THE BLOG
12/23/2010 11:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Amid Holiday Glitter, Food Shines as a Genuine Article of Faith

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of interviews with contemporary Jungian analysts.

So here it is, the holiday season, with its crush of expectation and busyness. As belief systems collide -- tinsel town commercialism vs. the true meaning of Christmas; lusty American capitalism vs. a more aesthetic environmentalism -- many find themselves seeking a more authentic connection to the spirit of the season. Church may no longer satisfy the soul. Shopping may stir stress over money. Why not, I wonder, find faith in food?

Finding faith in food may not be as misplaced as it seems. For one thing, cooking connects us to the passage of time. Though I'm no Martha Stewart, each December I'm drawn as if by a magnet to my kitchen. With cinnamon and sage wafting from my oven, the perfume of old memories fills the house. As I cook the same recipes I've made year after year, I feel, well, better -- as if each dish is a link in time to the continuity of family and friends.

Just as food forms a link to the past, so it also heralds the promise of the future. Creating a new dish, like adding new members to the table, affirms that somehow, despite setbacks and suffering, life goes on -- just like my Brazilian daughter-in-law Carolina's Dulce de Leche Flan that weaves her, and her traditions, into our family.

That food can root us in the past while offering hope for the future seems proof of its power to transform. Most of us have experienced the bliss of biting into a dish so divine it thrills alive the soul as well as the body. Man may not live by bread alone, as the Biblical saying goes (Deuteronomy 8:3). Even so, whether in the Jewish Passover Seder dinner or the bread and wine Catholics receive during Mass, it's worth pondering why food is so integral to many of the world's religious rituals. Just this past week, archaeologists in China discovered a 2,400-year-old bronze cauldron of soup in a tomb -- further evidence that breads and grain, fruits and vegetables provide spiritual as well as physical sustenance.

In Food and Transformation (Inner City Books) British Jungian analyst Eve Jackson feeds the soul with her imaginative exploration of food's inner dimensions, describing it as a universal archetype for nourishment. A motif found in fairy tales, she writes, is that of the "inexhaustible supply of food," such as the table that spreads itself with a feast. Jackson interprets these images to mean that food can be a metaphor for the way we can be fed from within, especially in the "flow of sustaining material from the unconscious" that appears in our nightly dreams. As we work to understand the images our psyche produces, she explains, we "digest" the food of the psyche into insight. Food in dreams can also carry meaning. A round apple may mean wholeness; cooking can signify introspection or "stirring things over."

Food's Dark Shadow

Given the prevalence of eating disorders, industrial agriculture and the plight of factory-produced animals, however, food these days is not without its shadow.

As Jackson sees it, many of our dilemmas around eating arise from the fact that in Western societies, food is unnaturally abundant. Though many people still go hungry, she tells me, the food shortages of centuries past don't affect the more affluent members of the human community as they once did. As our psyches have become separated from the rhythms of nature, it has become more difficult to connect the food on our tables to the miraculous confluence of nature and grace that put it there. Likewise, says Jackson, food's "sheer availability" has made it easier to turn it into a substitute for emotional needs. And on a collective level, Jackson continues, the epidemic of anorexia and obsession with thinness reveals a profound discomfort with our bloated consumer society -- of which obesity may be a manifestation.

With food such a loaded topic, holiday gatherings can be marred by anxiety around what to eat and what not to eat. Yet it seems to me that this cultural confusion could be the starting point for a new kind of culinary theology. Investing food with a more meaningful set of beliefs around growing, harvesting, buying, cooking and eating could be nourishing to society both inwardly and outwardly.

A New Faith in Food

Already signs of this new faith abound: the rise of local farmer's markets and community gardens; sustainable farming; appreciation for whole foods rather than frozen meals filled with chemicals; and the creativity of food artisans. The slow food movement has drawn people to the pleasures of joining around a home-cooked meal. For as Jackson remarks, the act of eating together "is basic to social organization -- a bonding ritual through which we affirm our common identity as a family or a group."

Re-visioning our relationship to food can also be an act of citizenship that ties us back to our American roots. First Lady Michelle Obama's community garden follows in the tradition of our "Farmer-Founding" Fathers' passion for agriculture, among them George Washington and John Adams. "We are all tillers of the earth," wrote J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur, a French immigrant to New York in the 18th century, a "people of cultivators scattered over an immense territory" (Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America by J. Hector St. John De Crévecoeur).

The dishes I prepare this year may not all be made with organic or locally grown ingredients. Still, in these hard economic times, I'll be thankful for the food I have, as I'll be grateful for the way food brings my blended family together around the table. As with any practice, intention and effort count; I look to the New Year to bring new resolutions to this part of my life. For amid all the false glitter, food shines out as a time-hallowed, genuine article of faith -- fruit of the partnership between earth and humankind, and possessing the awesome power to nourish body, soul, family, community and country.