If you haven't seen the movie Chef (2014), you should. I'd even encourage you to stop reading this and watch the movie first: not because I'm going to drop spoilers, but because you'll be better able to appreciate it. Then again, maybe you're undecided about whether the film is really worth your time, in which case, keep reading. I hope to convince you that it is.
Jon Favreau plays Carl Caspar, a chef who quits his job at a well-to-do LA restaurant after a heated exchange with its owner. Desperate to make ends meet without sacrificing his creative integrity, Caspar starts a food truck. The rest is movie history.
With smart and frequently hilarious writing, a snazzy soundtrack, and a talented cast (special hat tip to John Leguizamo as Caspar's buddy Martin), the fun factor is already high with this one. But since I can never leave well enough alone, allow me, if only for a few paragraphs, to wax ineloquently about one of the things that put Chef a step above mere entertainment for me.
Throughout the film as dish after dish is prepared and served onscreen, from Pork Cubanos to Pasta Oglio e Olio, I'm reminded of a very sane yet simple truth: food is amazing. I see the color, the variety, the abundance, the divinely-bestowed creativity of the chef's mind, and I see that God cares for this world. Maybe this truth doesn't blow our minds on a daily basis, but it should. The mighty Creator and Sustainer of all that is, or was, or shall be - this same God cares for the dirt, the seed, the fruit, and the table. Gnosticism be damned to everlasting hell. (If you're Baptist, can I get an amen?)
I remember reading H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds as a boy and feeling both intrigued and disgusted by the fact that the Martians don't really eat meals; they suck up blood through tubes. From a utilitarian perspective, this “food as fuel and nothing more” approach makes a great deal of sense. Frankly, though, God's world is a utilitarian's nightmare. Of what practical use is a sunset or the sound of a child's laughter? He made them anyway. He also gave pepper its bite and honey its sweetness. He made fruits and vegetables and meats with enough variety to keep your head spinning in perpetuity. He went overboard, bonkers, full prodigal - and He gave you the taste buds with which to experience that prodigality.
You know what else? He saw that it was good.
It's been my longstanding belief that American Christianity suffers from a woefully inadequate - dare I say malnourished? - view of the beauty of the table. By and large our understanding of food manages to be idolatrous and cheap in equal measure. It needs correcting. With that goal in mind, let us turn to one of my favorite writers on the subject: Robert Farrar Capon. He's a gem. Just wait and see.
In The Supper of the Lamb (which ought to be on your required reading list), Capon contends thusly:
Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste. (p. 40)
And again, just one page later:
Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful. Necessity is the mother only of cliches. It takes playfulness to make poetry. (p. 41)
And finally, in a paragraph Chesterton himself would be proud of:
In a general way, we concede that God made the world out of joy: He didn’t need it. He just thought it was a good thing. But if you confine His activity in creation to the beginning only, you lose most of the joy in the subsequent shuffle of history. Sure, it was good back then, you say, but since then, we’ve been eating leftovers. How much better a world it becomes when you see Him creating at all times and at every time; when you see that the preserving of the old in being is just as much creation as the bringing of the new out of nothing. Each thing, at every moment, becomes the delight of His hand, the apple of His eye. The bloom of yeast lies upon the grape skins year after year because He likes it; C6H12O6=2C2H5OH+2CO2 is a dependable process because, every September, He says, That was nice; do it again. (p. 85)
Go watch Chef. Then sit down with a copy of Capon's book. Wine and cheese pair admirably with both.