Lent, Passover, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and a host of other religious observances in the East and West all revolve in some way or another around food and culture.
The confluence and the impact of those practices is why LSU Religious Studies Professor Gail Hinich Sutherland is presenting “Religion, Food and Culture,” a senior-level course in the spring semester.
“In south Louisiana it’s not hard to make the case for the importance of food in religious traditions and cultural traditions of all sorts,” Sutherland said, “but we see in all traditions that food is central to all kinds of religious festivals and observances and the particular kinds of food in the preparation.”
Sutherland, a specialist in Far Eastern religions and gender studies, said the course will examine the often-overlooked relationship between social and religious practices and the production, preparation and consumption of food.
“Food is so basic — it is even more basic than sex,” Sutherland said. “The biblical account of the first temptation is not sex but food — an apple, or whatever that fruit was.”
Along with lectures, articles and debates, the students in Sutherland’s class will prepare and consume four religious feasts — Karamu, the feast of Kwanzaa; Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights; Passover, or Pesach, the Jewish festival which celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and Eid-al-Fitr, the Muslim feast to celebrate the fasting of Ramadan.
“Food is just fascinating. It is very primal with who we are,” Sutherland said. “It is playing with desire and pleasure. So we take a lot of pleasure in it yet it becomes a way in which we can think about and discipline our pleasures.”
“So much about religion is about discipline. All religious traditions acknowledge that humans love pleasure, but there is a sense that you can’t go too far with that,” she said. “You have to enjoy pleasure within a spectrum of values. Food is definitely part of that.”
Sutherland said she believes the topic does not receive the importance it deserves, in part because it centers around what she calls a “little tradition” compared to a “great tradition.”
“Great traditions usually encompass things like texts, philosophy, elaborate rituals, specialized personnel and all that. Whereas little traditions are just as important in the maintenance of tradition, including festivals, folklore, costumes and food,” Sutherland explained. “Those traditions tend to be maintained more by women and are family things. They don’t necessarily have to be located in a religious place. In any religious tradition both sides of that are always working together.”
The students will review some Western religious traditions, like the Protestant-based Thanksgiving, and Catholic-centered feasts, like the Feast of St. Joseph, but will spend more time on Eastern religions of which she is more familiar, she said.
“There are certain foods you are supposed to eat at Thanksgiving that are tradition and there is, of course, a whole myth around it which we know, more and more, is pretty mythic,” she said. “The St. Joseph altars are all prepared by women. So there is the festival side of it, the celebratory side of it and also there is the aesthetical side of it with discipline and denial.”
In Hinduism, she said, food is coded according to social categories of gender and caste.
“For certain people it will define them according to the kind of foods they eat,” Sutherland said. “It is a bit like South Louisiana, but about 100 times greater. In American we have kind of lost that.”
Food and religious practices also intersect with cultural and political practices, especially at mealtime, she said.
“Whether in terms of mediating political oppositions or religious oppositions or racial oppositions or just self and other, it happens around the table,” Sutherland said. “People sit down and this is a time when you have something to share and also when you are eating, of course, you are vulnerable in a sense, you are displaying your very human and even animal side. So you are sharing that with another person. So it is very intimate.”
The course wraps up with what she calls the ethical or social justice considerations of food, and students will debate the “environmental justice” of food production. They’ll also discuss the issues of consuming meat, said Sutherland, who is a vegan.
“I get them to think about the economic and political dimensions of food production and food justice — the way food is produced, who has enough to eat — the whole economic system around agro-business, how our food supply is controlled in lots of ways, how small farmers have been pushed out, how indigenous peoples all over the world have been deprived of their land and traditional habits,” she said.
“Food is another way how we define ourselves,” Sutherland said. “We are animals and we eat animals and certain animals we don’t eat and why do we do that?” How do we think about that?”