Material History of American Religion Project

Eating the faith: food and religion in the Protestant mainline

Everyone eats, and many people endow their eating with religious significance. Daniel Sack, the project’s associate director, has been looking at the role of food among what he calls "whitebread Protestants." He discussed his research with project director James Hudnut-Beumler.

Q: How did you get interested in this study?

A: Around the time I first started working for our project, I was joining a church in Chicago, a fairly large, old congregation. During one of the membership classes the pastor took us on a tour of the building. The parish house, which had been built in the early 1950s, had a commercial kitchen and fellowship hall which could seat four hundred people for a sit-down dinner. They weren’t doing those kinds of meals anymore, but after a little digging I found that when the building was built they served those huge dinners fairly regularly. They still have china plates for 400 people! I was just astonished by that investment of time and space. It made me wonder, why does the church spend this much time and money on feeding people who could eat somewhere else? This all led me to look again at practices that I’d grown up with all through my life in the church. I was struck by how often food and food experiences were an important part of church life.

Q: What do you remember about food? Do you remember food in any special ways from your own religious upbringing?

A: I don’t remember any particular dishes, but food events were always there. There was always coffee hour after church and, of course, juice and cookies for the kids. When I was in junior high, my mother and the rest of the mothers made dinner for Tuesday night Youth Club. It seems as if I spent half my college years setting up and taking down tables for some social event in the chapel social hall. A few times the group spent the afternoon working in a soup kitchen. When I was in seminary I helped organize a CROP Walk for world hunger. The food wasn’t very exotic, but it was inescapable.

Food and the study of religion

Q: How are food and food practices important in the study of religion?

A: Food is important because—it sounds like a cliché but it’s true—everyone eats. You could do what I’m doing for all of the religious traditions in America. From Native American religions to Christianity, from Judaism to Buddhism, from Islam to Hinduism—food plays some role in their religious life, whether it is a church social hour or the worship of a corn deity. Food plays this role life because it is so elemental to human life. It is inevitable that it is going to play a role in people’s understandings of the sacred and the transcendent.

Q: So, food can serve as a meta-category for religious study?

A: Sure, because it cuts across all kinds of traditions. Eliade and that crowd have used sacred space and sacred time as their categories; food could be another, because it weaves through both profane life and sacred life. It’s almost as inescapable as air.

Q: It’s as passing as air, too. Unlike sacred space, like a building, which is fairly permanent, food is simultaneously material and ephemeral. You quickly consume it and it’s gone.

A: Theologically speaking, the ephemeral nature of food reflects human dependence on the divine—it is transitory and yet essential.

Q: And so we have Native American groups and European-American groups, both with their harvest festivals and planting festivals. Even many secular families still say grace over dinner. The most ubiquitous religious practice in contemporary North America is related to food.

A: The only prayer in people’s lives may be a prayer over food—or prayer in cases of sickness. Both recognize dependence on the divine.

Whitebread Protestants

Q: While all food plays a role in all these American religious traditions, you’re focusing your work on what you call "whitebread" protestants. Who are they, and why are you focusing this project on them?

A: I am interested in the white members of the group scholars have called the Protestant mainline or the establishment. The mainline is a cluster of denominations mostly rooted in the British Reformation. They used to dominate the American religious landscape, and they are still influential beyond their numbers. I decided to focus on these folks for several reasons. The first reason was practicality. When I first conceived the book, I wanted to talk about everybody--Catholics, Protestants and Jews, Native Americans, Hindu and Buddhists—because, as we’ve said, all those people eat. I soon realized, however, that that would be an unmanageable project. I didn’t have the background to do it right, and it would end up being all over the map. For this simple practical reason, doing these white, mainline Protestant folks helps focus the project. A second practical reason is that this is the community I know best—that’s where I come from. I am Mr. Whitebread himself. This allows me to think reflectively about the world I have lived in. There are some more important theoretical reasons for it as well. The study of American religion was largely initiated by white, mainline Protestants who thought of themselves as being universal. Their work seemed to argue, "Everyone is like us except these few exotic groups." Their histories focused on themselves. For the exotic folks they developed tools like anthropology—tools they never used on themselves.

