A wonderful new book reminds us that food is not just matter, but is a gift from God

Every week, it seems, we are bombarded by health gurus as to what we should and shouldn’t eat. One typical recent headline in the Telegraph was: “First roast potatoes, now we are told the way we cook rice is a health risk”. As someone who likes to live on lattes, bananas, dates and black rye bread, I am not an obvious advertisement for healthy eating. I also have a sneaking suspicion that eating the “right” combination of food has become an ersatz religion so I give the gurus a wide berth.

Now I have come across a splendid book that puts how Christians should eat into perspective: The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, by Emily Stimpson Chapman (Emmaus Road). I heartily endorse it, not just for my fellow Christians or for those who have “issues” with food, but simply for everyone.

The book’s combination of wisdom, humour, faith and delicious recipes is all the more remarkable when you read that Chapman suffered from anorexia followed by binge eating for six years, from 1994-2000. She had also lapsed from her faith. In November 2000 she realised “I hated food and I hated my body.” Then she returned to Catholicism – and everything changed. Realising that God comes to us as food the author rediscovered a sacramental world-view: “I stopped thinking of food like a modernist and started to think about food as a Catholic.”

Chapman’s book is a wonderful read; there are chapters on the theology of the body, food as sign and sacrament, hungering for Christ, eating and the virtues, and much more. As Chapman points out, in the US (her homeland) one in three people is obese, two in three are overweight and millions struggle with “pathological dieting.” There is even a new category of disordered eating: orthorexia nervosa, which is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. We have the same problems over here.

Fascinated by what she has written and how timely her book is, I ask Chapman to define “pathological dieting.” She tells me: “It’s an ever-changing search for the magic bullet that’s going to help you lose weight and get control of your appetite – and it never really solves the problem. It is practiced by millions of men and women and yet, at least in the US, the numbers on peoples’ scales keep climbing.”

What does she mean by saying she started to think of food like a Catholic? Chapman reflects: “The modernist looks at the world and just sees matter. We Catholics live in a world of sacred signs. We know God made everything in creation; it bears his mark. Food is one of the most important of these signs. It’s not simply a composite of vitamins and minerals, fats and calories; it’s a natural symbol of the Eucharist. Everything it does on the natural level – to nourish, comfort, gladden, heal and so on – the Eucharist does on the supernatural level. So when I eat, I try to see food always from that perspective – as a gift from God meant to help me understand more clearly the great mystery of the Eucharist.”

Chapman distinguishes between “entertaining” and “hospitality”. How does she define the difference? She tells me succinctly: “Entertaining is about impressing people; hospitality is about loving people – serving them, honouring them, welcoming them. Entertaining is what the culture tells us we should do and for those with the time and money to put on a show. Hospitality is what the Holy Spirit, by the power of our baptism, enables us to do. It is for every Christian.”