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The mission of ARCC is to bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and condition.
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A Reflection About Food in the Future of Catholicism

Linh N. Hoang OFM, PhD

Professor of Religious Studies

Siena College 

Loudonville, New York

Member, ARCC Leadership Team


Food helps us celebrate special occasions such as anniversaries, to remember bio-social passages such as marriage, to mark important achievements such as graduations, or to get together with other people. Food plays an important role in Catholic history starting with Jesus at the Last Supper where he shared himself and motivated the whole community to carry on his ministry. The Eucharist continues to inform how Christians perceive and practice food in their lives. The study of food has really become an important discipline  but also food study can help inform about its important place Catholicism.

Food studies contain a subdivision that is labeled foodway—an expression of our “ways” with food. It considers food from the perspective of how we grow or acquire it, how we prepare food, how we display or use it, and how and when we consume food. Foodway provides a unique perspective for considering the future of Catholicism. Food may be considered mundane because it is a necessary part of our everyday lives. But at another level food contains meaning and purpose that has been formed through history, cultures, and traditions.  

The cultural complexities of food serve both as a means of inclusion and exclusion.  In a similar vein, the Christian foodway is rooted from the time Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples. The sacrificial act of Jesus is remembered when the elements of bread and wine offered at the altar become the body and blood of Christ. When communicants consume both food elements they also undergo transformation of mind and heart. Then as Christianity developed, certain foods and food practices distinguished Christians from other people and thus effectively set them apart from others and also helped establish who was a Christian. 

Through these discriminatory practices, Christianity established food and eating habits that continue to shape Catholicism today. Hence, food in the future of Catholicism draws on food’s history in the Bible as well as early Christianity to better understand its importance for the faithful. 

The Eucharistic food set a foundation for the dietary disciplines for early Christian communities who identified themselves partly by contrasting their own dietary practices with those of the majority culture or of other spiritual communities.   

Many of these early practices revolved around avoiding eating any meat first offered to idols. Early Christians were careful not to participate in idol worship that violated their dedication to God. But since they were relatively unknown in the marketplace of Roman gods and goddesses, Christians tried to blend in while maintaining their distinct religious identity. For some the avoidance of meats offered to idols was coupled with observing the dietary restrictions demanded by Biblical law.  The fear of eating idol meats further pushed Christians to avoid eating meat altogether that effectively establishing vegetarian practices. For many Christian communities today, this vegetarian practice endures but also is contested, especially since eating meat is not restricted.  

Another important example of Christians changing the menu is found in the history of Christian missions in northern Europe. Historical evidence indicates that horseflesh formed part of the diet of pre-Christian societies in much of this region. In Rome and Greece, however, horses were not generally eaten unless the alternative was starvation. Various missionaries from Rome regarded horse eating as a practice that was incompatible with the Christianization of these societies and should be eliminated.

Around 732, Pope Gregory III ordered Boniface, the missionary to the Germans, to forbid horsemeat consumption on the grounds that it was a ‘filthy and abominable practice’. This injunction was repeated by Pope Zacharius twenty years later. Yet the recurrence of the issue in penitential codes and letters from missionaries suggests that horsemeat did not disappear completely from the northern European menu until sometime after the conversion of these lands to Christianity. When Iceland converted to Christianity in the year 1000 the eating of horseflesh was not outlawed, although it was no longer permitted in public.

These early restrictions and practices towards food continue to be part of  Catholic attitudes and practices today. This brief summary of early Christianity foodway assists in setting a background of how food became a discriminatory practice and how many immigrant communities today, especially those resettling in Western countries must also negotiate.   

The foods brought over and prepared in The United States by Asian immigrants maintain their exoticism and also create a discomfort for the wider U.S.  population.  Food is a way in which Asian Americans experience racism.  For instance, Asian American cuisines are often derided for appearing to be excessive. They are often seen as too different, too spicy, too sour, or too pungent. Among the best-known examples of “excessive” eating in an Asian U.S. American context is eating dog. In the context of Asian U.S. American foodway, dog eating is crucial because it emerges at the point where eating practices seem too different to engage critically. The taboo against dog eating is one area where principles concerning diversity conflict with practices of tolerating diversity. This one factor is used to discriminate and label some Asians as backwards and uncivilized. It is similar to the debate over horsemeat eaten in various northern European countries as previously mentioned. 

Another aspect of food that becomes a prominent issue for Asian communities is food smell. The food odor stigmatizes the Asian body, leaving behind a lingering trace of olfactory otherness. From the curry dishes of South Asians, to kimchi of South Korea, the nuoc mam of Vietnam, and the durian fruit adored by many Asian countries have been and still are offensive to many Westerners’ olfactory sensitivities. The phenomenon of the “smelly immigrant” through immigrant food is concerned about how to contain the smell of the other and affectively keep the immigrant as other.  

This also reveals the anxiety about food smells for immigrants themselves. They want to blend in so some immigrants would rather cook their foods in an outside place such as a garage kitchen or the deck in order not to leave the smell on their bodies or inside their homes. Some immigrants avoid bringing their native foods to their work place or to their places of residence. This provides just a small glimpse into the visceral responses to racial differences anchored in the realm of the ordinary senses of taste and smell that food triggers.  

Finally, certain food items have come to used to denigrate and act as forms of racial identification among Asians themselves. For instance, banana can refer to an Asian as being too Westernized or too white—that is they are yellow on the outside but white on the inside.  Or, even the term coconut which associates being brown on the outside but white on the inside. These examples of racial attitudes and labels further lays out the racial minefield that Asians experience in their place not only in Western countries but also within Catholicism where the Asian body is still foreign, exotic, and different. 

For many Asians, Catholicism is an important part of their lives. For Asians who migrate to other countries they must negotiate the various cultural practices and expectations that can be beneficial to their resettlement or it can be a devastating experience of discrimination. No matter, the immigrants tend to be resilient and adaptable to the circumstances that they face. This reality though does not reduce the prejudice experienced by immigrants through their food. 

The Catholic Church has also experienced this food prejudice through many parts of its history as previously mentioned. But also, immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century were usually distinguished by their foods or drink, as for example Italian pasta or German beer. This further separated them from where they could gather and worship—the lower church rather than the upper church. Also, some cultures do not produce wine or bread which can cause difficulty in producing food for the Eucharist. It also raises the question of what appropriate foods are required for worship and how cultures have adapted. These are issues raised that need further reflection and conversation.   

Catholicism as a religious tradition that proclaims the Gospel message of love, compassion and welcome to people of different race, culture, and tradition, needs to be more attentive to how everyday products such as food play an important role. It is through the everyday product that racist attitudes and discrimination against others becomes most direct and palpable. Food also shows the concrete reality of racism. 

The Church is experiencing a rise in new faithful believers from the global south, especially in Asia and Africa. These continents contain countries with foods that have become internationally renowned but their foods are also looked on with suspicion. It is important for the Church to recognize how food can be a means to help welcome and maintain the faithful. There is no better reminder than the shared experience when Jesus invites all to join him at the Eucharistic table.


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