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Godly Gastronomy: Religious Eating Traditions and Ecumenical Secularism in Public Life Writing

Any analysis of the political work that first person life narratives about food perform in the context of American national belonging should begin with an admission of personal agendas and biases, so here are mine: I speak from the perspective of a literary food studies scholar, Latina, practicing Catholic who enjoys eating paczki on Fat Tuesdays, who’s published on the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah, and who regularly teaches all three of the essays I’ll discuss today to students at a Midwestern university. I also subscribe to the New York Times. These self-disclosures follow the genre of persona building at work in most food-writing aimed at general audiences and, as Emily Lind Johnston observes in “Agrarian Dreams,”

All life writing has the potential to serve as a model for audiences: As long as an audience has faith in the authenticity of the autobiographical performance, the protagonist’s journey is represented as achievable and often as desirable. In the United States, autobiographical narratives are understood as models for acting out individuals’ relationships to American ideals as performances of citizenship and politics. (19)

I argue that the three personal essays published in the New York Times opinion pages and Sunday Magazine between 2009 and 2012—Paul Clemens’ “Lean Tuesday,” Hesham Hassaballa’s “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan,” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Why a Haggadah?”—constitute a new type of public writing about both food and religion whose aim is not conversion to the faith but, rather a defense of the proposition that increased public awareness of the history and context of religious cultural traditions enriches the larger fabric of national polity. Speaking as insiders, though not all identify as believers, Clemens, Hassaballa, and Foer give witness to the sociopolitical benefits of observing religiously inspired culinary traditions, whether in public (standing in line at the bakery to purchase paczki the Tuesday before the start of Lent or refraining from daytime meals during Ramadan) or within the intimate realm of the home (where the ritual observance of the Passover meal is mediated through a performative reading of the family’s haggadah). By publishing their first person writing in the de-facto national newspaper of record, The New York Times, these three men address themselves to an audience of their fellow Americans, both insiders and outsiders to Judaism, Islam, or just unfamiliar with paczki, a sweet Polish filled pastry that marks the regional and ethnic observance of a day of excess in anticipation of the religious observance of Lent. These personal narratives suggest that secularism is not a freedom from religious ideas but a space that allows for, and prospers from, a difference through practice.

All of these writers use the secular public platform of the opinion pages to advocate for a more robust operational definition of diversity within a multiethnic American society. The appeal to spiritual foodways contextualizes religious traditions as predominantly nutritive expressions of national citizenship, and in calling for meaningful diversity, I note the emergence of what amounts to a secular ecumenism, or call for unity across difference. Clemens’ celebration of the communal consumption of paczki in Detroit is a simulacrum that inverts the logic of the sacramental meal at the heart of Catholic liturgy. Hassaballa’s and Foer’s accounts inform readers about, and invite them inside, the private observances of the Ramadan fast and the Passover meal in order to combat perceptions that these celebrations constitute a stubborn oppositional otherness that challenges the norm.

In an article analyzing the free-speech controversy surrounding the docmentary HalalTV on Swedish public television, Mia Lovheim and Marta Axler observe: “Media has become an increasingly important arena for public engagement with religion in modern society, which has been demonstrated in studies within international research on media, religion and culture.” In an American context, such debates often take place in the comments section of online news articles and then spill over onto Twitter. By discussing food in their life narratives, Clemens, Foer, and Hassaballa pique their readers’ interests and whet their appetites more effectively than mere political diatribes might have. Any response is delayed, published in the letters to the editor. The newspaper opinion pages constitute a monologue wherein writers may share elements of their life stories as context for, or illustrations of, their political agendas. Isabel Alonso Belmonte argues that readers “are situated at the core of the communicative situation created by the newspaper opinion page and learn from both editorials and op-eds to form their own opinion about the issue being discussed.” The loop is not closed—it’s hard to tell what effect, if any, these narratives have.

Foer and Hassaballa diagnose the general ignorance surrounding Judaism and Islam as the root of problems such as apathy and racism, but aim their critique at different segments of the American population. Foer directs his remarks inward, towards other contemporary Jews:

Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent. (“Why a Haggadah?”)

As in his earlier vegetarian manifesto, Eating Animals, Foer here triangulates his personal choices through a thoughtful engagement with the legacy of his grandparents’ generation and draws wisdom for his own. The impulse he both diagnoses and challenges among his peers is that of unquestioning or automatic assimilation to flavorless American secularism. His essay argues that a well-informed Jewish cultural identity is both a complement and an antidote to religious chauvinism.

