You Are What You Eat

Earth on a plate with silverware to either side

By Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on April 23, 2017

Wasn’t Tom’s story just wonderful? Of course, I can’t possibly imagine living with a parent who allowed a frog in the tub or turtles in the backyard. My mom and dad liked the outdoors, but they weren’t big on all of its wild critters.

My father, in particular, had a running battle with the squirrels in our backyard, who – as squirrels do – raided the birdfeeder on a regular basis. He tried everything to discourage them from their easy and daily banquet.

There was the applying-grease-on-the-pole trick, with the hope that the squirrels would just slide down it to the ground. Useless. They just leapt from the clothesline to the tree, dangled upside-down from a branch right over the feeder, and shoveled in the birdseed as fast as their tiny mouths could chew.

There was the sprinkling-Texas-Pete-hot-sauce-on-the-walnuts trick, which my father would then place in the birdfeeder, along with the seed. No luck. Seems our squirrels had a taste for heat, and cast-iron stomachs to boot.

When all else failed, my father would go running into the backyard with an air gun, firing it into the air and shouting. He did succeed in scaring the squirrels away for a little while. But they always returned. I think those squirrels knew that they had the upper paw.

Eventually, my dad gave up the fight. He finally stopped refilling the birdfeeder so often . . . and, not surprisingly, the squirrels eventually stopped coming around. I imagine they found some other backyard feeder to raid – and possibly another homeowner to antagonize.

But my father wasn’t always so tough when it came to encounters with wild animals. There was the time when he was invited by some friends to go rabbit hunting. My dad bought a hunter’s jacket that had a pouch in the back to carry the kill. He borrowed a gun and bought some shells and learned how to shoot it.

And, the day he went hunting, he came home with a rabbit alright –  as well as the most mortified look on his face. I remember him saying something like “I’m never doing that again.” He, did, however, prepare the rabbit and it was served in tomato sauce over our spaghetti noodles that night. I can’t recall if I ate it, but I can tell you it’s the first and only time we ever had game for dinner.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t eat wild animals that he or we caught ourselves. We did. But it was mostly seafood. Bluegill and largemouth bass from fishing lines cast into Southern Maryland ponds. Crabs lured by a chicken neck tied to the end of a piece of twine that we threw into the ocean while standing on the shore of Assateague Island.

But these were rare instances. The seafood and any animal meat that we ate were purchased from the local grocery store.

The same was true of our fruits and vegetables, except in the summer, when my father’s garden produced vast quantities of tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and squash. I just loved my dad’s tomatoes! If you’ve ever eaten a homegrown tomato right off the vine, you know what I mean when I say that it has a taste that is incomparable.

On this Earth Day, we could talk about many urgent things . . . the emergency state of our air, water and soil, for example. Or, the need to act on climate change before it’s too late. However, I liked the guidance provided by biologist E.O. Wilson, whom Tom quoted at the end of his reflection.

Wilson said, “I don’t want to lecture people about saving the planet. I want to share with them the joy of the natural world. By looking out for it, we are looking out for ourselves.”

The joy of the natural world . . . isn’t that partly what drew us here to Northwest? We can sit in these chairs, look out our large windows, and enjoy a soul-soothing view of the tall pines, songbirds and blue sky.

The joy of the natural world . . .Tom’s mother and father seemed to know how to find it and share it with their sons. It’s clear from Tom’s story that they left not only fond memories, but also a lasting impact, as Tom carries their passion for nature forward and shares it with us at Northwest. 

As I reflected on E.O. Wilson’s invitation to share joy, I wondered how this might fit with the topic I intended to explore with you this Earth Day, which is food.

Certainly, memories of biting into one of my father’s sweet and juicy tomatoes reminds me that home gardens are not only a planet-sustaining thing, they’re also a life-restoring thing. Growing tomatoes brought peace and contentment to my father. And by sharing his passion for tomatoes with me, my dad created moments of connection between us in what was otherwise our fragmented and uneasy relationship.

I think food, which was selected by Northwest’s Earth Ministry team as one of today’s focus areas, is a wonderful Earth Day topic because, in many respects, it offers us numerous possibilities to act on behalf of our planet and to experience an immediate sense of well-being.

When we eat well, we feel well. And, when we care about how what we eat got onto our plates, we perhaps begin to see more clearly, as John Muir said, how a single thing in Nature is attached to the rest of the world. We tug at the thread and find that it starts to unravel a story about our food that is often complicated, sometimes shocking, and nearly always raises issues of class, race, power, and ethics. 

