The Soul’s Hunger: Our Physical Appetites as More than Physical
There are no two words that grab a Cornell student’s attention like the ones “free food.” The Official Free Food GroupMe, a group where students post about free food “sightings” on campus, currently boasts over three thousand members, yet even its existence only scrapes the surface of Cornellians’ obsessive fixation with complimentary cuisine. In the fall of 2018, one could hardly be a standing member of the University if one did not have “Pocket Points,” an app that rewarded points based on the number of minutes of phone inactivity. Those points in turn could be reimbursed for real life rewards in the form of free coffee, pizza, omelets, and much more. One day, however, the app glitched and students could repeatedly enter the same promo code and gain ten points every time. Many experienced a “rags to riches” story, quickly accumulating an inordinate amount of points, and with their newfound abundance, cashed in their currency. On the day of the glitch, many Cornell eateries cited that they “sold out” of certain items due to students using their points to get them. The bug was rectified (to the chagrin of many) and eventually the option to get “free items” was removed entirely, replaced by “coupon option” where students could purchase discounted food items with their points. While the student body “recovered” from this seismic shift, it was clear that for many, “free food” was not something to be enjoyed in limited and random quantities, but a resource to be exploited and consumed.
If directly asked, few individuals would be willing to say that they “worship” food, though their actions are evidence otherwise. In her article “Why Stuff is Not Salvation,” Anna Quindlen poignantly describes Black Friday shoppers by claiming that “the mall is our temple.” Correspondingly, the presence of free food on campus is a true God-send for many. Just as Black Friday shoppers are willing to trample over other customers (i.e. a sacrificial and literal shedding of blood) to get that coveted item, so too are students on campus willing to go to extreme means to get free food. This is not to say that eating the badminton club’s leftover pizza after grueling over an essay for the past few hours is wrong. The issue is that such desires indicate an obsessive fixation and wrongful placement of our hopes. We think that the free food will satisfy and bring ultimate comfort just like the shoppers think that buying a 75-inch TV will give them a greater amount of significance than their current 55-inch one.
Eve Turrow, author of A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food, describes in an interview how “people latch onto food as something that engages all of the senses and brings people together in physical space” and adds, “I think that a lot of people in our generation are thinking about, ‘What am I going to eat next?’ ‘Where am I going to go dine next?’ ‘What’s in the fridge and what can I put together tomorrow?’” When these are the most pressing questions on a student’s mind, of course a natural reaction to a large quantity of food is to hoard and eat as much as possible, if only to keep the questions at bay.
Many students I talked with cited that the presence of free food presents an “indulgence” that is both “highly rewarding” yet “prone to disappear quickly,” thus, it is best to capitalize on the opportunity. Students cited MoviePass, a movie subscription service, as an example. When MoviePass first launched, its promise and goal were simple: customers who paid $9.95 per month could view one movie per day. The service quickly garnered many subscribers, with two million active subscribers reported as of February 2018. However, the model was soon deemed unsustainable, and MoviePass slowly began to dismantle their service; currently, for $9.95 a month, customers can see up to three movies a month. The deal is still a good one, but for those who experienced the service in its past forms, they see its current model as a devolution. Many likewise wished they had “jumped on the bandwagon” before such benefits disappeared.
MoviePass and Pocket Points are both examples of services that were “too good to be true,” yet their crazed and speedy embrace by the population and equally rapid downfalls reveal an unfortunate yet difficult reality: the things we want to sustain us and enjoy are costly thanks to the systems that are in power which control and set prices, often at an unjust and high rate. Thus, when a consuming and controlling system “glitches” or “malfunctions,” the best thing to do is to take advantage of what is available before the system fixes itself. In many ways, this perpetuates the modern era of consumption culture: grab as much “good stuff” in front of you before it runs out. There is an incongruous disparity in how in developed countries, obesity and waste remain major concerns, while in other parts of the world, many die of starvation. Food has become another facet of our lives affected by consumerist culture—consider unethical food preparation methods or the way many people see food simply as a utilitarian source of energy, rather than simply enjoying food in and of itself.
It is important then to remember that food in its true form should be enjoyed with the understanding of the sacrifice that it took for you to be eating it. Farmer Joel Salatin states how in order for anything to live and keep eating, “something has to die.” In his book The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, he gives an anecdote of a chicken and a family; in order for a family to continue to live for another day, the chicken must give up its life. He then describes how many more chickens will die in order to keep on feeding the family, and that this is why we ought to have a gracious and thankful attitude towards the animals and plants we eat. Salatin states, “Every time we kill something whether seed embryo (wheat) vegetable or animal in order to live, it should remind us not only of the sacrificial death of Jesus that enables us to partake of eternal life but also how precious life is. Life is so precious that it requires death.” Likewise, Michael Pollan talks of the “impersonal nature” with which we eat food and adds that when we see the steak fillet or chicken breast on our plate, we so often forget that our food had a life before it received its current form on our plate; it was a living, breathing animal. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan states, “If for me to eat this venture was about taking ultimate responsibility for the animals I eat, their deaths included, well, I hadn’t done that yet, had I?”
It is evident that food is a big part of our lives, yet by viewing food through the lens of consumerism—a good at our disposal to use and discard—we ultimately lose sight of what Pollan and Salatin try to convey: the food we eat is more than just something to sustain us. Its implications run far deeper. Food is an example of how one thing’s death gives life to another. Now knowing the sacrifice that comes with what we eat, it forces us to ask: in light of the sacrifice made, how will I live my life? Thinking in this way gives people a healthier view of creation and nature as a whole; there is a cost for me being able to wake up another day and that cost is the life of another.
