On a recent trip to my home town I was welcomed at the door by a stranger, a friend of a second cousin, who was looking after the place during my parents’ cross-country trip. Having grown up in a veritable hotel for friends and family, this didn’t seem all that strange. What got me was the fridge. Where the oversized jug of Lucerne 2 percent milk that could be wiped out in one Saturday morning once sat was an unimposing carton of organic skim. An array of exotic condiments had supplanted the Heinz. The eggs were brown.
Food had never much factored into my thinking about family. But as I took stock of the unfamiliar contents of the kitchen, I felt in a visceral way the absence of my mom and dad, who were by then rolling through western Missouri. I understood then what many people probably know intuitively: the inextricable link between food, family and community.
For most of history taste, like faith, was passed down from generation to generation, a culinary heritage adapted but rarely abandoned. Today, as in most areas of American life, individual choice reigns supreme, and consumers can choose from an infinite menu of specialized diets to suit their gastronomical preferences. We’ve got vegetarians, pescatarians, vegans and locavores. You can go gluten-free, raw or paleolithic (think hunting and gathering in the meat and produce sections). And for those with too much time on their hands, there is the all-emoji diet, consisting only of foods found among the texting symbols on a smartphone keyboard.
In much the same way that keeping kosher or fasting on Fridays serves to strengthen religious identity, modern diets can establish the boundaries of a community. When asked if the “caveman” diet was a cult, John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto, unabashedly responded: “Yes, of course it is. And the world desperately needs more health cults, not fewer…. The old religion was health—health is the new religion.” And indeed, while modern diets may have shed their religious roots, the promises made by their evangelizers border on salvific. What’s the key to eternal youth—or at least a few more healthy decades of life? Eating 40 percent less food, according to the advocates of calorie restriction. Purify the body and mind with a liquid detox diet. Rob Rhinehart, the creator of Soylent, a complete nutrient product that cuts out the pesky business of eating altogether, thinks his concoction “has potential to feed the world.”
So does the world really need more health cults? There are undoubtedly some benefits to recent trends. For those struggling with obesity and food allergies, finding a supportive health community can be a lifesaver. Choosing a diet that supports local farmers or decreases one’s environmental impact is certainly laudable.
But the rise of ever more extreme or particular food restrictions can also fracture family and communal life. In The New York Times (10/1), Pamela Paul writes about the difficulty of planning meals after her 9-year-old daughter decided to become a vegetarian. She mourns the loss of her “once-cherished turkey Bolognese recipe” and hears the voice of a long-dead maternal Jewish relative prodding, “How will she get enough protein?” I started eating vegetarian while in college, and at home I would often make my own dinner if the family was having meat. I thought I was being low-maintenance, but now I can’t help but worry that in cooking for myself I robbed my mom of a fundamental way of expressing love.
Of course, we’ve seen this all before. In the first century, dietary traditions were upended by another radical new cult: Christianity. Community food fights apparently got contentious enough to warrant some stern words from St. Paul: “Let no one, then, pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink…. These are shadows of things to come; the reality belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16–17). His message holds today: eat meat or don’t, but do not let diet become a stumbling block to that most important meal, the communal breaking of bread, in families and in the Eucharist.
I had gone to Arlington, Va., that weekend to help my sister pull off the annual Labor Day potluck that my family has hosted for our neighbors for 21 years. I had my parents on call as I made the grocery list, figured out how many bags of ice to buy and prepared my mom’s famous five-layer dip. And as we all dug into the familiar dishes we’ve come to love over the years, it was almost as if they were there.