by Daniel Harrell
Any story worth its salt has to feature food. Recent research claims that the pleasure sectors of the brain light up not only when you eat food but simply when you think or read about it. No wonder the Lord God stuffed His book with food. From milk and honey to figs and olives, Passover and Tabernacles, bread and wine and loaves and fishes—we’ve talked and tasted almost all of it. Fish is on the menu is two weeks. Meals mark celebrations and serve as a kind of worship in Scripture. The Jewish sacrificial system never burned meat as appeasement as much as cooked it to nourish. The Lord likes a well-grilled leg of lamb as much as anybody. Early Christians held that sharing meals together was a preview of heaven. To practice hospitality as wide as the arms of Jesus was to welcome Jesus himself. If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat. People who feed you their food give you their heart.
If eating food from the Bible is not your cup of tea, you should probably reconsider. As you heard read from Leviticus this morning, God commands that we feast. Leviticus may be the heaviest rule book in the Bible, but amongst those heavy rules is the rule to celebrate heavily. The Lord fills up the social calendar to make the true joy of obedience unavoidable. Eight times over the Lord commands that his people party, that they take time off work, strap on the festival feedbag and enjoy the grace and goodness of God.
Eating is meant to be meaningful and multi-dimensional. Plants feed from soil and sun and organisms too tiny to see, animals from plants, humans from all, and all from God and with pleasure. Why so much pleasure? The biological explanation—food tastes good so we’ll nourish ourselves—provides incentive for survival—but nourishment is only food’s temporary work and does not account for Le Cordon Bleu and fine wine, or chocolate or olive oil and cheese. Food’s ultimate purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the everlasting feast of the lamb and taste forever the goodness of God. God made eating delicious and pleasurable because the Lord is all those things and more.
Levitical feasts are first labeled Sabbaths because you do not eat them at your desk. Sabbath celebrates satisfaction over a job well done; it guards against work becoming identity, our vocation from getting confused with vacation. Our work matters to God, but only as it operates in concert with creation and its rhythms. Besides, numerous studies show that working more than fifty hours a week results in a reduction of output. “The Sabbath was made for people,” Jesus insisted, and shifted the day from the seventh to the first day of the week, the first day of new creation, a foretaste of goodness to come. Sabbath signals a halt to the hopelessness of human striving and to the frustrating limits of this finite world, it draws attention away from worry and stress, expanding our horizons to encompass the horizons of heaven. Though generally applied to the seventh day of the week, Sabbath was specially applied to other festival days to remind God’s people that this world is not all that there is. Sabbath whets our appetite for eternity.
Sadly, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day filled the Sabbath with so many regulations that it felt more tiring than work. They defined “no work” with a long checklist of prohibitions: no carrying, no sowing, plowing, binding, grinding, sifting, baking, washing, drying, slicing, dicing, writing, erasing, loop-making, fire-starting, book-opening, boat-riding, paper-tearing, knot-tying, fish-boning, hair-combing or hockey practice. A friend described growing up in a restrictive Dutch Reformed Church where keeping Sabbath meant no running or playing on Sunday. Sunday was a day of rest. Take a nap. Fortunately, my friend’s parents weren’t that strict; but they sure didn’t want their Dutch Reformed neighbors to know it. Her family had a backyard swimming pool and on hot summer Sundays, her parents mercifully allowed her to swim, but only as long as she A] stayed off the slide (since the slide peeked up over the fence) and B] didn’t go under the water (since wet hair at evening church would be a dead giveaway of Sabbath flouting). So my friend mostly bobbed.
The overreaction to such Sabbath silliness has been to make Sunday just like any other day, but that’s an overreaction too. From its earliest times, the church set aside a day each week to anticipate a better day ahead. Call it Sabbath or the Lord’s Day, sacred time makes time to lick our lips for a time when time will no longer matter—when our lives will be caught up in joy and gladness and fullness and love beyond any capacity we have to cook it up for ourselves. At the core of our creeds is the conviction that in Christ, what is coming far exceeds what now exists, no matter how good you think you’ve got it.
