I’m finishing this article as I finish preparing a seafood feast for my extended family. I paid a visit to a tiny local fish market here in rural Maryland called Bay Shore Steam Pot (“If It Swims, We Can Get It!”), for pots of clams, mussels, prawns and crabs we’ll steam in sauvignon blanc with onions, potatoes, homemade sausage, and copious quantities of Old Bay.
The shared meal, whether with generations of extended family, or collected friends and neighbors, is one facet of life disrupted by COVID-19-induced isolation that I’ve most sorely missed, and been most happy to welcome back. Food and drink have enjoyed increasing cultural cachet for some time, of course, between Netflix specials, #foodporn Instagram hashtags, celebrity cookbooks, and so on. And lots of people have tried their hand at baking bread, rolling pasta, or making marinara from scratch for the first time over the last sixteen months.
But at a deeper level than this, coming together at a table over food and drink has always shaped people and communities in a deep way. Several years ago, I found a book in my neighborhood bookshop by Carolyn Steel that opened up this reality to me anew. Steel is an accomplished architect, lecturer, and writer; and her book Hungry City explores the way land, people, cities, and eating are all intricately woven together. It’s a wide-ranging, fascinating, and at times alarming work. She explores why ancient people went to war over grain; where supermarkets came from; how White Castle invented fast food; when it was that the first coffee shop appeared in London and the first restaurant in Paris, and more.
In Hungry City, Steel writes:
“More than half the meals we eat are eaten alone; the majority of those consumed on the hoof, in front of the telly, or sitting at a desk. Our lifestyles are increasingly fueled by food, not structured around it; not least because of the enormous social changes that have taken place over the past century or so…But although most of our meals (or ‘meal occasions,’ as the food industry insists on calling them) consist either of fast food or ready meals (‘meal solutions’), there is one kind of occasion for which only one sort of meal will do. Whenever we have a really significant event to celebrate, a feast is still overwhelmingly the way we choose to do it. Tables may be shrinking and lifestyles speeding up, but nothing has yet replaced feasting as a celebratory mechanism.”
Carolyn Steel observes what we all experience: meals mark our most sacred moments; they tell our stories. I can still feel the textures, for example, of the dry chicken I had at the reception after my mother’s funeral, or the elegant flavors of the meal my wife and I shared at Podere il Casale on a Tuscany hilltop farm while on sabbatical together.
It’s no accident, then, that shared meals feature in Jesus’ ministry. This motif is most prominent in the Gospel according to Luke. The scholar Robert Karris, in his thoughtful book Eating Your Way through Luke’s Gospel, notes that “In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is [seemingly always] either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.” And, things happen when Jesus is around a table: healings, teaching, miracles — and controversy. People want to kill our Lord for who he sits at table with, and what he says at meals!
This dynamic comes into sharpest focus in Jesus’ final hours, at the Last Supper. When our Lord wanted, in one final way, to illumine for his followers the meaning of his looming suffering and death, he didn’t give them a lecture to memorize, he gave them a meal to share. And in the millennia since, as the Church has observed Holy Communion week by week, we taste those mighty saving acts ourselves.
So, I hope, as you’re able, you regather with your Christian community to eat and drink Jesus’ death and resurrection. And I hope that the grace and hospitality you taste at that Table spills over to the tables of your own life in our almost-post-COVID moment.