Food is powerful. When travelling, experts recommend eating like the locals in order to fully immerse yourself in the culture. Freshmen in college don’t usually get homesick until they get home-cooked-meal-sick after the first month or so of cafeteria staples partnered with copious amounts of Top Ramen. Tastes are tied to memories that can comfort us or haunt us, sometimes in the same bite.
Perhaps food’s power lies in the potential conversations that await with every plate. Food can be a family meal that gathers different ages and schedules around a singular kitchen table. Food can be a catered carb-overload that elevates morale at a work meeting. Thankfully, sometimes food is an appetizer that punctuates the awkwardness at a party. These plates are moments that go beyond mere sustenance—they provide a space to connect with others. Food is the common ground with friends, family, co-workers, and even with strangers if you have ever been lucky enough to be squeezed in at a ‘communal table’ at one of the Bay Area’s many hipster hole-in-the-walls.
A Bittersweet History
This Thanksgiving, our country will be celebrating the power of food. The original celebration of Thanksgiving was, at its simplest, an expression of gratitude to God for our food. While historians debate where the ‘first Thanksgiving’ actually took place, the following elements are consistently present in each account: prayers of thanks to God and food—usually a high quantity of both.
Typically, when European colonists arrived in the Americas, most of the tribes they encountered were friendly toward the outsiders. In fact, coastal Indians actually taught the European colonists about subsistence farming according to their own traditional styles. Most stories narrating the ‘first Thanksgiving’ paint a collaborative image of Indians and pilgrims gathering together to feast on the local fruits, vegetables, and game, the products of mutual efforts. In 1621, the three-day event in Plymouth was just that.
These two vastly different cultures shared a meal in common, but before the feast on corn, spinach, seafood, and fruit could begin, a prayer was offered. Here we see yet another layer of commonality between pilgrims and natives beyond just the food: the practice of giving thanks to a creator. When the pilgrims bowed their heads and prayed in gratitude to their Heavenly Father, it is likely the natives in attendance would have also practiced their own offering of thanks to their creator. Tribal religion, as expressed through rituals, ceremonies, and taboos, deeply acknowledged human dependence upon a creator of the land and of its resources.  Saying thanks for food was a link between the natives and the colonists, as natural to the both of them as breathing itself.
This all makes for a sentimental story, but unfortunately many of us are unaware of the bitter aftertaste to this meal. Somewhere along the way, many colonists lost sight of the common ground and communal table they once shared with the Native Americans. Just sixteen years after the Plymouth Thanksgiving, a group of colonists and their Narraganset allies indiscriminantly killed hundreds of Pequots in their village in the Connecticut River Valley. The magisterial Puritan minister Cotton Mather described the slaughter as a “sweet sacrifice” and “gave the praise thereof to God.” One of the few Pequot survivors recognized the motives of the English settlers: “We see plainly that their chiefest desire is to deprive us of the privilege of our land, and drive us to utter ruin.” Apparently a hunger for land overpowered their initial hunger for collaboration.
What would have happened if those same colonists had continued to set the table instead of setting their minds toward war? History might have taken a much different turn if both parties could have capitalized on what they had in common (for example, food and prayers of thanksgiving) rather than comparing one another in terms of land ownership. You may call me an idealist for suggesting setting a table rather than raising a rifle, but food is extremely powerful.
When you deprive someone of food, you deprive them of their humanity. Sadly, modern history is riddled with evidence of this truth. Forced starvation was an effective tool wielded by the Nazis in their internment camps, within the Gulag, in California’s internment camps for Japanese Americans, and even today within the walls of North Korea’s prisons. The dignity of a dinner plate, and the withholding thereof, has a direct consequence on one’s view of their own worth. If seventeenth century colonists had continued to prioritize the thanksgiving meal, Native Americans might have emerged from the Pre-Columbian era on a vastly different trajectory. Food can change history.
A Biblical View of Food
While the Pilgrims and the Puritans interacted differently with Native populations at different times, both groups deeply and consistently emphasized biblical authority and application. Scripture often references food as a metaphor for experiencing God. In Psalm 119:103, the Psalmist describes God’s Word as tasting sweeter than honey. In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warns His disciples of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” implementing a powerful analogy His followers could easily relate to given how common bread was in their diet. However, the biblical passages with references to food are not mere allegories. In addition to using food as a metaphor and teaching technique, Jesus also literally broke bread with his disciples and the crowds of followers. How beautifully strange it is that our Passover Lamb actually celebrated the Passover by eating and drinking with his friends.
Before you dismiss the idea that Jesus Christ ate food as a simplistic fact, consider Christ’s purposeful actions immediately following His resurrection. As the disciples went out one morning for an unsuccessful fishing venture, Jesus watched them from the shore. When he directed them to put down their nets on the other side of the boat, they instantly recognized Him as their savior. This was not the only instance Jesus had provided for their physical need of hunger and livelihood. Furthermore, when the disciples landed on shore, Jesus prepared breakfast for them. Together, in what would be a final intimate moment, the friends ate and gloried in God’s company (John 20).
We are afforded that same intimacy with God. I can’t think of a better conduit for glorifying God than by remembering Him with every meal, as the Pilgrims so passionately practiced. Author Shauna Niequist claims that, “The most sacred moments, the ones in which I feel God’s presence most profoundly, when I feel the goodness of the world most arrestingly, take place at the table” (Shauna Niequist, Bread and Wine). Perhaps the holiness of a meal is derived from its pervasive essentiality. Eating is a universal rhythm to human life. From the oldest to the youngest, from the richest to the poorest, whoever you are and whenever you are and wherever you are—we all must stop and eat. We all must rely on nourishment outside of ourselves to sustain our very existence. It does not matter who you are, if you do not eat, you will die. “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
How do we “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)? How do we join the apostle Peter in feeding God’s sheep (John 20)? Seek your nourishment from the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Food may sustain us for today, but the gift of salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus will sustain us for eternity. “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:32-35). No wonder the central Christian sacrament is a meal.
A Call for Mealtime Prayers
New England relations between colonists and Natives, therefore, could have remained more peaceful if they had recognized their common need for a savior. The eternal truths of God’s Word remain useful today as Christians navigate responses to the Syrian refugee crisis and terrorism in Paris, Cameroon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Living in the West, many of us feel culturally and geographically removed from these aforementioned tragedies. Food can bridge those gaps. Because food is a reminder of our humanness, join me in praying for refugees whose meals are not guaranteed. Perhaps these prayers would be most powerfully expressed before we eat our abundant food on Thanksgiving Day. Join me in praying that God would open the eyes of terrorists and aggressors to see the humanity in their would-be victims. Join me is asking God to help us see terrorists as humans in need of redemption. Join me in inviting outsiders, the friendless or the isolated, to gather around our dinner tables. As long as cultures encounter one another, ranging from the innocently awkward to the militant and violent, food will continue to be one way God displays His grace, His provision, and His great love for all peoples.
 America: A Narrative History by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi. United States, 2013.