Q: So your work is an attempt to turn those tools back upon an earlier subject?

A: Absolutely. In the last 30 years, the study of American religion has broadened to include people previously smothered under that blanket of universalism and allowed scholars to talk about the specific practices of ethnic Catholic communities, or Orthodox Jews, or immigrant Hindus. To do that study, scholars have developed a variety of tools drawn from anthropology and sociology to help us understand those cultures. This has made for a very rich scholarship about those communities, but there has not been much of that done about the particular community of the white Protestant mainline. And so what I’m attempting to do is to use those tools, developed to study those particular communities, to look at another particular community. I think this going to end up being rich; I hope it shapes the future study of the particular community we call the Protestant mainline.

Q: What have you learned about your whitebread Protestants?

A: When I first got started on this, some colleagues said, "But Protestants don’t eat," and to a certain extent that’s true. We don’t have specific food substances—like the Jewish bagel, or the butter used in Hindu worship. But I’m not interested so much in the menu items as what we might call people’s encounters with food. I’m interested in the role that food plays in people’s lives—both as a physical substance and as a subject of ideology. As I’ve developed this I’ve found that it reveals a great deal about mainline Protestant life. Here are just a few examples. First, it introduces us to the people we don’t ordinarily study in our work in American religion. It makes us think about the life of the women in the kitchen, as well as the men in the pulpit. It focuses our attention on the members of the youth groups, as well as their parents. Through this we hear all kinds of voices that don’t ordinarily get discovered in other kinds of studies of American religion. But it’s not all sweetness and light—this focus on food also reveals a great deal of contest and conflict. One essential artifact of whitebread Protestantism is the individual communion cup. The story of its rise and fall and rise, I found, is a debate between clergy interested in preserving a traditional liturgical practice—the common communion cup shared by multiple numbers of the congregation—and physicians in the fairly new field of sanitation. The opponents of the common cup weren’t clergy but doctors, who said, "This is not a sanitary practice, and we believe it is not theologically necessary to a proper observation of the communion." This is a remarkable claim for them to make, and I think it reveals a great deal about the fight for status between the church and science. Who are we going to listen to? Who are we going to take as the authority for understanding both proper practice and safe practice?

Q: It reveals something about Protestantism too, where every man or woman can be a theologian.

A: That’s absolutely right. When push comes to shove, the laity end up believing the doctors rather than the clergy. So it ends up being a conflict between various forces within the church, and the sanitation side ends up winning the debate before the turn of the century.

Food fights

Q: What are some other food fights in nineteenth and twentieth century American Protestantism?

A: A related fight is the debate over communion wine, which is a conflict between traditionalist clergy and women in the congregations who are carrying the banner for temperance, whether that be from either a social engineering perspective or simply a pastoral concern for their husbands and sons. I’m also looking at food reform movements, with people like Sylvester Graham, who was a Presbyterian minister, and the Adventists, like John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan. These are folks who felt that what you eat ends up affecting not just your body but your morals. Based on that they offered their vision of what it means to eat in a Christian fashion. But that doesn’t end in the nineteenth century. Lately I have been researching the church’s response to world hunger. In the late 1970’s the most politically liberal churches became concerned about personal lifestyle. They argued that one of the most important things a Christian can do about world hunger is to reform his or her diet, to eat in a more responsible fashion. So a Christian diet…

Q: …more grain, less beef.

A: Exactly that. So, like Graham and the Adventists, eating meat is bad for your morals—it isn’t Christian.

Q: Let’s talk about method. When a historian works from an archive, you know you will be working with paper. What are the sources for the study of food and food practices?

