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    The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

    Meditations of a Meat-Eater

    By Sarah Ruden

    April 4, 2019

    In every gospel version of the Last Supper, and in Paul’s version too, a strange textual sleight of hand occurs – the kind of thing that can easily go unnoticed in such a beloved and foundational story. From the Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, the feast itself disappears. The sacrificial animal is so essential that the same term, pascha, can mean both the roasted carcass and the whole meal. In the Greek of the New Testament, the disciples ask Jesus where they should prepare “to eat the Passover” – to eat the pascha. The traditional food is prepared, and they eat, but when it comes down to it, no one is shown eating the all-important course. In Luke, Jesus seems to refrain, saying that, despite his longing, he will not “eat this Passover until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God” (22:15–16). Explicitly shared around, under Jesus’ command to consume them, are of course only wine, the ordinary drink at meals, and bread.

    But chapter 12 of Exodus contains the instructions for a truly celebratory meal. Animal protein was a luxury in the ancient world, and for the Passover, scripture went out of its way to specify what would have been a true treat: a one-year-old sheep or goat (nearly full-grown, that is, but still tender) for each house. The community is to gather and slaughter the animals in public – which means that, once there was a Temple, its officials did not take a share of the meat. The carcasses could be shared between small households, but the process could leave no individual out. (“You should apportion the animal according to what each person will eat.”)

    leg of lamb with rosemary

    Photograph by colnihko. Used by permission.

    Each group of celebrants had to finish off their meat in one evening and burn any leftovers. This commemorates the hasty meal before departure from Egypt, but another impression must have been a lavish and confident banquet: “We’re eating meat here, and we’re not putting aside any of it.”

    In the relatively cosmopolitan and urbanized culture of the first century AD, sacred law had found a number of workarounds. The Passover festival couldn’t in fact look like the homey rites prescribed in Exodus, but involved massive pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and all the necessary commerce was in place. But I intuit that the sustained gift-giving character of the Passover – at early harvest time God renders the people prosperous enough to eat meat, and household members share it among themselves with no subtractions for officialdom – helped send Jesus over the edge on this occasion, into his attack on people doing business in the Temple courtyard. The Temple, gigantic and colorful (Herod the Great, allied with pagan rulers, had expanded and refurbished it), must have looked to him the way a pseudo-sacred theme park would look today, with ticket booths, turnstiles, and hotdog stands.

    After the public commotion comes the private banquet, the Last Supper. Jesus and his followers, observant Jews, would have had a Passover sacrifice to make short work of, but readers don’t observe them eating it. Jesus himself is about to become the “Lamb of God,” and “Christ our Passover” who is “sacrificed for us,” the flesh made (in him, briefly) lifeless to feed ongoing life. But the only food Jesus is shown dividing and distributing is bread.

    In South Africa, against a background of destitution, it is striking how strong the human drive to share meat can be.

    This would be the unleavened bread of the Passover, bread that didn’t have time to rise before the flight from Egypt. The “bread of haste” isn’t supposed to be savory. Matzo is hard and flat, with no extra salt or other spice like a cracker’s, and without even the flavor that yeast adds. Unleavened bread is slavery’s plain food made abnormally plainer.

    So why does bread come forward at the Last Supper, pushing aside precious meat at the very moment when the dispersion of meat is being enacted festively and is about to become a new symbolic prescription? Jesus’ body is given to all of humankind, miraculously bountiful like the few fish multiplied over the five thousand – a rich, eternal feast. Why is the Passover meat invisible? Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask only for daily bread, when so much more was provided?

    In South Africa, against a background of destitution and subsistence struggle, it is striking how strong the human drive to share meat can be. This struck me again and again during the nearly ten years I lived in Cape Town. As a guest at a club for retired housecleaners in a “black township” outside Cape Town, I was once given a heaping plate of chicken and struggled to do it justice, anxious to be gracious but concerned that I was taking leftovers away from several grandchildren waiting in the women’s homes.

    Events such as traditional weddings and funerals, which demand the inclusion of the whole community (“If they know about it, they will come”), can devastate households. When interviewed for a documentary, a white clergyman reported that when he visits the African bereaved to ask what they have to live on after the death of their only wage-earner, he may well hear that they have nothing at all: they cleaned out the bank account to feast their near and distant neighbors.

