Last week I was a panelist on an Ethics of Eating event at Sante' restaurant in downtown Spokane and today's edition of the Spokesman Review has an article on what transpired. The in-person event, pictured above, was organized in response to a heated virtual debate on Facebook over the fact that Sante' serves foie gras. You can look on the for a run down of the debate. Local TV news even did . Here's one of the critical comments posted on Faceboook:
You will never have our business/patronage because I now know you serve foie gras. And we will never recommend your restaurant to local friends or out of town guests. In fact, we will tell them about your inhumane offerings and I'm sure they will decide the same, as our friends are all animal caring people. In your quest to serve haute' cuisine and be a Cosmo restaurant, you have shown us that you have made unethical choices to seek your customers. With many other dining options, our money will be spent elsewhere. Shame on you for putting money above the suffering of ducks and geese.
I personally really enjoyed the event, especially hearing from Jeremy and other leaders in the Spokane sustainable food community. There were not any strident critics in the audience but there were some good questions from vegans about the justification for killing animals when other alternatives are available. I explained that I find those arguments a lot more compelling than I used to, although I am not yet convinced. I appreciated that the audience expressed a genuine desire to learn about food systems and the my fellow panelists responded with a gracious desire to inform and inspire people to learn more. I guess the big surprise was that the in-person event was such a pleasant dialogue compared to the rancor and bitterness of the online lobbing of accusatory grenades. The online ethical debate around food has taken on an almost religious character, with the puritans on one side and hedonists on the other.
This is one of the reasons I have been compelled to explore actual religious traditions around food. I have suspected that the religious-like debate around food systems might actually have something to learn from actual religious food practices. We've spent the last four months following kosher food laws and Orthodox fasting rules. We celebrated the end of the Orthodox Lenten fast last Saturday with the midnight Pascha service at Holy Trinity Orthodox church.
I plan on writing extensively about what we have been learning but there is one aspect of the Pascha service that I found especially helpful for current debates around food. In the Orthodox church the fasting rules for Lent are very strict. On most days there is no meat, no dairy, no oil, no fish, no eggs, and no alcohol. On days where there is an evening celebration of the eucharist the strict rule is that you abstain from all food and drink until receiving the communion elements at the evening service. We followed these rules closely but there is a wide range of observance in the Orthodox church, with many loosely observing the rules and many not observing them at all. One of the ethical questions around these food rules in the Orthodox church is how to deal with the diversity of practice given an ethical ideal. This is the same question that faces locavores, slow-food advocates, vegan evangelists and the rest.
At the Pascha service I learned how they deal with this diversity of practice as they prepare to gather around tables and celebrate the Paschal feast. Their approach is summed up in their reading of the famous sermon from St. John Crysostom which opens with these words:
If any be a devout lover of God,
let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
let him not be afraid because he comes so late.
For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.
Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.
When it comes to sharing in the abundant feast of lamb that follows the Paschal service they make no distinction between those who come first and those who come last, those who fasted strictly and those who didn't fast at all. (See Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard for the theological background to this.) My orthodox friends model this approach throughout Lent by not talking openly about their individual fasting practices so as to avoid pride and the divisions that it cultivates. In the midst of the most strict food rules I've ever encountered they somehow manage to offer grace instead of judgment.
The fullness of the gospel expressed in the invitation to the table at the Paschal service can't be reduced to a simple lesson, but it does offer a provocative vision of what it looks like for a community to gather around food practices, which might be helpful for food activists filled with religious zeal for their cause:
Instead of identifying all the people (or chefs) that they'll never share a meal with, how about a grace-filled invitation to gather around the feast table, seeking community and relationships, knowing that these relationships are the foundation for more ethical practice.
Instead of exalting the puritans and hurling accusations at the unfaithful, how about an acknowledgement that we are all sinners caught up in a fallen food system.
Instead of prideful proclamations of approved practices, how about a humble stance that lifts up ideals but avoids creating a culinary class system.
I'm glad for the face-to-face gathering at Sante' last week. It felt like a generous invitation to gather around the table in the diversity of our practices to learn and grow together. I look forward to more such conversations.