A: Most of my sources are still mainly paper, but I think it’s different kinds of paper. I’m drawing on the kinds of things that congregational studies folks work with—church newsletters, church bulletins, and publicity for church social events. I have looked at a lot of denominational magazines that trace some of these conflicts we’ve talking about. There are also things like Sunday School curricula—for instance, lots of material on the church’s response to world hunger. Not all of its paper—I spent some time looking through filmstrips produced by Church World Service to raise money for world hunger. Still, a lot of it is still print, paper, but its different kinds of paper, stuff that historians have not drawn upon.

Q: How about church cookbooks? I assume they are a source. To what extent are they descriptive and to what extent are they normative?

A: They are a source, though it’s a source I haven’t worked with much. I suspect that the question of normative versus descriptive depends on who produced the cookbook and who the audience was. Most contemporary church cookbooks are just a compendium—"these are recipes we like, let’s share them with each other." But there is also a genre of cookbooks that church women’s organizations produced for immigrant women, that defined for them, this is what it means to cook American. Some very interesting scholarship analyzes cookbooks and talks about these normative cookbooks, often published by church-related organizations—settlement houses, institutional churches, and city mission organizations.

One source that I have worked with a great deal, that I discovered by sheer chance and that reveals a great deal of richness, is what I’ve come to call the fun book. These are books produced by denominational publishing houses for hurried congregations, to help them plan their social lives. They were for a variety of audiences. Some were written for youth groups, the Wesley Fellowship, or Christian Endeavor. Others were for a more adult audience—for family social events, socials for couples, or for men’s or women’s groups. They first began to appear in the late nineteenth century, but their high point is the 1950’s. They offered social committees the plan for an entire party from theme to invitations, decorations, costumes, menus, and ideas for games. Most of the parties were strictly social, not specifically religious. Some of them might include a time for prayer or a meditation from the pastor, but generally they are just parties. But they’re clearly set up as pure Christian parties, as opposed to the decadent kinds of parties that non-Christians might throw. The books reveal a great deal about how the church tried to provide for Christian entertainment, and how the church both shapes and is shaped by understandings of faith, gender, and class. They are fascinating documents.

Theologizing food

Q: Again, we probably think of Protestantism in the North American context as largely lacking in festivity, but you’re suggesting that these church socials, potlucks, and covered dish suppers have an important religious function.

A: Absolutely. Sometimes the participants articulate that theologically, sometimes they don’t. If you were to ask the person attending a congregational potluck, "why are you here?," some of them may say, "because God wants us to be together, to eat together." Others may simply say, "because this is where my friends are." In either case I don’t think that we can dismiss these motives. I suspect that for a lot of folks what happens at a church potluck may be as important or more important than what happens in the sanctuary in the worship service. Why do you belong to this church? Because this is where my friends are. This is where my community is. I think there are clergy and theologians, particularly in the mainline world, that look down on that. In the 1960s theologians who bewailed the suburban captivity of the churches argued that the church has gotten so caught up in its potlucks and fundraising that it has lost sight of its mission; what the church needs to do to be faithful, they said, is to pay attention to the concerns like the city, racism, and poverty. As a good liberal guy I won’t deny that. But a lot of folks are looking for community, and they come to the church and find that community in these social events. If we dismiss they we dismiss the faith experience of a lot of folks in our churches.

Q: So, food is a faith vehicle for many.

A: Right. In the last few years there has been a great deal of talk in the study of American religion about practice, and how practice shapes our understanding of faith and our communities. There are kids for whom the high point of their Sunday at church is the coffee hour, when they get to run around with their friends and when they get to have some juice and cookies. We sophisticated theologians may look down upon that as being not particularly Christian, but they may get from that coffee hour a sense that "church is a good place to be, this is home and family for me." That coffee hour experience may shape their Christian practice for the rest of their lives.

Q: It’s far more powerfully than a sermon on community.

