As its the end of the year and we have just returned from celebrating Christmas with my folks in the Highland village of Portmahomack, I thought I would end the year with this reflection from 2002 – which is still appropriate today.
I’ll let you into a small secret. There is a place not a million miles from Portmahomack where one can get a real taste of heaven. Last week yours truly and the family wandered up to my parent’s home. The house itself is neat and very welcoming; the setting (overlooking the Dornoch Firth and the Sutherland hills) is quite spectacular and the company very congenial. It is always a joy and not a chore to visit there. However last week there was something else about the place that caused me to think of another home – one all believers have in common – heaven.
Taste and see..
As I walked in the door I reached out and took one of my parent’s strawberries, as one does, and put it in my mouth. Fantastic taste! To die for! It was sweet, juicy and full of flavours. My parents have about an acre of land which is devoted to the growing of strawberries, potatoes and other vegetables. I like strawberries and I like potatoes. But it is hard to describe how different these ‘buried treasure of Portmahomack’ (as described by one shopkeeper) are from your run of the mill Tesco strawberries or Asda potatoes. It is a bit like contrasting chalk with cheese, cardboard with real steak, or ‘real’ bread with the plastic mass produced tasteless usual supermarket bland. Lest you think that I am exaggerating (something I would never ever do!) or that there is a certain amount of familial bias in this objective assessment of my parent’s fruit and veg, let me assure that the opinion is widely shared. The price of a 3lb bag of potatoes is usually around 50p. Yet at the market last week the Port’s finest sold for over £3 per bag. Admittedly this was for ‘Sharp’s Express’ a brand which is known for its tastiness (and low yielding crop) and it is early in the season where new potatoes are like hot cakes (if you will forgive the mixed metaphor), yet this was an extraordinary price. The same goes with the strawberries. The local fruit shops will take them and people actually come and request them.
Another sideline for the folks is eggs. Free range, well fed, individual eggs of different sizes with yolks that are actually yellow – in comparison with the standardised peelly wally off colour eggs sold in most supermarkets. And again the demand for these is enormous. Emma Jane’s nursery teacher was delighted to receive a gift of half a dozen and spoke ecstatically of how eggs ‘used to be’.
A Christian Philosophy of Food
So what’s going on here? Is this some plea for living the ‘Good Life’, returning to Nature and going Veggie? Not at all. But the strawberries, the potatoes and the eggs (and don’t forget the rasps, the carrots etc) did set me to thinking about a Christian philosophy of food. If the purpose of eating was just sustenance and a means for us to get our daily intake of vitamins and chemicals in order for us to continue existing, then the sooner our scientists develop a ‘MacPill’ the better. But the Lord gave us taste buds and gardens. He gave us earth and a means to produce an awesome variety of different foods. He has even given us the animals to eat. Bread does not come from Tesco’s, or the Lab. We need to reflect on that.
It may be appropriate for a plastic society to live off plastic food but I want to get real. I don’t want the sanitised, standardised, mass produced cheap junk that our agri-business and mass sellers, tell us is what the public demands. Does the public really want hormone injected beef? Is that why the US government, in the interests of ‘Free Trade’ and ‘Choice’, refuses to let beef from the US be labelled as having artificial injected hormones? Are we all really so dumb and ignorant that we really believe that strawberries with a bit of colouring and clever lighting in a supermarket are better than those which may still have a bit of green and may not be as bright in appearance? Does anyone else think it is a good idea to inject strawberries with a gene from an artic fish in order to help it cope with frost?
I am sorry that this appears Luddite and ignorant to those of you know so much more about these things. I am not arguing that there is no place for science – my father sprays his potatoes in order to prevent blight – but I do question some of its application. I can think of one farmer I know who sprays his potato crop with acid in order to prevent them growing – why? Because the supermarkets demand that potatoes be a certain size.
Cheap Food is Expensive
And yes – I know that a great deal of this is economics. The public want cheap food so therefore the supermarkets will give it. But is it cheap? Just as there is a price for real food so there is a price for ‘cheap’ plastic food – not least the degradation of the environment, the destruction of the small farmer and the standardisation of food. Food production is an important issue and one that those of us who are consumers should bear in mind when we shop. That is especially true when it comes to the area of animal welfare. Do we have a right to turn animals into mere units of production? Take eggs. Is it really right to keep hens in cages, inject them with antibiotics and reduce their laying life to a year, in order to increase yield? My parents bought some hens a couple of weeks ago. They were supposed to be ‘done’ – past their sell by date. Yet within days of being allowed to roam free in the trees and field, they were laying regularly and the yolks were deep yellow. You might laugh – but stress free happy hens are far more likely to produce quality eggs. Apply that across the range and you will see that animal welfare is not just good for the animals but also good for us.
Cheap Grace is Expensive
There is also a lesson for us spiritually. In a society where the essential aspects of our food seem to be packaging, appearance and artificiality is there not a danger that that can be reflected in the church? We want to give the appearance of happiness, brightness and to show how wonderful Christianity is. We offer cheap grace. Although we pay lip service to spiritual depth and quality control in reality we are more concerned about how things appear and what people think of us. The package (see how we worship – see what we can offer etc) is more important than the reality. The results – quick fruit – is more important than the means of production. And yet because of this we end up with the taste not being what it used to be or not being what it should be. Yet in our post-modern world just as people are crying out for real food so they are crying out for real spirituality. It may take longer to produce, it may cost more but surely the real thing is better.
Food in Heaven?
One further thought. I entitled this column ‘a taste of heaven’. Is that not hyperbole? Surely the glories of heaven are not to be compared with strawberries from Portmahomack? I am not so sure. Food is something that God has created. It is not a result of sin. Indeed once we remove sin and its consequences then perhaps it is only then that we shall truly appreciate real cuisine. If we believe in a physical resurrection; if we accept that the lamb at the centre of the throne will feed us; then why do we recoil from the idea that there will be food in heaven? Do we have the right to maintain the strict separation between the physical and the spiritual which is often attributed to real spirituality? Is that not more akin to Buddhism rather than biblical Christianity? The pleasures of this life are but pale reflections of the life to come – but they are reflections. At Gods right hand are ‘pleasures evermore’. Taste and see that God is good.