Comfort Food

One of the enduring issues in American culture is what we should and should not be eating in order to live healthy lives. The problem is, the answer to those questions not only changes constantly, the same foods literally go back and forth between the categories; what was considered healthy becomes dangerous, and vice versa, and then a few years go by and they flip-flop again. For example, bread has been the basic staple of most European and Near Eastern diets for millennia, to the point that “bread” is still a synonym for food in general: the Lord’s prayer asks God to “give us this day our daily bread,” which means the food we need to survive this day, not literally just a loaf of bread.

But then about 15 years ago the so-called Atkins Diet became all the rage for weight loss. After a generation of diets arguing that weight loss required a low-fat diet, Dr. Atkins, the purveyor of the diet, argued that fat didn’t matter; it was carbohydrates that were the key problem for weight gain, and so the diet eliminated those and emphasized protein and leafy greens. At its height, 10% of the U.S. adult population claimed to be following the diet. Suddenly people treated the bread plate in restaurants like they were being served baked plutonium in a basket, but steaks became health food. Oatmeal or granola for breakfast was out, and bacon and eggs were in.

But then after a few years, the pendulum swung back. Whole grain diets became the new thing, and suddenly the best thing to eat was what was considered close to poison just a few years earlier: whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and starchy vegetables, while avoiding meat and eggs as much as possible. Recently, the trend has been going back the other way again, with arguments trending towards sugar as the main dietary culprit, while fats don’t matter again. Those who don’t want to surf the waves of dietary tides mostly just throw up their hands and try not to eat too much of anything, hoping that will be enough to keep them from being pulled under.

When I hear something like what Isaiah says in our Old Testament passage this morning, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,” that’s where my mind tends to go. There is an almost religious fervor to these diet trends that go through our culture, and they often go from merely promising weight loss and better health to something that begins to border on notions of salvation. “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,” says the Atkins Diet, or the Whole Grains Diet, or the Keto Diet, or the Paleo Diet, or any of the other diet trends; “Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” What all of them tend to miss, though, is the very first sentence of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” That last word is easy to skip over, but so important: satisfy. The main reason that most diets don’t work for people is not that they are wrong, but that they fail to satisfy. It’s not enough to listen and eat what is good; what is good also has to satisfy, or people turn away from it.

If I asked you to think back on the most satisfying meals of your life, would they be the meals that were the most carefully and perfectly calibrated for the maximum balance of nutritional value? The highest achievement of the greatest product of healthfulness for your body? Probably not. Nor would they probably be the most gluttonous; the ones where you overeat and feel unwell in your body and spirit afterwards.  The most satisfying meals I can think of were the ones where the food was abundant, but not excessive; enticing, but not showy; delicious, but not overindulgent. And most of all, they were meals that were shared: sometimes just with family or close friends, sometimes in a larger gathering hosted by someone who knew how to bring together an interesting group of people; sometimes at someone’s home, sometimes out at a restaurant. But always shared. They were meals that delighted both the body and spirit, meals I wished would never end.

And the cost of the meal was irrelevant to how satisfying they were. We often make that mistake, thinking that a memorable meal is one that has to cost a lot. But human beings often make the mistake of thinking that the more expensive something is, the better it is. Without getting lost in the depths of microeconomic price theory, the price of something is often far more complicated than simply a matter of supply and demand. There’s something in marketing that’s often called the “Chivas Regal effect.” It comes from a story about Chivas Regal whisky, which was the first so-called “luxury” Scotch whisky marketed in the United States. After World War II, it found its sales slumping in the face of significantly increased competition, so it took the unorthodox step of doubling its price without changing anything about the whisky itself. That convinced people that didn’t really know anything about whisky that it must be significantly better than its competition, otherwise, why would it be so much more expensive? And so when the price determines the value of something rather than the value determining the price, it’s become known as the Chivas Regal effect.