A: Sure. That doesn’t mean that that sermon is not important, but for the kid acting it out may be more important than hearing it. If they act it out now, they’ll still be there in thirty years when they are ready to hear that sermon.

A: We’ve been talking in the project about how religious experience gets materialized in the lives of individuals. This is another example in the lives of children.

Q: It’s even more the case for youth groups, who live on their stomachs. When I was doing campus ministry, I knew that the way to get students to come to things was to feed them. That’s an essential tool for ministry.

Q: What have historians learned from looking at food that they might otherwise miss?

A: There are a few things, I think. I talked earlier about simply hearing the voices of people who might otherwise be left out if we focused only on sermons and theology—kids, youth, women in the kitchen. An examination of food also reveals an eclecticism of practice. Scholars tend to put folks into specific denominational boxes, but if you look at food practices, you may see much more mixing going on. While what’s getting said in the devotional period for the youth group or women’s fellowship may be unique to a particular church, the menu at the meal afterwards may depend more on region than on denomination. In a particular town the messages may be different from church to church, but the menu will be the same. I think there’s some interesting mixing going on there.

Q: Are churches also similar when they try to address hunger?

A: Very much so. Feeding the hungry is probably the largest area of ecumenical activity in American Christianity. I was amazed last night when I read that 95% of Presbyterian congregations surveyed did something addressing local and world hunger. Can you think of anything else that 95% of Presbyterians would agree on?

Q: But unlike a common menu item—like Coca-Cola for the youth groups—which could be cultural assimilation, addressing hunger seems to be driven from the center of the religious message.

A: It’s a theological and ethical conviction. It’s a very broad ecumenical activity.

Risky food

Q: What are the risks of studying food and religion?

A: I think you run the risk of over-interpretation of an activity.

Q: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

A: And sometimes Jell-O is just Jell-O. These religious practices are so intertwined with American culture, and religious studies methodology is so applicable to understanding those practices, that it would be easy to see everything going on around you as religious. But sometimes Jell-O is just Jell-O. On the other hand you can run the risk of under-interpretation, simply being an antiquarian. An antiquarian would say, "Here’s a practice, isn’t it cool?," and then move on to the next one without asking what the practice might mean in its context. I think it is also possible to be reductionistic. A participant in a church social may say, "We’re here together because our faith tells us to be together." But then the religious studies scholar might look at the same event and say, "We know from anthropology and sociology that this is what is really going on." Yes, it important to talk about the sociological and anthropological understanding of a common meal, for instance. But I think we need to take seriously what the participants think is going on. The biggest risk for me is to concentrate too much on the camp value of this material. I talked earlier about the fun books; to be honest, they’re funny to us in the hip, sophisticated 1990’s. They reflect a perhaps more naïve understanding of gender, culture, and faith. The books offer unabashedly silly ideas for parties, with their themes, decorations, and costumes. With this kind of material it’s possible to laugh at them without reflecting on what they might have meant to the participants.

Q: What advice would you give other scholars who were interested in incorporating the study of food into the study of particular religious traditions or phenomena in American religion?

A: One of the most important pieces is to open your eyes. It’s too easy to say that there are no sources around for this research, but if you open your eyes and look closely you’re going to find it. Whether you look at denominational magazines, or browse church bulletins, or look at advice books for clergy, once you open your eyes you are going to see food hiding in places that you never expected. Another piece would be to do some ethnography. Go and experience these food encounters yourself and be in the middle of them as an observer/participant. You will see a great deal going on there.

Q: In fact a huge amount of the classic anthropological literature is about communal meals.

A: If nothing else, you know you will eat well. Maybe not in the most gourmet fashion but it is going to be good and it’s going to be filling. People bring only their best stuff to potlucks.

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Daniel Sack is the associate director of the Material History of American Religion Project. His book, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture, is due out from St. Martin’s Press in October 2000. He was interviewed by Project Director James Hudnut-Beumler.

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