Meals as Identity Markers

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say,

‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard,

a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

Luke 7:34

Meals as Identity Markers

I’ve only recently truly appreciated that mealtimes for me growing up were perhaps quite different to those of some of my peers. They were rich and varied, often noisy and of course sometimes mundane.

My mum is Welsh and in Wales food is central to hospitality. The host provides plentifully, and the guest follows a certain code of conduct to show their appreciation for the food they have been served. Initially the guest is expected to decline any further food when they are first offered seconds, to show that the host has fed them well and they do not want for anything. But then the host will press the guest to have more food and the guest must then accept the offer of food to show how delicious the food is.

We were often told the story of my grandfather, who we called George, being offered seconds one time, and politely declining, only to not be asked a second time and then being disappointed he could not eat more.

One of the meals I associate with childhood is ‘Welsh Cawl’. A kind of hearty broth-come-stew, which my mum made with lamb or beef, potatoes and root vegetables. We would eat the broth first and then be served the slow cooked meat, potatoes, and vegetables. As children we would mash these all together, adding lots of butter, making a delicious orangey brown mush. It was the only occasion I would eat swede and thoroughly enjoy it.

I remember ordering cawl once in a Welsh pub and being very disappointed with the slightly dehydrated meagre portion of stew that I was served.

Added to my Welsh heritage were the eight years we spent in Peru when I was a little girl. Again, food is a central part of hospitality in Peru. And my mum, being an adventurous cook, learnt how to cook ‘a la Peruana’ from our neighbour Anita Ramos. The Ramos family adopted us as extended family when we moved into the neighbourhood. I can remember sitting on the worktop in Anita’s kitchen watching her slice an onion, being mesmerised by how quickly and finely she chopped. She had a huge pan in which she would cook rice. Frying garlic first, which she crushed with a stone, and then frying the rice in the oil before adding the water. Rice was a staple part of every Peruvian meal. If you had potatoes you would always have rice too. And on special occasions the cooked rice would be put into a teacup, pressed down, and then tipped onto a plate in a perfect dome to be served alongside the meat.

These are just two stories about food from my childhood. There are so many more.

What my husband noticed when he first met my family, and what my daughters comment on too, is how exuberant my family is about food. A portion of each mealtime is dedicated to praising the food and the cook. And to those looking on this can sometimes seem a bit fake, for surely every meal cannot be delicious. But I think part of this appreciation as valuing the care, thought and time that has gone into preparing a meal, especially when this is a meal to which friends or wider family are invited.

Food is not just energy, nutrition and sustenance. Food and meals are, among other things, identity markers. Each culture has their own special food and meals, and the older that culture is the richer and more diverse the heritage and those foods.

Most folk from cultures different to our own will delight in sharing with us a special meal or food from their country, district or even town.

Sadly, in some British households a shared meal round the table has become a lost art. Speed, convenience, budget, varied and tight schedules, fussy eaters and the pull of the TV have drawn us away from the table to the lounge and our laps.

Such that one young nineteen-year-old man came to live with us for a few weeks and commented, after we had spent nearly an hour together round the table for our first meal together, that he had never spent so much time eating a meal at a table in his life. He had been brought up by a single mum with lots of brothers and sisters, all of whom got free school meals and so when they got home from school they would grab some food and sit on the sofa watching the TV.

I think, for Jesus, meals were central to his mission strategy. Again and again we hear of him going and eating with those he encountered on the road, those beyond the walls of the synagogue, the outsiders, those on the margins. The Pharisees used food rules to exclude people from God’s kingdom. They took the rules that applied in the temple into the home, trying to re-create a mini-temple at home but in so doing, ostracising large groups of society. Jesus came and fulfilled the requirements of the law so that rules were no longer required. All could be invited and welcomed to God’s heavenly banquet. All were invited to identify themselves as children of the King of Kings.

When we share a meal with others, we don’t just share food, we can share welcome, conversation, customs, culture, ritual, identity, acceptance, friendship. We take a risk when we invite someone into our home, we allow them to see things of ourselves that might not be immediately obvious. And we worry, or at least I do, that maybe they won’t like what they see. Yet we know from our own experience, the privilege, pleasure and joy we have experienced when others have invited us into their home.

It can be easy to get out of the habit of inviting others into our mealtimes. Life is busy and full, and the days and weeks seem to fly by before our eyes. But so many friendships have benefitted from a shared meal. And I’m not sure how easy it is to share our identity as children of God with others without at some point offering hospitality and welcome into our homes and around the dinner table.

Written by Sarah Ducker

Blog inspired by Tim Chester’s book ‘A Meal with Jesus’, (Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, 2011).