    Against this background, the habits of middle-class and wealthy whites who made up my social circle are troubling and understandable at the same time. Their feasts are lavish but exclusive. One year, the established host in my circle of professors and aid workers bought a shallow second-hand metal cart, about ten feet long and six feet wide, to convert into a grill big enough for the Afrikaner braii or barbecue. I counted – I think – ten kinds of meat crowding over the coals, including cuts too fatty for me ever to have seen in the States.

    a salt shaker

    Photograph courtesy of Rachel Korinek

    But we were discreet, in ways unspoken even among ourselves. I can recall only one African servant ever being present around the time of a party. This left the hosts a great deal to do, but they did it cheerfully; other white hosts I knew had some help with food preparation or clean-up, but that help was enclosed and muffled in a distant kitchen.

    In my own home, I had adjusted to the overarching rule that servants were to be connected as loosely as practical to the food. Maids everywhere seemed to cooperate, withdrawing quickly with the food they were given, and professing themselves helpless in the kitchen except for cleaning. To me as a Quaker, at least nominally pledged to equality, the rule was shocking on its face, and I started out breaking it, serving lunch to my maid and foreign lodger at the same time and sitting down with them. But the maid was plainly distressed, so I took to filling a plate for her and letting her take it out to the porch alone.

    After two short stints back in the States, and ending another long one in South Africa, I found I had been in an ethically impossible place. Wishing to give a farewell treat to a second beloved maid, Lucy, I asked a neighbor for whom Lucy also worked to drive us both around the scenic Cape Peninsula and join us in a restaurant meal. The neighbor agreed, but only on the condition that Lucy not have the whole day off but show up early to clean her bathroom. I was given to understand, however, that the ultimate imposition on my part, the hard evidence that I was out to spoil the help, was Lucy’s plate of soigné fish.

    I’m still not sure exactly what I was up to: whether or not I was being self-righteous and impractical; whether I risked straining Lucy’s relationship with a household that valued her and provided her long-term security. What was the point, after all, of rubbing it in that Africans’ daily food, if they were lucky, was mieliepap, a thick porridge of cornmeal?

    The cornmeal was one of the basic grocery items angrily named by my students when I suggested that a few rand from their modest stipends should purchase used books. It was the square of yellow powder in thin plastic bags doled out to roadside work-seekers by “Mr. Inasmuch” (so named by us because in the King James Version, Matthew 25:40 reads, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”), a retired prison chaplain whose good works the Cape Western Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends helps to fund.

    Lemon and rosemary

    Photograph courtesy of rawpixel

    We visited him at his tasks one morning. The peanut butter sandwiches and soup were for now, he explained to us as he doled, but the mielie-meel was to take home in case not enough foremen came by in their trucks to recruit for building sites, which meant that for some work-seekers there would be nothing to feed the family in the evening. The readiest recourse then was to ask the wife to go sell herself for the five rand that would buy a bag of meal this size.

    I guessed that it weighed two or three pounds; in many cases it would need to feed ten people for twenty-four hours or over a weekend. “You pure Quakers won’t like this,” Mr. Inasmuch told us, “but sometimes I have to give them a little klop. They tell me, ‘You can’t hit me – you’re not my father.’ I say, ‘I am your father, because I feed you.’” Right in front of us, when one of the men moved away from the wall with which he was supposed to stay in contact, Mr. Inasmuch slapped him upside the head.

    But we revered this old man, who was feeding thousands of people alone. When we offered more money, he said that what he needed was help; he was becoming too frail to do the work alone. Could someone join him, with a view to taking over eventually? There were no takers. “Casual” workers who wait on the bleak sandy roadsides between warehouses outside Cape Town probably now lack any source of daily grain, any assurance of not going home empty-handed to their hungry families. I can’t find a trace of the old man’s operations on the internet, and I know from Quakers’ own long-ago ventures that food interventions entail mammoth difficulties. The first among these is to find someone who gets up at five every weekday morning, propelled by her clients’ condition, as if their hunger were her hunger, their bodies her body.

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    It shouldn’t have taken these observations to awaken me to the steepness of the human fall, from the meat of hunting and pastoralism to the daily toil of farming (“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” Adam is told when he and Eve are expelled from the garden), on plots that from the first needed defense against outsiders and later were fragmented to keep up with increasing populations. Still later, these plots were consolidated by overweening powers that doled grain to the masses of uprooted urban poor, to slaves on estates, and to common soldiers. Throughout the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus, these were the main ways in which food was distributed, with concessions in Jewish and early Christian culture in the name of charity: the poor deserved to eat not because they were useful to keep alive or potentially dangerous if starving, but because, as fellow human beings, they were worthy to enjoy an imitation of God’s compassionate care.