Hassaballa’s self-appointed task is quite the opposite; his goal is to use the language of food to de-exoticize two aspects of the Islamic faith which most Americans regard with a mixture of fear and dread: jihad and sharia law. Thus, he distinguishes the devout observance of Ramadan from the distortion of zealot extremists by emphasizing how the conflict inherent in the concept of holy war is an internal struggle to achieve personal discipline and overcome base physical impulses such as hunger: “Struggling a little to fast for the sake of God is the essence of jihad, not violence and murder, as some radical Muslims believe” (“Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan”).  Though this passage centered on the spiritual value of fasting as a demonstration of religious piety, he concludes with a more civic minded appeal:

Throughout this month, Americans will see Shariah law, which some want to ban, being practiced by the throngs of Muslims in the United States who are waiting until after sunset to eat, drink and be (very) merry. There is no threat at all in this. By making American Muslims better neighbors, better friends, better coworkers, and better people, the fast of Ramadan is only a good thing, for both the United States and the world.  (“Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan”)

Thus, Hassaballa’s and Foer’s political goal is the same: to empower American Muslims and American Jews to more fully claim and understand the distinctive’ culinary traditions associated with their religions so that they can contribute more robustly to the American project. By being more knowledgeable about their specific heritage and histories, the fellow insiders among their readers strengthen the cultural fabric that holds the nation rather than simply deriving their identity from generic markers of patriotism. I read these as anti-conversion narratives because their focus is internally driven and the goal is sociopolitical rather than spiritual. In practicing religious and cultural practices without impediment or bias, or learning about how others observe their own traditions, we can all realize the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Clemens’ essay, in contrast, is an unapologetic defense of culinary appropriation on a regional scale. What distinguishes “Lean Tuesday” from other paeans to secular culinary catholicism like green beer at St. Patrick’s Day and the king cake at Mardi Gras, is Clemens’ insistence that the communal partaking of the celebratory treat in anticipation of Lent constitutes an act of faith in Detroit’s ability to survive the dispiriting deprivations of the economic downturn of 2008.  Within the narrative, this takes place by a shifting of perspective from one narrow in-group to a broader overlapping community:

The austerity of Lent would begin the next day, Ash Wednesday, and continue for 40 days until Easter, during which span we Catholics would be required to give something up.

This Fat Tuesday was a reprieve from all that. The church calendar and our checkbooks agreed that it was time, starting tomorrow, to give something up, to get by on less. For today, though, we would pretend that we were flush, that the lean times hadn’t started yet and that they would last just 40 days. (“Lean Tuesday”)

Whereas Clemens signals his belonging to the faith community through the use of first-person plural, he performs his citizenship as a fellow Detroitian through an act of cultural translation. Clemens recalls explaining to a concerned Asian American motorist wondering about the commotion.

I thought to explain some of this but opted to keep it simple, by employing a word no one can pronounce: “There’s no problem,” I said. “It’s paczki day!” Just another day of religious significance that has been secularized beyond recognition, thank heaven. (“Lean Tuesday”)

By renaming the day after the delectable confection, rather than noting its religious significance, Clemens highlights the restorative aspects of comensality even if distributed across multiple tables across the city.

I regard the persuasive rhetorical communicative acts taking place in these opinion pages and featured personal narratives as the most basic form of grassroots political action. By appealing to their fellow Americans’ minds through their stomachs, Clemens, Hassaballah, and Foer suggest that a willingness to eat together may be the strongest basis upon which to build a dynamic citizenry.

Works cited:

Belmonte, Isabel Alonso. “Toward a genre-based characterization of the problem–solution textual pattern in English newspaper editorials and op-eds.” Text & Talk-An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies 29.4 (2009): 393-414.

Clemens, Paul. “Lean Tuesday.” New York Times Sunday Magazine 25 March 2009.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. “Why a Haggadah?” New York Times 31 March 2012.

Hassaballa, Hesham A. “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan.” New York Times 1 August 2011.

Johnston, Emily Lind. “Agrarian dreams and neoliberal futures in life writing of the alternative food movement.” Food and Foodways 24.1-2 (2016): 9-29.

Lövheim, Mia, and Marta Axner. “Halal-TV: Negotiating the place of religion in Swedish public discourse.” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 24.1 (2011): 57-74.


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