The Feast of Tabernacles drove this home by making you homeless. Camping out was commanded in booths constructed to resemble the tents Israel used on their hike to the Promised Land. We are resident aliens on earth, sojourners with a true destination across the river. I remember an observant Jewish neighbor pitching her tent in the middle of our parking lot, fully abandoning the comfort of her urban condo in good Tabernacles fashion. A suburban friend erected his tabernacle on a patio deck, only his opened up through a sliding glass door to his posh living room. Some said he missed the point, but I think he got it better than most. Jesus used Tabernacles to declare himself light of the world: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.”
Though Christians no longer keep Levitical feasts, vestiges show up throughout the church calendar. Passover and Unleavened Bread parallel Holy Week and Maundy Thursday and appear every communion. Passover commemorated Israel’s rescue from slavery; unleavened bread a reminder of how God’s people had to eat and run. The Day of Atonement parallels Lent and Good Friday, a call to confession, fasting and self-denial. The seven-day Feast of Firstfruits accompanied the barley harvest, the first crop to rise from the ground, a symbol of resurrection. Trumpets heralded the start of the seventh month, a whole Sabbath month, accompanying the end of the harvest. Jesus is named “the firstfruit of those who have fallen asleep,” which when paired with trumpets gives you a full blown Easter feast. We read how one day “in the twinkling of an eye, the last trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed.” Destined to rise from the ground ourselves, we praise the Lord with the first fruits of harvest, or first fruits of our paycheck, an acknowledgement that all we have is gift and that we mean it when we say God comes first in our lives.
Between Firstfruits and Trumpets was the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks and a day after Firstfruits (that extra day always a nod to new creation). The Feast of Weeks, aka Pentecost (which means fifty) celebrated the wheat harvest. Wheat provides almost twenty per cent of the world’s calories and more nourishment than any other source of food. Last year’s harvest, amounted to seven hundred and eighteen million tons, roughly two hundred pounds for every person on earth. Nearly a third of the foods found in American supermarkets contain some component of wheat. Easy to grow and good to eat, wheat has sustained humanity for thousands of years.
Pentecost was a feast of leavened bread, since nobody had to eat and run anymore. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to leaven—just a little yeast changes everything. On Pentecost in the book of Acts, the yeast of the Holy Spirit infused a small batch of believers and made history. Pentecost remains the birthday of the church. At Pentecost harvest, Leviticus instructed that wheat be left for the poor and immigrant to gather. Called gleaning, this practice made sure everybody had enough, as was the case in the early church where everyone shared all that they had so no one had need. This brought happiness and delight to all, but if it doesn’t, Leviticus says you are to be “cut off from the people.” The Lord does not like a party pooper.
Most of us are so separated from the process of growing our food, we’ve lost the sense of joy and relief that comes with harvest. If anything, we’ve gone against the grain in this season of gluten-freedom. I read a description of one Gluten Free Expo in New York featuring gluten-free chips, gluten-free dips, gluten-free soups, and gluten-free stews, gluten-free breads, croutons, pretzels, and beer; gluten-free artisanal fusilli and penne, gluten-free cheese sticks, fish sticks, bread sticks, and soy sticks, gluten-free vacations, gluten-free wedding receptions, gluten-free communion wafers and even gluten-free dog food. Gluten is certainly a serious problem for those who suffer celiac’s disease, less certain when it comes to the millions more who attest to gluten-intolerance. No current scientific data demonstrates a correlation between gluten and reported symptoms, causing scientists and nutritionists to wonder whether “gluten-free” will end up on the shelf with Scarsdale, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, flexitarian, pescatarian and paleo. I don’t know, but I do know that eggs were bad for you until they were good for you. The same with coffee, wine and butter. Julia Child used to say if you’re afraid of butter, use cream. We tend to follow food fads and chase after nutrients and take multi-vitamins to supplement and supplant balanced, modestly portioned, wholesome cooked meals daily.