    That’s the history I know now. But as I knew early on from my parents – Great Depression children who lost family farms (one quickly, one slowly) and grew up to be biologists (my father’s research stretched from crop pests to demographics) and environmental activists – we’ve fallen a lot farther than the Romans. Now, as millions of people face the end of the earth’s capacity to provide for them, we may simply be stuck before the spectacles of our era’s main horrors: the mass violence of redistribution, and the mass violence of inequality.

    My parents had considerable insight into where they themselves had, on a rare chance, landed: as American middle-class mid-century professionals, beneficiaries of the GI Bill. They knew they were on a precipice of meat, towering over grain. They sneered at new cars, Disney vacations and films, even air conditioning; but a whole cow or half a cow from a local farm was always wrapped, cut upon succulent cut, in white paper parcels in the chest freezer in our mud room. The freezer was so big that as a child I teetered on its edge, the lid resting on my back, while I rummaged for whatever my mother in the kitchen required. When money was low – and when it wasn’t – my father hunted. I have a photo of him grinning, a freshly killed wild turkey in his arms, the tail spread out and reaching down to his knees.

    I had a constantly guided instinct about the inferiority of starchy foods to anything that could be killed, grown in a garden (ours were large and ambitious) or orchard (we had a tiny one), or found in forests or meadows. Since I’d been taught to forage and advised how good sorrel and certain berries were, I did try wild grains when I found them, but they were repellent: unpleasantly chewy, with husks and tails that caught in your throat, and with none of the natural flavors encouraging you to eat things you can digest to your body’s profit.

    My father flaunted in the kitchen while my mother was away at nature-study camp. He fed me – a skinny kid – one steak and then quietly, as if moving in on a pheasant, asked whether I’d like another; he fried it up and delivered it, overstretching the plate, before I could reconsider my yes. He beamed and hovered as I ate it. Steak was glorious, and just about effortless to cook. His oatmeal, in contrast, stuck to the saucepan, and reared in the cereal bowl in slimy, rubbery slabs. You couldn’t swallow his experimental homemade bread, made without salt. (Salt in the ancient world usually depended on distant trade. What if you couldn’t get salt to make your bread palatable?) Grains cost practically nothing to ruin, and were almost worthless as a success.

    We may be stuck before our era’s main horrors: the mass violence of redistribution, and the mass violence of inequality.

    I have the preference for meat literally in my big bones, so that I’ve never subscribed to the vegetarianism and veganism popular among my fellow Quakers. I can admire some of the big principles – my own mother swore off beef for a number of years, as the worst offender in global dietary inequality – but I myself have embraced only humane standards for keeping and harvesting the animals that
    feed us.

    Any milk or beef I buy myself is from certified 100 percent grass-fed animals. The eggs in my kitchen are free-range, not just cage-free, and like my bacon, pork, and ham, they have the rare, all-important certified humane raised and handled logo that Consumer Reports says means actual decent treatment of the animals. I lavish more time, trouble, and money by far on my protein than on any other part of my consumer acquisitions, in which I’m generally a pretty ­conscientious, simply living Quaker: with no car, no smartphone, no cable or even broadcast TV, no designer labels or fast fashion, make-up applied only once or twice a year.

    My health is one reason for the things I buy in the health-food store down the road. My palate is another. Another is the fear of appearing before the throne of God and seeing beside it thousands of animals who spent their lives immobilized, crippled, bald, decaying already, uncomprehending as to what landed them in this fattening hell – and now they know that it was my idiot hand reaching for a gas station hot dog or a pale slab of lunch meat.

    But my deepest motivation is my lifelong sense that the jazzed-up carbohydrates of globalized food equality are not just unhealthy but penetratingly dehumanizing. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Snow Queen corrupts Edmund with a single helping of Turkish delight; he tastes that gelatinous sugared treat, and betrays his siblings and friends and all the forces of good on the mere promise of more. He’s soon locked up and chewing on dry crusts – a discarded slave, to be rescued only by the lion Aslan’s death on a table of ceremonial torture; that is, by the actual meat-eater’s gift of his own flesh.

    A knife for chopping herbs

    Photograph courtesy of Rachel Korinek

    Highly processed carbs can seem like an apt representation of human fallenness; they are a bad artifice; they are what we, not God, created, and look what our creations, our confections, do. They spoil the character of animals. Sugar lumps make horses mean, I learned when I obtained a pony. The garbage dumps around Cape Town, with their burger bun scraps and half-empty bags of cheese curls, transform well-adapted baboons into obese hoodlums.

