reading over the past weeks, I’ve learned about land reform in Brazil led by small-scale farmers tilling the soil on farms they never thought they would actually own; an abandoned school playground in California remade into the school’s own ‘kitchen garden,’ with inner-city students both the farmers and the cooks; and farmers in Virginia raising organic mushrooms and small livestock on land that formerly grew only tobacco.

And this story, so close to home, appeared in Newsday two weeks ago:

Samantha walks along a row of collard seedlings that promise new life. The late-summer sun glints on the razor wire curling atop the high chain-link fence. Samantha smiles as she comes to the watermelon patch at the end of the row.

“I look at the watermelons and think, ‘I did this,’ ” she says. “The ground was hard like a road. But I turned the soil, I added manure. I had a migraine, and my back hurt for a week. But look what happened.”

Hope and watermelons grow together in the garden at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead where Samantha and nine other inmates are finishing a six-week course called The Kitchen Garden. Samantha, is 26, a single mother from Mastic Beach with a 10-year-old daughter. She’s been in jail for the last four months, still awaiting trial on a conspiracy charge involving a drug bust in Southampton. ‘Sure, I look up and I see the razor wire,” she says. “But I also see birds and blue skies. When I was home, I didn’t notice nature. I do now.”

The article goes on to describe the graduation ceremony for the women who have completed their course. Samantha stands at the podium. “I’ve never spoken in public,” she says. “But I want to tell you that I learned something through weeding. The weeds run really deep, but the roots of the fruits and vegetables can get pulled out so easy.

That’s the way it is out in the world. Negativity runs deeps. The good things need to be tended daily. The weeds will take over if you let them. You can’t let them – or there goes your garden of life. I learned this here, in this garden.”

When it comes to food, I’m with Samantha – negativity runs deep. The good things need to be tended daily. What better way to do just that, than for your food and your spirit to be in harmony?

Closing Words (Nancy Wood)

Hold on to what is good

even if it is

a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe

even if it is

a tree which stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do

even if it is a

long way from here.

Hold on to my hand even when

I have gone away from you.


Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (HarperCollins, 2007)

Irene Virag, ‘Gardening Helps Inmates at Suffolk County Jail,’ Newsday, Sunday, September 16, 2007.

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