Frances Moore Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Small Planet, wrote, “When your mother told you to eat everything on your plate because people were starving in India, you thought it was pretty silly. You knew that the family dog would be the only one affected by what you did or didn’t waste . . . The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth.”1)Quote from The Green Devotional: Active Prayers for a Healthy Planet, Karen Speerstra (Conari Press, San Francisco, CA: 2010), 205.

In other words, Lappé is suggesting that, rather than guilt-trip ourselves into eating well, we might do well to remember that food offers us the most basic connection to the planet. To eat mindfully is to restore a holy connection that our fast-paced lives and technology-centric culture regularly severs.

And, once we’re dedicated to restoring this connection, it seems to follow that we might find ourselves getting more curious about how our food is grown or raised, processed, shipped, and marketed . . . which may also mean opening the door and shedding light on things we might not know or might not want to see.

As Unitarian Universalists who strive to embrace our values in our everyday lives, to intentionally think about all aspects of our food is, perhaps, to also acknowledge that we are what we eat. In other words, if I say that my faith compels me to embark on a responsible search for truth and meaning . . . and then I fail to investigate my food’s source and path to my table. . . then perhaps I’m eating irresponsibly.

Or – to put it more bluntly – if I am what I eat, then I’m irresponsible.

Calling myself irresponsible may seem like a harsh thing to say, but I think it’s true, particularly when I think of irresponsible as meaning thoughtless or negligent.

I’m not using this term as a judgment but, rather, as an indication that I can be more conscious of what I’m eating and more aware of whether my choices are building or breaking my connection with the earth and all living things.

Unitarian Universalist minister Lillian Nye suggests that, while we may not be able to escape all eco- and social injustices that occur around the food we eat, we can still allow our knowledge of them to inform our approach to our meals.

She writes:

I [do not] mean to present myself as some kind of bodhisattva of compassion. However, in my better moments—at least in my more conscious moments—while I’m eating, I do try to imagine the lives and even the deaths of the creatures who nourish me . . . Imagining the lives of the animals steers me away from meat and eggs produced in the cruel and grotesque conditions that are typical of industrial livestock farming. The thought of the animals’ suffering curbs my appetite. It guides me, according to my conscience and financial capacity, to spend the extra money it costs to support humane farming practices.

She continues:

But since I cannot always be the purist I might like to be, I try to integrate even the awareness of suffering into my eating meditation. It is part of the energy that I am ingesting, and I feel some responsibility to recognize it.”

In other words, Nye recognizes that she is what she eats, and wants to be responsible – not negligent – in honoring that.

Nye then offers a suggestion for how we might conduct our own eating meditation. She writes:

Let us imagine that we are going to eat something that we’ve prepared at home using a number of ingredients, including some prepared foods that come in bottles or cans or boxes. Imagine all of the hands that have participated in bringing to food to the table for this one meal. Consider the migrant workers who harvest so many of our table fruits and vegetables. Their labor is indispensable to the farming industry, yet they are some of poorest, most powerless, and most exploited people living within the borders of our nation.

She continues:

That they are often denied fair compensation for their work is a factor behind the moderate prices we enjoy. Imagine all those faces, those hands, those stories. When we eat mushrooms, or apples, grapes or tomatoes, we are, in a sense, ingesting their labor, their life, their deferred dreams and lack of choice . . . we cannot escape our interdependence.

If we truly are what we eat, then I believe we ingest and incarnate all the best and worst of our food. When we eat well, we are variety, flavor, good color and good health. And, when we’re eating food that was produced by methods that poison the soil and water or treat animals inhumanely, we are also cruelty, poverty, and powerlessness.

These are our truths.

Nye writes, however, that “these truths need not ruin our dinner,” though we may wonder how in the world that’s possible. She explains:  

Part of being spiritually open is simply understanding that our lives, our blood, our beating hearts live because we are sustained by other lives. Being conscious of these realities deepens our thanksgiving . . . would that we could live without taking or using life, but we cannot. Therefore, let our eating be an act of worship. Let our table stand like an altar.

I think what Lillian Nye is saying is that we have the opportunity to approach our food with reverence, with joy . . . and with mindfulness. And, as we do, I believe our mindfulness can lead us to curiosity . . . and our curiosity can lead us to action and change.

As we go from here, may we enjoy this Earth Day of celebration and learning together. And, as we do, may we find the willingness to do one more thing to care for the planet and all of her inhabitants.

May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. Quote from The Green Devotional: Active Prayers for a Healthy Planet, Karen Speerstra (Conari Press, San Francisco, CA: 2010), 205.