Faith, food, history: A pastor reflects after touring D.C. with food journalists

By Joan G. La Barr, Special contributor

What happens when a United Methodist pastor and communicator spends four days hanging out with food journalists of the most serious sort?

I had the opportunity to find out when I went as the guest of my college roommate and longtime friend to the Sept. 5-7 Association of Food Journalists annual conference in Washington D.C. (The fourth day was a bonus visit to the White House vegetable garden championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.)

It was the best kind of meeting for guests like me. We were invited to the fun and interesting activities and got to explore on our own during the meetings.

Participants enjoy samples of Washington chefs’ innovative cuisine before ceremonies launching the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership at the U.S. State Department. PHOTOS COURTESY JOAN LA BARR

The activity I most anticipated was a behind-the-scenes tour of the new Smithsonian exhibit on American Cooking featuring the newly relocated Julia Child kitchen. The rest of the exhibit is a work in progress. The goal had been to have it finished in time for Julia Child’s hundredth birthday on Aug. 15, but the project proved too vast for the time allotted.  Construction workers were hard at work only a few feet from the kitchen exhibit. Final plans sound amazing, a must-see for a future visit.

The kitchen exhibit did not disappoint. The curators cataloged and noted exact placement of every item after the legendary chef and television personality gave her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in 2001.  The exhibit, which first opened in 2002 and was relocated this year, is a close encounter with the well-known setting for several of Julia’s shows for PBS.

Well aware that no museum is going to allow visitors to touch its treasures, I had envisioned the traditional exhibit behind ropes or perhaps a glass wall. You view the kitchen through windows. It feels intimate, as if the 6-foot 3-inch Julia is about to burst through the door and launch into instructions for boeuf bourguionon.

Julia Child became a larger-than-life figure, figuratively, as well as literally, because she was a woman with a passion and a mission—to share her love of French cooking with Americans mired in a miasma of canned mushroom soup and frozen TV dinners. Julia is the subject of biographies, television shows and most recently, the movie, Julie and Julia, because she shook things up in two worlds, food and television, and almost singlehandedly brought the two worlds together. Fundamentally, Julia Child’s legacy lives on in the Smithsonian because she is part of American history as an agent of transformation.

The Rev. Joan La Barr and food writer Tommy Simmons pose with a full-size cutout of the indomitable Julia Child. PHOTOS COURTESY JOAN LA BARR

To transform the way people eat has far-reaching effects. Culture itself is transformed. “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,” wrote the 19th Century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

Leaven lessons

Our private tour of the Library of Congress food collection was another amazing opportunity to view examples of the earliest existing food writings, cook books through the centuries, and fascinating books, papers and other memorabilia. The oldest handwritten collection of recipes in book form was compiled in the late14th Century.  De re coqunaria, written in Latin, includes recipes attributed to the Roman general Marcus Gavius Apicus, whose last name became used to designate a cooking instruction book.

Maestro Martino, who became librarian for the Vatican, produced what some scholars assert was the first printed cookbook, in 1483. Martino was a cook for popes and princes. It would take time for the concept of cuisine to filter down to the common folk, but like the Bible, cookbooks would become increasingly available after the invention of the printing press in 1440.

One of my most intriguing moments in the library came while casually flipping through a book on the history of bread. The author noted a fundamental difference in the ancient Egyptian and Hebrew cultures reflected in their attitude toward leaven, the agent that makes bread rise.  Drawings and hieroglyphics dating back 5,000 years depict leavened bread in Egyptian common life and sacred settings.

Leaven, or yeast, is composed of microorganisms of the kingdom fungi. In the rising or fermentation process (and the Egyptians were big beer makers, too), the medium changes and infiltrates. In other words, leaven transforms.

According to The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, the Hebrews had an ambivalent attitude toward leaven. They ate leavened bread, but for high, holy times, like the Passover rite, leavened bread could not be eaten or leaven kept in the Israelites’ homes, or even in the nation. (Exodus 12:15-19, Exodus 13:7). The Passover rite reminded later generations of God’s deliverance from Egypt. Later instructions also banned combining sacrifices with leaven (Exodus 34:25, Leviticus 2:11 & 6:17). Two offerings, the peace offering (Leviticus 7:13) and first fruits (Leviticus 23:17), did call for leavened bread.

Duff Goldman, from the “Ace of Cakes” show on the Food Network, accepts his awards as part of the American Chef Corps Class of 2012.

Whether it is valid to draw hard and fast conclusions about one culture in which leaven was seen as a reflection of the sacred, and another in which its mutability and ability to transform were suspicious or even downright dangerous, might be debatable; but it does raise interesting issues. The Hebrew texts depict the Israelites struggle to come out of Egypt and rebuild themselves as a nation of God’s chosen. Infiltrating foreign influences were always problematic.

Perhaps Brillat-Savarin’s axiom that you are what you eat can help us in our understanding of the Bible itself.

In the New Testament, Jesus also uses images of leaven in positive and negative ways. He warns his followers to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, Sadducees or Herod (Matthew 16:6, 11 and Mark 8:15). On the other hand, Jesus uses yeast to illustrate the growth of the Kingdom, which will grow mysteriously as his message infiltrates the world (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21).

To continue the food imagery, Jesus describes himself as “the bread of life” in John 6:35, and says in John 6:51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Food is at the very heart of the central sacrament of the Christian faith. In the most ancient account of the Lord’s Supper, Paul wrote: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” (I Corinthians 11:23-24).

The Smithsonian Museum of American History recently relocated the display of Julia Child’s kitchen, which will be the focus of a food exhibit under construction. PHOTOS COURTESY JOAN LA BARR

Christians who gather around the table are defined as Christ’s people and transformed by his sacrifice.

Memorable meals

It was with these kinds of thoughts swirling in my psyche that I joined the food writers for lunch at the Swedish ambassador’s residence. There Ambassador Jonas Hafstrom was a delightful host in a lunch designed to give us a new understanding of Swedish cuisine. We gathered around tables, artfully and beautifully arranged, and speaking for myself, I can say I left with a greater understanding and appreciation for all things Swedish.

The dinner hour following was one of the most memorable of my life. We were invited to a reception in the Diplomatic State Rooms of the U.S. State Department for the launch of a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership by the State Department and James Beard Foundation.  Security was tight. The whole enterprise was described as a new approach using every available diplomatic tool to share our values, promote mutual understanding and create conditions for a peaceful, stable and prosperous world.

The Julia Child kitchen exhibit includes this wall full of pots and pans. PHOTOS COURTESY JOAN LA BARR

We gathered in the Benjamin Franklin Room to meet representatives of the new American Chef Corps and sample a huge variety of cuisine produced by these chefs and others. One of the big moments came with the introduction of the Chef Corps Class of 2012. As the chefs came forward and were applauded, I recognized faces from the Food Network and was introduced to some I did not know.

The loss of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his aides in the Libyan embassy came four days after this event. It seemed like a cruel contradiction of all of the efforts being made to build bridges and transform attitudes. I wonder if the State Department would have felt it necessary to cancel such a large, diverse gathering had it been scheduled a few days later.

That being said, it would seem a tragedy to abandon diplomatic efforts like the Chef Corps. The table where Jesus gathered his disciples was also the prelude to unspeakable tragedy, leading to the most transforming power the world has ever known.

There is transforming power in food. There is transforming power in gathering around a table. If we believe that Jesus, the leaven of the kingdom, still lives and works, we will not lose heart.

The Rev. La Barr is retired director of communications for the North Texas Conference and recently began a stint as an interim district superintendent for the conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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