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  • Religion, Food, and Eating in North America ed. by Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson etal.
  • Timothy Miller
Benjamin E. Zeller, Marie W. Dallam, Reid L. Neilson, and Nora L.Rubel, eds. Religion, Food, and Eating in North America New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 336 pp. Paperback, $35.00/£24.00, ISBN 978-0-231-16031-5; cloth, $105.00/£72.50

Food studies as an academic discipline has expanded tremendously in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Study of the intersection of food and religion is not new, but as a field of inquiry it is ripe for new work. This new compendium edited by Zeller, Dallam, Neilson, and Rubel does double duty in that regard: It provides several important chapter-length contributions to existing scholarship, and it points to the way to new possibilities for scholarship. Indeed, no reasonably imaginative scholar could read this volume and fail to come away with several solid ideas for further study.

A standard critique of edited volumes is that they are uneven and often short on overall coherence. That criticism could be applied here, but my response to it would be that the diversity of the chapters, in both subject matter and approach, opens up plenty of new vistas and therefore is more a strength than a weakness. Here we have chapters that are grounded both in mainstream religions and in new religious movements. Several of them deal with food and ritual activities; others take up such diverse topics as ways of teaching a faith to children through food, fasting, and the evolution of food-related practices over time.

A rundown through the essays is in order here. The book begins with an introduction by Marie Dallam, whose straightforward and clear prose gets the volume off to a good start. She places the tome in the line of scholarship today that examines lived religion rather than the religion of official texts and prescribed (and proscribed) practices. The point of the book, she tells the reader, is to examine ways in which food and religion are connected and to make sense of that intersection. And from that framework the rest of the book proceeds. [End Page 252]

The first section of the book is called “Theological Foodways,” and its first chapter, by David Grumett, could actually be characterized as an anti-food piece: it examines food abstinence in various Christian traditions. He explores fasting, as it occurs during certain holiday periods, but goes on to look at less comprehensive food avoidance, as in vegetarianism and other religiously based foodways that involve avoiding some, but not all, foods. Jeremy Rapport appears next, analyzing the vegetarian diets espoused by the Unity movement and the Seventh-day Adventists, focusing on their formative years; he finds those diets part of larger lifeway patterns in those two movements, with Seventh-day Adventist founder Ellen White opposing all kinds of intemperance and Unity founder Myrtle Fillmore seeing diet as part of a more comprehensive mental and physical wholeness. Leonard Primiano provides a look back at the extravagant banquets that were for decades a central fixture of Father Divine’s Peace Mission movement and then follows the evolution of Peace Mission eating into Mother Divine’s emphasis on good nutrition within a creative theology of food. Annie Blazer concludes the section by taking us to Hallelujah Acres, a Christian enclave in North Carolina that combines Bible study with a raw-food diet and dietary supplements.

The second section examines food and religion within three American religious subcultures plus one that represents the great growth of “blended families” in which the spouses come from different religious backgrounds. The first essay here, by Rachel Gross, provides a retrospective look at the ways food helped Jews retain their roots as large numbers of them were moving from Orthodoxy to less observant forms of the faith in the mid–twentieth century. In “Salmon as Sacrament,” Suzanne Crawford O’Brien’s contribution, the deep interdependence of salmon and people among the tribes of the Northwest, and the contribution of salmon to the renewal of traditional culture, is limned with excellent empathetic sensitivity. From the other side of...


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