The truth is, we don’t trust the quality of something that’s cheap, much less free. Anything that has value has a price, we think, and the greater the value, the higher the price. Oh, not always a financial one, of course. We know enough to know that some things are truly priceless. Even MasterCard, which exists solely to help us buy things that we value, created one of the best advertising campaigns of the last two decades about that. In the first commercial of the campaign, a man and his son enter a baseball stadium as the narrator ticks off the things they purchase: two tickets, $46; hot dogs, popcorn, and soda, $27; an autographed baseball, $50. Then the camera pans to the two of them clearly relishing each other’s company in the stands. “Real conversation with an 11 year-old son,” the narrator concludes: “priceless.” There are some things money can’t buy, he concludes; for everything else, there’s MasterCard. The challenge, though, is figuring out what really is priceless, and what is too high a price to pay.

“Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” Isaiah says. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” It’s a good question. And the answer is that there are lots of reasons we do that, to be honest. Often it’s because we think that what we’re buying will sustain and satisfy us, even when we should know better, because it’s what everyone says will make for a satisfying life. Young people leave college and go to law school and become an associate at a prestigious firm in Philly; they go to Wall Street in New York, or Capitol Hill in DC, or Hollywood or Silicon Valley in California. They work 100 hour weeks or more, arriving at the office before the sun does, eating hurried meals of cold takeout throughout the day in between meetings or on top of piles of paper or huddled in front of their computer screens like a fireplace that gives little light and no warmth, finally going home again in the wee hours of the night mainly just to shower and change clothes and hopefully snatch a few hours of sleep before doing it all again. It will be worth it when I make it, they say; make my first million, make partner, make it to the White House Staff; it will be worth the price when I have financial security or social prestige or simply the sense of having done something difficult or important. It’s a high price to pay, they tell themselves, but it will be worth it in the end. Then I will be satisfied. But when they get there, they often discover that they’re not. It’s just more of the same with a bigger pay check and a nicer office. They’ve paid a huge price, spent the most precious and unrenewable resource they have, their time, only to discover that it does not satisfy.

It’s a familiar story, and a true one, but there are many reasons nearly all of us do spend our money and our labor, one way or another for that which does not satisfy, because one way or another, we believe those who tell us that this one, this time, will be satisfying, only to find ourselves poorer afterwards for it, and still hungry. “Come buy wine and milk without money and without price,” God says in Isaiah’s prophecy. Without money; without price. God’s grace is priceless; it cannot be acquired transactionally; it can only be received, in response to an invitation. But we have such a hard time accepting that. There must be something we can do, should do, must do in order to receive it, we think. We have to pay for other things that are much less precious; there must be a way we could pay, should pay.

For millennia, Christians have been tempted to commodify other priceless things that we might have (faith, love, repentance, trust), to try and work out some kind of barter with God for the grace that God already gives freely, abundantly, joyfully to us. And when we’re not sure about that, or sure if it’s enough, we rummage through our spiritual pockets and start dumping everything we do have out on the counter to try and buy our way into God’s grace with our devotion, our goodness, our righteousness, our belief, our holiness, our service; whatever we feel has the most value. But after we’ve piled it up, after we’ve put it in God’s hands, smiling hopefully but anxiously, wondering if it will be enough, God’s head shakes, slowly and sadly. It will never be enough to buy what truly satisfies, God says softly. That’s why I’m giving it to you, all of you; that’s why it’s called grace.

I think that’s why Isaiah has God end up saying, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts your thoughts.’” God knows how hard a time we have wrapping our minds and our hearts around this grace thing, how much we will try to pull it back down to our level so we can make sense of it as a transaction. But God refuses: without money, God says; without price. Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Literally, what God says there is, “your soul will delight in the fatness.”

Isaiah, quite literally, is describing God’s idea of soul food: food that delights us both in its abundance and richness and because it embodies the comfort of coming home to the people who have known you and loved you since you were born; food that cannot be bought because it is offered freely by the family cook, but which can never be replicated in places where you buy food, because it is made out of love and for love according to recipes handed down within the family across generations. The only thing we can do, the only thing we should do, is to enjoy it, savor it, be comforted and nourished by it, and invite others to come over, to taste and see that the Lord is good, and that at the Lord’s table, everyone is satisfied.

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