    I myself was like Edmund when I emerged from my own home, which offered hardly any junk food, and tasted potato chips and chocolate at Brownie camp or sleepovers. I tasted, and was downgraded as a human being; no longer interested in the other girls who were ready to play games with me or tell me secrets and hear mine, or in the adults who wanted to guide and entertain me: I just wanted to maneuver to get more of that stuff in my mouth, and they could see what I was up to, and I could feel their contempt.

    “Good food” was what constructed me as a human being, and “garbage” was the drug that tore me apart, did away with my proper, sustainable energy and restraint. “Good food” was the eggs and roast beef from the neighbors, and the venison from my father’s rifle, and our homegrown fruits and vegetables, all of which my parents put in front of me. Other people, elsewhere, would let me suck on sweets or stuff my gullet with chips, but that was because they didn’t care how I turned out.

    For this reason, I wouldn’t become a grain-sustained vegan in solidarity with the people who have to live on starch, any more than I would live on the street in solidarity with the homeless. But I know I stand on an edge, where my deliberations and choices are absurd. They are very far from the innocent, hard-won prosperity of my parents, or their sincere hope that the Green Revolution, lower birthrates, renewable energy, or the combined ingenuity of themselves and all their fellow wonks could someday bring us all to the same feast. I know what I’ve seen, in Africa where I’ve lived. I can’t conceive how we will all be able to share anything worth sharing.

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    Where is there any future? While learning German, I came across a short story that shows one particularly dark chasm down which humanity doesn’t have to fall. The story is by Wolfgang Borchert and called “Das Brot” or “The Bread.” It is set soon after World War II, at a time of stringent food rationing. A woman is roused by a noise at night, to find her husband in the kitchen in front of the loaf, the knife, and fresh crumbs. She refrains from calling him on his theft of her share of food, and the two agree that they both rose in response to noise from the rain gutter. They retire to bed again, but when the man thinks his wife is asleep, she can hear him chewing. Even then, some powerful inner force keeps her silent.

    Machine-slicing was patented in 1928, after which commercial bread could easily be divided into equal portions. But apparently sliced bread wasn’t available, or common, in postwar Germany. The loaf in the story is cut by hand, so that one of the people entitled to share it can cut in secret, take more than is fair or agreed on, and leave his partner unsure whether it now looks smaller. If this goes on, the woman could starve; all her dutiful contributions to the household’s survival might prove inadequate to save her own life. What do marriage and the family mean, in that case? The story points quietly, through the deep meaning of an ordinary object, to the horror of society’s breakdown under fascism and war.

    Highly processed carbs can seem like an apt rep­re­sen­tation of human fallenness.

    There are many words for wrongdoing in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, but as a translator of sacred literature, I’ve long since made the rough division in my mind between those terms directed at a childlike sensibility and those directed at an adult one. Children are admonished not to go where they shouldn’t, damage or dirty what is clean or whole (including their own bodies), say or touch forbidden things; the language of purity and obedience covers one large moral domain. But fiercer words are applied to people who have power and property, insight and skill, and yet take the community apart by lying to themselves and others about how deadly a disadvantage to someone else might result from their own trivial advantage. Their misdeeds are those of conscious disproportion. They take and give bribes, appropriate land, abuse and exploit those they are supposed to protect, cheat their underlings, annihilate those who merely annoy or embarrass them.

    In the traditional English liturgy, we speak of both our “sins” and “iniquities.” The word “sin” is thought to originate from the Latin used in court proceedings and means something like “That’s him!” – authority points at and blames someone already under its power. “Iniquity,” on the other hand, means “unevenness” or “inequality.” At first this might not seem to be on par with the designation of, say, a murderer. But think of the way, in circles where the word “sinful” is a quaint joke, people may still hiss the word “iniquitous,” with a hatred for the cruelty and indifference of power. It’s relatively easy to bring ordinary criminals under control. It’s practically impossible to get at systematic, privileged offenders.

    Much the same sentiments prevailed in antiquity, and may help explain why we sanctify bread. The edible parts of a single carcass are hard to divide precisely; the breaking points are tricky, the quality of the meat varies. Not so with homogeneous, storable, and malleable grains, which lend themselves to standardization.


    Photo by Boaz Yahav

    Presumably, the bread in the story “Das Brot” has been weighed by the authorities – so many grams for each person in each household – that is, it has been fairly divided, to a point. There were such dispensations in Old Testament times, as evidenced by stern Bible verses about “just” weights and measures (Lev. 19:36, Deut. 25:15). Under Roman regimes, a whole class of magistrates, the aediles, patrolled the accuracy of scales and the size of containers in marketplaces.

