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  • "The Hungry Soul"Sacramental Appetite and the Transformation of Taste in Early American Travel Writing
  • Heidi Oberholtzer Lee

From Mary Rowlandson's feast on fetal fawn and horse liver to Elizabeth Hanson's meal of beaver "guts and garbage," early American captivity narratives reverberate with religious women's graphic descriptions of the meals they eat during captivity. A number of critics, such as Mitchell Breitwieser, Julia Stern, and Rebecca Blevins Faery, have briefly addressed such vivid portraits of food and disgruntled dining as markers of captives' grief, pain, and gradual acculturation to native ways.1 These captive authors' references to eating, however, are central to their narratives and have implications for their texts far beyond those passages explicitly about cuisine. Their descriptions of food evince a larger hermeneutics of appetite through which these writers narrate, read, and even experience their environments. Both the New England captivity narratives and the Puritan, Quaker, and Catholic missionary accounts that I address later in this article advance what I call a "gustatory theology," or a system of belief that articulates religious truths and understandings of the divine and spiritual world through gastronomical language. These texts are framed almost wholly in terms of appetite, and food descriptions [End Page 65] repeatedly surface at crucial moments of spiritual anxiety, doubt, or growth on the part of the authors. This gustatory theology pervades religious travel writing of the Americas and crosses denominational lines to link together the works of devout Puritans, Quakers, and Catholics from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere.

Why might this language of appetite be ubiquitous and similar among texts of widely divergent Christian religious traditions? I suggest that understanding these travel texts as written in the tradition of pilgrimage narratives provides an answer; pilgrimage narratives link the spirit and the physical body.2 As Bruce Redford has noted of the Grand Tour and other critics have noted of travel writing at large, travel often makes heavy demands upon the body, but this physical exertion presumably develops admirable qualities of perseverance, tolerance, or understanding of difference, to name a few of the oft-cited intangible benefits.3 Pilgrimage even more specifically associates physical movement with spiritual development, as pilgrims, whether in the medieval world or in contemporary America, seek spiritual knowledge and reward through subjecting their bodies to the discomforts of a temporarily or even permanently mobile lifestyle.4 Whether the journey ends in Lourdes, Fatima, the Holy Land, Guadalupe, Santiago de Compostela, or Saint Anne de Beaupré, most pilgrims expect to see visible signs of their journey upon their bodies. These marks—bloodied knees, dirtied feet, or torn shoes, for example—may indicate pain and travail. Often, though, the pilgrim body bears signs of healing—sight restored, lame limbs become useful, or persistent pain relieved.5 In the early American travel texts examined here, colonial captive or missionary writers, while not traditional pilgrims, still expect and hope to find on their traveling bodies proofs of their spiritual development. They proudly record their bodily transformations, most often in terms of tongue or [End Page 66] stomach, and offer these gustatory or gastronomical changes as proofs to their readers that their intertwining physical and spiritual journeys have matured them in the faith.

The body and its transformations were of particular importance to the colonial American pilgrim because the American continents did not in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries contain any widely recognized sacred destinations for European pilgrims. Of course, Native Americans revered certain lands as hallowed, and, by the nineteenth century, eco-travelers and writers like John Muir had begun describing American geography in religious terms.6 In the early colonial period, however, American nature had not been sanctified nor had American blood consecrated the ground in massacre or war. The individual American body, not ecclesiastical or geographical shrines, represented the only locus of holiness available for those on a quest for religious truth. Literary scholar Barbara Korte notes that in "most pilgrimage accounts, the holy places are given more significance than the act of travelling itself."7 For the American pilgrim, however, the focus must necessarily be on the travel itself or on the traveling body. No widely recognized sacred destination punctuates the end...


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