Food, Culture and Dirt

Norman Wirzba's Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating is nothing short of a treasure trove of rich materials for theological reflection. Ostensibly, the book is a theological reflection on food, but as those who spend a lot of time in the business of food preparation would know, there is more to food than what goes on in one's pan. 

The production and distribution of things that land on our plates involves a whole matrix of social, cultural and political processes that cannot be stricken from any theological reflection of food. As such, a number of posts to come will take their cue from this book.

One point the book makes relates to the etymology of the word "culture". According to Wirzba, "culture" derives from agricultural practices, which are in turn intimately tied to an involvement with the soil. When the term was first coined, Wirza notes, culture was directly proportionate to the degree one engaged the soil and "got dirt under one's fingernails". 

This underwent an inversion in modern times, particularly as the social center of gravity shifted to urban centres. The city now became the centre of culture, and with it, the old link between culture and agriculture was lost. Indeed, culture became measured by the degree one was removed from the soil - not getting one's hands dirty, as many would put it. In postmodern times, this inversion became institutionalised by linking culture to the acquisition of commodities, which were refined and removed from its more rustic beginnings. 

Why this is important, argues Wirzba, is because the soil was the primary nexus of communal belonging, where a whole range of cultural and political projects were jointly undertaken. Even though similar arrangements take place on concrete, Wirzba wonders if their removal from the soil which is the hallmark of urban living (just think of the mainstreaming of gardenless apartments) cannot be linked to the growing atomisation which is also a hallmark of urban living. 

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