The blessing of soul food comes from cooking together and embracing each taste and morsel.
What makes soul food sacred is one's connection to the ingredients and to those who enjoy them.
The stories that Rivvy Neshama tells in Recipes for a Sacred Life (Divine Arts, 2013) are both magical and down-to-earth, steeped in ancient wisdom and simple family lore. The book is a collection of short, true tales that highlight the sacred in every life. Through her writing, the kindness of the world is revealed. In this excerpt from “Part Eight,” Neshama writes of the powerful effects of soul food on the mind and body.
Food is alive. I forget that sometimes, until I reach up and pick an apple from our tree.
A Jewish thing. I always felt that food was sacred. At first, I thought it was a Jewish thing. Not only because we loved to eat (and had a Jewish mother urging us on), but also because we celebrate our holy days around the table, with special foods for each.
On Sabbath, we bless the wine and hallah and give thanks to the Lord, “who creates the fruit of the vine” and “brings forth bread from the earth.” On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we eat apples dipped in honey to bless the year with sweetness. And on Passover, we eat matzah, unleavened bread, to remember our ancestors who were slaves fleeing Egypt and had no time to let the bread rise. We eat the matzah with bitter herbs and bless them both.
But, I soon learned, this is not just a Jewish thing; it’s universal. All religions and indigenous cultures agree: Food is sacred, the source of life. It’s something to give thanks for every day.
“One eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar” — Martin Buber
There is a Zen monastery in upstate New York that’s housed in an old mansion along the Hudson River. I went there with a group for a weekend retreat, and after a long day of chanting and meditation, we gathered together at a long table for dinner. But before we were served, the Zen master said a prayer—a long prayer—thanking the earth, the sun, the air, and the rain, the farmers, the cook, and everyone else who helped grow or prepare our food and bring it to the table. Then he asked us to be silent, eat slowly, and appreciate each taste. The meal was spare, yet it felt like a feast.
The other meals I’ve eaten in holiness, albeit a rowdier version, were at Helen and Allan’s home on a pine-treed mountainside in Jamestown, Colorado. My husband, John, and I would sit with them and their children around a wooden table near the fire, and before we’d eat, we’d all hold hands. Sometimes it was enough to just do that and feel the energy pass between us. But it got even better when they’d start singing with gusto a full-bodied rendition of grace:
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything!
This was followed by a loud series of “Yums” in raucous harmony.
John and I now say this prayer almost nightly. And when we sing it with our young grandsons Eli and Isaac, they get so excited to be singing, blessing, and holding hands at dinner that they ask us to sing it “again!” and “again!”
All food is sacred. But some foods seem more sacred than others.
Homemade soup and home-baked bread (making it, smelling it, eating it!).
Southern fried chicken and collard greens (Black soul food).
Tea and scones with clotted cream and jam (English soul food).
Corn-on-the-cob with salt and butter (sacred enough that the Indians do a Corn Dance).
Refried beans, rice, and salsa (Mexican soul food).
Warm milk with honey (which they’d serve us each night at the yoga ashram before we’d chant and go to bed).
Chocolate (which the Huichol Indians believe is a gift from paradise and leave as an offering at places of prayer).
Bagels and lox with cream cheese and olives (Jewish soul food).
And, best of all, food fresh from the garden.
From the garden. Our friends Annie and Ellie created a huge vegetable garden. It became a community project, with friends and neighbors pitching in: plowing, weeding, and sowing. It was a beautiful garden, with plantings in spirals and Buddhist flags hanging from the fence.
“Take anything you want,” Annie said, when she proudly led me through it. I took three heads of lettuce and some baby chard.
Our own garden was more modest. Still, it took work: John digging, me weeding, and both watering each day. But the reward for our work came in August when I’d be making a soup or salad and run outside to pick cherry tomatoes and leaves of sweet basil to toss in at the end—fresh from the earth, straight to the table.
There’s something special about eating foods you plant and tend. Annie says it’s because you have a relationship with it from all that work you did to help it grow.
Light a Candle. Before I make dinner, I sometimes light a candle and maybe say a prayer to bless the meal. I especially like to do this when company is coming and I’m cursing the clock and wondering why I ever thought I could make fish, rice, and spinach all be done at the same time. Calm down, the candlelight says. And more often than not, I do.
Tortillas. When we visit Mexico, one of my favorite jaunts is walking to the village tortilleria in the early morning when the roosters are still crowing and stray dogs are barking. I enter the shop, smell the freshly baked tortillas, and buy a dozen for ten pesos. Lined up behind me are old women and young girls who buy a much larger stack of soft corn tortillas to fill with eggs and chilies, or rice and beans, or maybe fresh fish for dinner.
My tortillas are wrapped in brown paper to keep them warm. I feel their heat as I carry them back to our casita. The butter melts on them at breakfast.
Cooking together. Sure, there was sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. But what really kept the hippy communes going was the outright fun of cooking together—and making something finer than you’d ever make alone.
The year I met John, we spent our first New Year’s Eve at a small cottage in Vermont. Outside, there was nothing but piles of snow, and you couldn’t walk out without freezing your nose. Inside, we cooked an English feast: parsnips, jacket potatoes, Brussel sprouts, and carrots—preceded by Cheshire cheese and crusty bread and toasted with champagne. It was the first time we cooked together, and it deepened our bond.
The body-mind connection. It’s well known that our mind affects our body (with stress causing disease, and placebos working if we believe in them). But the opposite is also true: Our body and what we put into it can affect our mind and mood.
When I eat light, I feel light, physically and spiritually. I first became aware of this when I attended retreats where the meals were modest and vegetarian—brown rice with lentils, that sort of fare.
But I also love hot fudge sundaes, Elise’s butter-cream cakes, and the high I get from two margaritas. What can I say? I guess “moderation.” “Everything’s fine in moderation,” said Aristotle. Or maybe it was my mother.
Read more thoughts and wisdom from Rivvy Neshama: Somewhere New is All Around.
Reprinted with permission from Recipes for a Sacred Life: True Stories and a Few Miracles by Rivvy Neshama and published by Divine Arts, 2013.