The Christian Bible speaks to this larger implication of food, treating what we do at the dining table not merely as a physical act but as a spiritual one. Daniel’s refusal to “defile himself” and eat the King’s food demonstrated his unwillingness to be assimilated to the Babylonian culture; to partake in such a meal meant he was swearing allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar. Likewise, Jesus choosing to eat with the most-shunned in society, be they prostitutes or tax-collectors, revealed that he was invested in their narratives and was willing to draw them close even if others refused to do so. Viewed in this light, my own 2 AM ice cream therefore indicates much more than physical hunger but is rooted in a deeper hunger for longing, meaning, and identity satisfaction.
Food likewise is a reminder of our finitude and that as human beings, we are not invincible or self-sustaining. We are weak, fleshly creatures that need sustenance to survive, and our reliance on food indicates a spiritual need to rely fully on God for strength and nourishment. Thus food, in its original design, was meant to act as a bridge between God and people; it reminds us of our dependence on our Creator, our thanksgiving over His good gifts, and our need for community with others. In quite a poetic fashion, Jesus exemplifies this by transforming the common act of breaking bread and pouring wine during the Passover meal as a symbol of the death He would die to save the world. The very promise of restoration lies in this meal; the taking of these elements is a reminder that Jesus shed his own blood and broke his own body so that we did not have to. Likewise, the Passover table is not meant to be some sort of exclusive club or membership, but is open to all; by inviting others to it and partaking in its elements, they learn of Jesus’ sacrifice.
As stated, food is a way to build community with a fellow human being. At the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, dwarf Thorin Oakenshield mournfully states, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Here Thorin does not compare the physical euphoria of food, cheer, and song to gold nor claims that the former is superior. Instead, he juxtaposes the deeper, spiritual outcomes that lie behind both pursuits. He can attest in his own life that his quest for gold is centripetal, selfish, and ultimately destructive. Ruthless in his discovery for the dragon Smaug’s treasures, he becomes a lone ranger who pushes aside those who sacrificed themselves by joining him on his journey, thinking they might betray him to obtain the very treasures for which he lusts. Ironically, when he receives his desired riches, he nearly loses the very things that mattered to him most: his friends and family.
In Thorin’s life, the valuing of “gold” ultimately means the valuing of one’s own selfish desires above others’ well-being. Yet pursuing “food, cheer, and song” means something different. Valuing these means cherishing vulnerability, family, and community. At the dining table, individuals invite others into their culture by sharing meals with one another and cheer each other on through song. Eating, therefore, is more than just a physical act but a spiritual one just like one’s pursuit of gold. If hoarding gold represents infatuation with oneself, then the enjoyment of food indicates a willingness to share and sacrifice. Thus, just as Ryan O’Dowd states in his article Thought for Food, “when we gather and eat we bring all of our beliefs and practices into an integrated whole, be they political, cultural, social, religious, or aesthetic,” food seen in its proper light can unite people from different backgrounds together; it can be cherished rather than exploited. Jean Vanier, in his book Community and Growth, likewise states that “even the simple gesture of passing the potatoes is a natural moment of communication which can bring people out of their isolation. They cannot remain behind the barriers of their depression when they have to ask for the salt… Too many people come to a meal simply as consumers. They don’t realize the role which meals can play in the building of community.” Thus, food is a way not only to acknowledge one’s dependence on God, but a way to acknowledge dependence on others as well.
Pope Francis stated, “Fall in love with the Earth, this gift of pure abundance that God has freely given us. This disposition cannot be written off as ‘naive romanticism’, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we lose our wonder and awe, our attitude toward the Earth will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs.” Due to the commercialization of food and the prominence of consumer culture, it is understandable why so many view food without the rightful respect with which it ought to be treated. Whether we concern ourselves solely with satisfying our own hunger and turn to food as our salvation, or if we are so removed from the processes by which we eat, it is evident that this false worship of food leads to destruction and exploitation. Food ordered rightly, however, brings life abundant: physical and spiritual strength, creation-wide shalom, human connection, and a mysterious memory of our human insufficiencies and need for provision. Ultimately, it brings the need for a generous and imaginative God.
1 Anna Quindlen, “Why Stuff Is Not Our Salvation”, Newsweek, 27 October 2018, < https://www.newsweek.com/anna-quindlen-why-stuff-not-salvation-82837>.
2 Joe Pinsker, “Why Are Millennials so Obsessed with food?”, The Atlantic, 27 October 2018, < https://www.theatlantic.com/business/ archive/2015/08/millennial-foodies/401105/>.
3 Joel Salatin, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for All God’s Creation. (New York: FaithWords, 2016), Audiobook.
4 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (London: Penguin Press, 2006), 349.
5 Daniel 1:8 (ESV)
6 Mark 2:13-17 (ESV)
7 Matthew 26:26-27 (ESV)
8 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit. (Great Britain: HarperCollins, 1937), 19.
9 Ryan O’Dowd, “Thought for Food”, Comment Magazine, 27 October 2018,< https://www. cardus.ca/comment/article/thought-for-food/>.
10 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth. (Toronto: Paulist Press, 1989), pg 303.
11 Pope Francis, Laudato Si. (2015 Liberia Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City), 3.
Zachary Lee is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying English, Creative Writing, and Spanish. When he is not writing poetry and performing it, he can be found analyzing summer blockbusters, reading Dostoevsky, and listening to Christian hip-hop. This past year he studied abroad at Oxford where he discovered his love for clotted cream and libraries that are secretly castles.Tags: Anna Quindlen, college, community, consumption, Cornell University, desire, education, Eve Turrow, hope, Jean Vanier, Joel Salatin, JRR Tolkien, love, Michael Pollan, Passover, Pope Francis, Ryan O’Dowd, student, university, work