    But bread itself could come pre-divided as well. The Roman panis quadratus (examples ossified by volcanic heat have turned up in the Pompeii excavations) was made in a pie-shaped mold, so that sections could be torn off like pizza slices; the indentations rendered them all the same size. In Palestine, square bread molds could include perforations, for guided tearing in the manner of modern payment slips. Perhaps the bread Jesus “broke” looked like some of the matzo mass-produced today, or like our ordinary crackers, which split into equal portions under just a little pressure.

    The meat of the feast disappears because the bread itself becomes the meat.

    The disciples had been feasting, enjoying a whole roasted lamb; they wouldn’t have been fretting about who got how much bread. Thus the remarkable thing is the focus of the scene, as far as physical action goes, on the approximation of an act constantly repeated in thousands of places throughout the Roman Empire: an authority handed out some form of grain food in some kind of standard equal measure.

    Unequal distribution must have happened from time to time, but in general it was considered just too outrageous to cheat of minimal food indigent citizens or “clients,” children, hired laborers, or slaves; some of which people you could buy and sell, work or torture to death, rape at however young an age. Functional social bonds couldn’t outlast any sustained toying with the bare subsistence of dependents; they were all owed their share. Roman satirists show how unequal a rich man’s banquet could be: he sat people according to rank, lowest to highest (the Bible indicates this happened among Jews during the time of Christ); he could serve them separate, highly unequal hors d’oeuvres and entrées. But if his overseer in the back room dealt unfairly from the same jar of grain or the same loaf, it would have been too much. The lunch lady can’t give one pupil an extra scoop of macaroni. The Salvation Army officer can’t give one homeless person two helpings of soup. The institution would not hold.

    a cruet of oil

    Photograph courtesy of Rachel Korinek

    Minimally equal apportioning by geometry in various forms is in fact at the (sometimes literal) foundations of civilization: plots of subsistence land, dwellings, rooms within dwellings, and tenements in a multi-story building (already existing in antiquity); tables and food containers in a marketplace; the grid of streets; the seats in an arena, the enrollment list, the military march and the fight in formation; the choral dance, the religious procession, the seats in a classroom, and on and on. Certain kinds of inequality are unbearable; they are not allowed; they would threaten to bring down the rage of God in the form of society undoing itself. In fact, Mr. Inasmuch, and all the other people in Africa whom I saw giving lifesaving aid, were strict about physical space: lines, locked boxes, storerooms, and cars; their work would come apart if these limits weren’t maintained.

    So if custom had anything to do with Jesus’ handing around of Passover bread, it wouldn’t have mattered whether one disciple was the sometimes unidentified one “he loved”; or Peter, the one he had designated to found his church; or the three who had witnessed the transfiguration manifesting that he was the son of God; or Judas, the one who was going to betray him this very evening. He dealt justly, according to the law he came to fulfill and not to destroy. In the Gospels and Paul, there he is, the Messiah, holding this precise, chore-like line. But he himself is the actual human embodiment of the Passover sacrifice: the best for everyone, endless, self-multiplying, unconfined joy for human nature.

    How can the paradox work? During the time I spent in divinity school, which was less than ten years ago, controversy over transubstantiation was ongoing with a vengeance. A student raged that, if crumbs were carelessly dropped during communion at chapel, she would feel compelled to lick them off the floor. Another student was bumped off an ordination track when she refused to venerate the consecrated host as embodying Jesus. At moments, I felt almost as if I was living in England under the Test Act of 1673, which made denying transubstantiation the sole indispensable qualification for serving the state in any capacity. Bread vs. meat in the Lord’s Supper must strike a deep nerve, to become language and tradition of such consequence.

    If I reject theological formulae, it’s because they don’t go far enough. God’s love and providence are real enough to me that I believe Jesus’ body and the bread he distributed were in some vital sense the same already, and in some vital sense always will be – and not mysteriously, but manifestly and commonsensically.

    This all needs to be about love, I’m convinced. The meat of the feast disappears because the bread itself becomes the meat, with both the commonality of a staple and the richness of a nourishing treat. Love defies even the laws of physics, multiplying through its own power. The children’s song about love as the magic penny (“Hold it tight, and you won’t have any / Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many …”) endures in the adult mind as true.

    There’s no understandable reason for joyful selflessness to go on and on flourishing. But somehow it does.

    Contributed By SarahRuden Sarah Ruden

    Sarah Ruden is a poet, translator, essayist, and popularizer of biblical linguistics, and a published poet and the author of several books.

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