Food, Life’s Magical Bottom Line

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

There’s something magical about food, fire, and cooking.

Actually, primeval describes it better.

After all, without food, I wouldn’t be sitting here staring at a computer screen and neither would you. There’d be only a barren wasteland, a moonscape of craters and crevices, instead of the Earth we love.

Food is the magical bottom line of life. I’ve thought that for a long time.

As a twenty-year-old student, I once stood on a street corner outside Mexico City’s colossal 5514-stall La Merced Market, watching women swathed in rebozos and ragged huaraches or spiffy in Chanel suits and spiked heels, carrying string shopping bags bulging with fruit, vegetables, chiles, and meat, sometimes a live chicken or duck squawking or quacking, struggling and strangling in the stringy bags. Smoke from the countless little braziers, where street vendors cooked plump tortillas or grilled lime-slathered corn, created a scene not unlike the aftermath of High Mass, when the smoke from the incense permeates the air and makes everything seem a slight bit otherwordly. A hint of magical realism, truly a setting to inspire, much like Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate.

I experienced an insight at that moment, a little epiphany, one I have never forgotten. Since I must write something to explain this, the only way I know how to express it is by saying everything we do ends up ultimately being related to food and nourishment. Whether we eat it or cook it or work for it, food is ultimately what it’s all about. Food is love. Food connects us to each other and the earth. When we eat together, when we cook together, we are no longer strangers.

I still think that, yes, I do.

And the idea of fire, the hearth, cooking, and magic intertwine, don’t they, a fragrant stew of flavors and images?

Today’s focus on healthy, organically grown food reflects that stew, I suspect, a seeking not unlike a spiritual quest. Purity, cleanliness, uprightness, all these seep through much of the writing about food these days. It seems to harken back to the days when people surrounded their hearths with gods and goddesses of fire, placing images of the “moon-crowned Brighid of the undying flame” or Zao Jun (灶君) or Penates within blessing distance, offering bits and bites of food on household shrines or altars.

Saint Brighid (Painting by Emily Balivet, 2010)

I find the connections between altars and hearths fascinating. Recall the saying from Ezekial 43: 15: “The altar hearth shall be four cubits; and from the altar hearth shall extend upwards four horns.”

Hearths and altars, there’s a connection that must explored more in depth, not here, not today, but soon, I think.

With the vast disconnection between people today, food helps to bridge that gap. Food has become the new religion. Eating becomes a spiritual practice: it’s a daily thing, choosing pure foods and deeming others taboo, carrying out the ritual of cooking, stoking the flames of the fire, partaking of communion with the first bite, as it were.

From earth to you and to me. Food, life’s magical bottom line.

Zao Jun (灶君) (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2012 C. Bertelsen