The New Pharisees Are Watching and Want to Know: How Woke Is Your Supper?

In the face of ever-shifting codes of purity, the Catholic faith stands out as relevant and reasonable.

Carl Bloch, “In a Roman Osteria,” 1866
Carl Bloch, “In a Roman Osteria,” 1866 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The intimate relationship between cancel culture and food eerily resembles the situation in Christ’s time. Scripture has plenty to say about purity and identity.

A pertinent example for today comes in July 2020 when David Tamarkin, chief editor of the Epicurious website, announced the “Archive Repair Project.” He claimed that the project would be the “process of removing racist language and ideas from the site.” Tamarkin continued, “It’s depressing, disheartening and discouraging — for the Epi staff, but especially for our readers — that problematic recipes and stories are so easy to find on our site.” Tamarkin acts as if the “problematic” writings were spontaneous, as if he and the staff are not accountable for them. He acts as if he were shocked!

Later in a December 2020 interview with the Associated Press, Tamarkin said of the word “exotic”: “I can’t think of any situation where that word would be appropriate, and yet it’s all over the site. It’s painful for me and I’m sure others.” Again, the strange distancing — “ethnic” and “authentic” were deemed racist.

Israeli chef Einat Admony’s recipe for Turkish Coffee Brownies from her cookbook “Balaboosta” (Artisan, New York, 2013) was “repaired” because of the sentence, “The cardamom gives an exotic taste that you likely haven’t experienced in other desserts.” The sentence was deleted simply because of the word “exotic.”

Another chef whose recipes have been “repaired” are those of Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi, a self-described “gay dad.” At the end of each recipe, reasons are given (or not) for their “repair.”

But words are not the only enemy. Admony and Ottolenghi got light punishment in comparison to other celebrity chefs. Not just words, but now certain people, are considered racist. Marcus Samuelsson’s tribute to Haitian joumou soup from his cookbook, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food (Voracious, New York, 2020), was accused of cultural appropriation and colonialism. Samuelsson was deemed insufficiently “woke” since his recipe included non-Haitian foods like maple syrup. Samuelsson is Ethiopian, and his book was a tribute to Black cuisine — yet he was scorned.

Ostensibly, the Project’s aim was to combat racism and anti-Semitism, though it has censored chefs who are Black (like Samuelsson) or Jewish (like Ottolenghi). Divisive identity politics underlies these controversies and ends up sidelining the very communities it purports to “help.” 

The definition of racism is stretched to the point of meaninglessness.

Now, so many ideas and words are deemed “racist” that nothing is racist. For example, with the word “exotic” — are its synonyms to be canceled as well? If chefs used a different word, would they have escaped deletion?

Digging deeper, is cuisine a good issue for progressives? Foods and cuisine have always been affected by what is called “fusion.” Consider Italian food before the tomato, Japanese food before tempura and Irish food before the potato. Noodles are a worldwide phenomenon. Is that the progressive aim? Making purity itself pointless?

This brings us to the issue of religion — as necessary as food, and deeply rooted in the human person. When we think of “purity,” both food and religion come to mind. Pure air, water and soil are on one side of the equation, with purity of mind and heart on the other.

The problem is that “social justice” has its own “holiness code,” unattainable only because its goalposts are always shifting. There is always a new enemy.

Christianity, however, shows another way. God never changes, and there is never a “new enemy.” It is always the devil and sin. Our faith provides a unique grace and forgiveness that goes far beyond the empty apologies that progressives demand.

Scripture also illustrates how purity and identity are linked and shows how Catholicism is relevant and reasonable. 

In John 6, Our Lord describes himself as the Bread of Life, and it is not metaphorical. The crowd says in disbelief (John 6:42), “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” They claim to know Jesus’ identity — that of Joseph and Mary’s son. 

Moreover, Christ calls Himself “the living bread” (John 6:51), unlike the perishable manna that sustained the Israelites in the desert. Going further, he says (John 6:55-56), “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Jesus does not censor himself to please his listeners. Instead, he tells the Truth, refusing to cancel himself, though it sounds like impure cannibalism to the crowd. 

And Jesus Christ does not tie belonging to his flock to a particular identity. Jesus says (John 10:16), “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice.” Our Lord spoke of “one flock, one shepherd,” transcending specific identities. While the Pharisees and Sadducees had carved out their own identities within Judaism, Jesus preached to both groups. The “other sheep” were not alien to him. They were in as much need of the Gospel as everyone else. We see this in his encounter with the Samaritan woman, who spreads the word that Jesus is Savior of the world (John 4:7-42).

St. Peter contends with just this issue — identity politics — when he goes to the house of Cornelius. An angel presents him with “unclean” food three times, but the angel tells him all things are created clean (Acts 10:9-16). The vision enables St. Peter to tell the centurion Cornelius and his friends (Acts 10:34-35), “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

St. Peter recounts Pentecost when he defends giving sacraments to the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18). Identity politics stood in the way of spreading the Gospel, or as St. Peter puts it (Acts 11:17), “Who was I that I could withstand God?” He learned that there is only one race — the human race — in need of baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. All need to be evangelized.

St. Paul addressed identity politics directly in his epistle to the Galatians. He writes (Galatians 3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” St. Paul wasn’t about “destroying the gender binary” but showing that unity that can only be found in Christ. He condemns “party spirit” (Galatians 5:20) among the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19). St. Paul shows that identity politics is morally equivalent to sorcery, idolatry and drunkenness, a spiritual impurity.

Finally, St. Paul said it best when he discussed so-called “clean” and “unclean” food in his epistle to the Romans. He wrote (Romans 14:19-20), “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” Scripture emphasizes that we all have one identity and need the same faith. The saints, in their diversity, show that Christ’s principles, and the Kingdom of Heaven, are for everyone.

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