Wheat’s basic composition hasn’t changed for thousands of years. Nor have human genes when it comes to digestion. No doubt diets have changed, as have the ways we process grain. Most of the wheat we eat has been milled into white flour, a chalky powder devoid of the bran and the germ, packed full with gluten but few vitamins or nutrients. Grain only works as intended when all edible parts are consumed together. Most commercial breads take away bran and germ and add extra doses of concentrated gluten called vital gluten to increase elasticity and shelf life, providing texture, functionality and fanciness but no flavor. Few of us ever eat real wheat or even real food anymore.
The Psalmist and St. Peter himself enjoin that we “taste and see that the Lord is good.” In compliance with the word of the Lord, let us eat and pray that God might “renew our sensibilities and give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us braises with more flavorful gravy than we have bread to blot, colorful vegetables that delight and casseroles to restore starch and substance in our limp modernity. Remove from us our fear of fat, and make us glad of the olive oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fresh fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true humans—made in your image—with self-control as spiritual fruit and self-denial in due season that we may come to a refreshed sense of what we’ve been given and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand as grace from your hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all fiends of faddish diet and darkness; cast out the processed demons that possess us and drive us toward culinary sloth; deliver us from dismay over calories, the bondage of dietary laws; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us— with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and an elevated plenty of wheat and figs and honey and wine. In the name of him who is bread of life, broken and given that we might eat, Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.” [Adapted from Robert Capon, Supper of the Lamb.]
100 % Whole Wheat Bagels
4 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast
1 ⅔ cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons baking soda, malt syrup or honey for boiling water bath
Cornmeal or semolina flour for baking sheets
1 In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle or in a large bowl combine flour and salt. Stir together or mix at low speed for about 30 seconds. In a small bowl or measuring cup combine lukewarm water and 1 tablespoon honey and whisk together. Let stand five minutes until yeast bubbles.
2 Add liquid mixture to flour mixture and mix on low speed or stir for 1 minute. Mixture will be shaggy and sticky. Remove paddle and let dough stand, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Switch to dough hook or turn dough onto lightly oiled work surface and mix on low speed or knead for 2 minutes, until smooth and slightly tacky. Add more flour if necessary (a few tablespoons) if dough is very sticky or wet, and mix or knead for another minute. Finished dough should be firm but supple and smooth to the touch. If it is tacky wait 5 minutes, then add a little more flour as necessary and beat or knead until incorporated.
3 Shape dough into a ball. Clean and oil bowl. Place dough in bowl rounded side down first (to oil the dough), then rounded side up. Cover bowl tightly with plastic and allow dough to proof at room temperature for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until it has swelled and increased in size by about 1 1/2 times. (I used the bread proof setting on my oven—100 degrees—for 45 minutes.)
4 Line 2 baking sheets with parchment and lightly oil parchment, or use a baking stone. Turn out the dough and divide into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball by placing on an un-floured work surface under a cupped hand and rolling it around and around. Lightly oil work surface if dough sticks. To shape bagels, press your thumbs through the center of the balls, then gradually pull apart and shape the bagel with your hands by rotating the dough around your thumbs, until the hole is 2 inches in diameter. Lightly oil tops and cover loosely with plastic wrap.
5 Allow bagels to proof for 30 to 60 minutes, until just beginning to swell and rise. Meanwhile, heat oven to 425 degrees with a rack positioned in the middle, or a baking stone positioned on lower rack.
6 Carefully remove parchment paper with bagels from baking sheet and replace parchment with clean sheets. Lightly oil parchment and sprinkle with cornmeal or semolina (if you have lots of baking sheets, just line two more baking sheets). To see if bagels are ready, drop one into a bowl of water. It should float to the surface within 15 seconds. If it does not, wait 20 minutes and do another float test.
7 Bring 4 to 6 inches water to a boil in a large saucepan and add baking soda, malt syrup or honey. Adjust heat so water is at a gentle boil. Two at a time, drop bagels into water. After 30 seconds flip over and simmer for another 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon or a skimmer, remove from water and place on prepared baking sheet or baking stone sprinkled with cornmeal, rounded side up. Place in oven and bake 12 minutes. Rotate baking sheet (or bagels on stone) and bake another 8 to 12 minutes, until golden brown. If bottoms are getting too brown slide a second baking pan underneath the first one for insulation after first 12 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.