The UK is in the grip of “food psychosis”. Chefs are the new class of celebrity; food fairs and ‘feastivals’ are springing up across the country; cookery TV shows and culinary films abound; recipe books and food memoirs are experiencing an unrivalled sales boom.
We’ve all become foodies: obsessed with cupcakes, in love with Jamie Oliver and addicted to The Great British Bake Off, where home-bakers are asked to bring their creations “to the sacrificial altar of gingham”. This is religious rhetoric: Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess is not the only book to invoke a deity and sumptuous mouthfuls often elicit the exclamations ‘heavenly’ or ‘divine’.
In times gone by, food was an issue that the Church took very seriously. Instead of gorging on bodily delights, Christians were to look to Jesus, the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Historic Christian writings, including those of St Gregory the Great, define gluttony as a sin. Thomas Aquinas even categorised the ways in which eating could become sinful: if you ate too much, too quickly, too lavishly, and so on. Gluttony was the opposite of the self-controlled life to which the Christian should aspire.
These writers took their directive from non-compromising Bible verses like Proverbs 23:3, which advises anyone who is dining in fine company to take a good look at the food and “put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony”. This extreme approach to overeating has been somewhat diluted in the contemporary Church. As Francine Prose writes in her book on Gluttony (OUP, 2003): “These days, few people seriously consider that eating too much or enjoying one’s food is a crime against God… It’s doubtful that even the most devoutly religious are likely to confess and seek absolution for looking forward to breakfast, or having taken pleasure in the delights of last night’s dinner.”
She continues: “Yet as gluttony has (at least in the popular imagination) ceased to be a spiritual transgression, food, the regulating of eating, and the related subjects of dieting, obesity, nutrition etc, have become major cultural preoccupations.” The two ideas seem to be inversely correlated: the more obsessed with food we become, the less we consider gluttony to be a problem. We allow ourselves to become more indulgent, more immoderate, more hungry. Oh, go on then, just one more biscuit.
In fact, food is our new religion. According to Brian Myers of The Atlantic, referring to food with sacred slogans like ‘heavenly’ “used to be meant as [a] joke… even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a
certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face”.
Other writers are also equating our love of food with spirituality. Steven Poole, writing for The Guardian, notes that the only categories of books to experience a recent rise in sales are ‘food and drink’ and ‘religion’, claiming: “That food and religion alone should buck the negative trend is no coincidence, for modern food books are there to answer metaphysical or ‘lifestyle’ rather than culinary aspirations, and celebrity chefs themselves are the gurus of the age… Everywhere in the ideology of foodism we see a yearning for food to be able to fill a spiritual void.”
This is perhaps why we insist on continually gorging ourselves: we have become a nation of comfort eaters. We look to food for both gratification and reassurance, for pleasure and for distraction.
I’m torn: I love food. According to the chef Julia Child, all the best people do. But sometimes I need to be reminded that while a slice of cake or a dose of Mary Berry can cheer me up, it can not fill any spiritual voids. And I should not expect it to.
After all, man does not live by cupcakes alone.
This article is from our Seven deadly sins edition. You can read the other articles here.