When readers talk about Leslie Leyland Fields’ new book, “The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God,” they resort to language of the palate.
Reviewer Scott Cairns, author of the “Compass of Affection,” writes that “The Spirit of Food” is “delicious prose and glistening dishes (which) assist the necessary recovery of our whole persons.”
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, calls the book a “rich feast of essays,” “a meal for the mind” which readers are bound to relish and savor.
Fields, who edited the book, draws on the food metaphor as well.
“People have a hunger to understand, to have a fuller engagement with the food they eat,” she said.
Through a collection of essays by 34 writers, including Fields, “The Spirit of Food” shows that the purpose of food is not solely to sustain life, but to glorify the giver of life.
“Whether we eat or drink, we should do all to the glory of God,” said Fields, quoting the Apostle Paul.
“I’m not sure that many believing Christians have thought about how we can drink and eat to the glory of God. The book presents many ways in which we can do that. Food can draw us closer to God and to one another, if we’re paying attention.”
When Fields started research for the book five years ago, the food movement was developing. There was much discussion about food, but its spiritual, moral and ethical components were missing.
“Somebody needed to step in and fill in those blanks and look at food holistically,” Fields said. She and her band of essayists stepped up to the plate.
“‘The Spirit of Food’ is about paying faithful attention to what we eat and drink, as opposed to eating mindlessly.
“We live in a culture of such abundance and excess, we don’t limit ourselves in any way,” Fields said. “Our culture says that you deserve to have that hot fudge Sundae. Treat yourself all the time. There is no sense of restraint or self discipline, or control. But we have to exercise self control.”
Fields noted that there are many aspects to the subject of food.
“It is one of the big foci of the media. We are in a global food crisis.”
The Department of Agriculture has placed an intense focus on matters related to food, including industrial farming, genetically modified foods and harm to the environment.
“I’m glad to be able to step into some of those conversations.”
The “Spirit of Food” is not a “holier than thou book that will set up rules for you,” Fields said.
“That’s one of the dangers of the food movement. It can become a form of self righteousness. ‘I’m eating more purely than you.’ There can be a competitive sense to that. There is a lot of celebration in the book. A celebration of very simple things.”
“The Spirit of Food” boasts a menu of notable writers including novelist, essayist, social critic and Kentucky farmer Wendell Barry, a prophet of environmentalism and advocate for the wise use of the land Luci Shaw, Jeanne Murray Walker, Andre Dubis and Robert Farrar Capon are among the other writers.
Some of the essays were written specifically for the book.
These writers “open their fields, their kitchens, their tables and their recipe files to illustrate the many unexpected ways that food draws us closer to our neighbors, to Christian community, to God’s creation, and to God Himself,” according to a promo for the book.
The essays take readers to a “backyard tomato garden in Cincinnati, a kosher kitchen, a line of hungry Hurricane Katrina survivors, a church potluck, inside the translucent layers of an ion and many other surprising places where we can experience sacramental eating,” the promo continues. “In a time of great interest and confusion over the place of food in our lives, particularly among Christians, this rich collection will delight the senses, feed the spirit, enlarge our understanding and deepen our ability to ‘eat and drink to the glory of God.’”
One of the essayists is an Orthodox Jew who runs an organic farm in Maine with her husband and two daughters. They follow Levitical dietary rules from the Old Testament.
“The author was a well known baker in Manhattan and gave it up to move to Maine and begin this farm. She wanted to live closer to God.”
In the Old Testament God prescribed many feasts and celebrations around food, Fields said.
“There were very carefully prescribed rules of what was to be eaten and what was not. Those foods rules were a means of drawing people closer to God.”
Food gathering, cooking and eating became a means of being faithful to God.
The book includes an excerpt from the late Father Alexander Schmemman, an Orthodox priest and president of St. Vladimir’s Seminary who wrote about the Eucharist in “For the Life of the World.”
“I’ve come away with a much deeper appreciation for the more liturgical churches who have maintained food traditions through the centuries,” Fields said.
Protestants in the Reformation threw many good things out, including the connection between food and spirit, Fields said. “We need to recover that and be much more deliberate in our food practices, individually and as a church body.”
Some of the essays in the book address fasting practices. “The value of fasting was surprising element,” Fields said. “I was very moved to fast while working on book.
“We need to honor God by how we eat and what we eat. People of faith should consider creating times of fasting or limiting or even abstaining from food. It truly can draw us closer to God.”
Editing The Spirit of Food has had a huge impact on Fields’ attitude toward food.
Fields, who runs a gillnet site on Harvester Island with her family, said the project solidified her commitment to “eating local food, to subsistence, to getting our own deer and fish.”
The book takes a close look at how our food is produced and asks, Is this moral? Is this Christian? Is this right?
The food industry has turned animals and the land into commodities, Fields said. “The only thing that rules is economics. We are grossly polluting the land. The greatest source of water pollution is from factory farming.”
Fields grew up on an organic farm following “a health crazy diet. I was raised to think of food as nutrition only. I missed the fuller joy and celebration and communion that is present in food. I feel like that is being restored through this project.”
Fields, who has enjoyed success with six books on fishing, child rearing and other topics, has established herself to the point at which her book ideas sell well to publishers who, in turn, sell to the public. However, there was initial resistance to her idea for The Spirit of Food.
“This is an anthology and anthologies are notorious for losing money,” Fields said. “In this publishing climate there is a lot of fear. We don’t know what the future of the industry is. I had two big houses that loved the content (of The Spirit of Food,) but at the last minute, said ‘It’s too risky for us.’”
Cascade, a division of Wipf and Stock Publishers, had a different attitude. “They knew about the book and pursued me. I said, ‘No.’ They came back again. I finally said ‘Yes.’ I had friends who knew this press really well and said the (company) would be good to work with.” Cascade presented Fields with an offer that was too good to refuse.
Fields has been on the road promoting The Spirit of Food. While she does that, she is working on other book projects.
One is about the Karluk River - another source of food- which produces fish that her family catches at Uyak Bay.
The book will be partly memoir, like her book, Surviving the Island of Grace, but it will be much more, she said.
“I want to do something new, incorporating a lot of science, archeology and natural history. I want to weave our story of fishing with the story of the Karluk.”
Fields is also re-editing her book Out of the Blue, which includes essays from Alaska’s fishing men and women and is working on a book about familial forgiveness. She will share her own stories as well as those by other writers.
In her writing Fields is filling a need, somewhat like the kitchen hostess who creates nutritious, tasty meals.