Happy Thanksgiving! Come listen to the 3rd episode of Nearly Numinous where we are joined by Dr. Richard Ascough from the School of Religion at Queen’s University. We focus specifically on ritual and communal meals, but also discuss ancient methods for snubbing your frenemies, Harry Potter, the diet industry, and more!
Find us across all podcasting and social media platforms by searching Nearly Numinous.
Welcome to this week’s episode of Nearly Numinous. Today, we’re taking advantage of thanksgiving approaching and diving into discussions on communal meals. Often in contemporary settings, we gather for holidays such as Thanksgiving, with family or friends where the entire gathering is centred around this meal. But this theme can be found across cultures, religious traditions, and throughout centuries, albeit with varying themes. However, many of the gatherings take on ritual experience for those participating whether it’s for a religious holiday or not. Today, we have the pleasure of having Dr. Richard Ascough, a professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University. He has published work on communal dining rituals in the ancient Roman world, many of which held both religious and social significance.
So maybe Dr. Ascough, you can give us a bit of background as to who you are, and what do you study and kind of what brought you into the discussion today?
Dr. Richard Ascough 1:25
Sure, well, I’m, of course, a professor, and technically, I think my title is Professor of New Testament. Certainly, that’s what I was hired to teach at Queen’s, but that’s been broadened out. So I teach things like religion, film, and religion and business ethics, Greco Roman religions more broadly, as well as the course on the New Testament. And my training is in early Christianity, the development of early Christianity. And a lot of my research has been on the relationship, or at least trying to understand early Christ groups in its socio-cultural context, compared to other kinds of group formations, what we call Greco Roman associations, but kind of the campus clubs or the Rotary Clubs of antiquity. So I spent quite a bit of time, did my dissertation on that. And I don’t remember exactly, I lose sight of the dates. But sometime in the mid-early 2000s, I was asked to give a paper on association meals in antiquity. And so I was going to give this at a conference, I thought, “Okay, I guess like, I know a lot about associations. But really how much is there to say about meals?” And as I started writing that paper, I realized just how much there was on meals in the data we have, which is all inscriptions and papyri documents, and start to mine it more and more. And I gave this paper at this, it was an early manifestation, manifestation of a research group on meals and early Christianity. And I think we all realized that we had underestimated just how much there was there to explore both in terms of the data and then theoretically, once we brought the theory, theorist into conversation. And so what I thought was kind of a one-off paper that I might struggle to write turned into about a 10-year project of me looking at meals and associations and early Christianity in various ways and publishing a number of articles on meals, particularly an earlier interest on burial. So burial practices in these groups, so meals and memorials basically became the focus for about a decade, and still pops up, I still get asked to write on meals in early Christianity. And I continue to work on rituals and just starting work on editing a collection of essays on rituals, and of course, meals, factor into that as well, but also other kinds of rituals; water rituals, burial rituals, and things.
Super interesting! Thank you so much for coming and being on our podcast
Dr. Ascough 4:04
and sharing this knowledge with us. Most of what we are hoping to do on the Nearly Numinous podcast is kind of bring into discussion, these kind of histories and theories and the things we talk about in an academic setting, but also make them really accessible to just any person, you know, I want my grandparents to be able to tune into this and find a glimmer of knowledge and excitement and talking about maybe things that they can connect with. So potentially maybe a broad question, but do you kind of see a lot of the rituals that you’ve studied surrounding communal meals mirrored in what we do in today’s setting? And even I again, I understand that’s a very broad question, but maybe just an example or two if you’ve got one.
Dr. Ascough 4:48
Sure. No, it’s a great question. Insofar as meals are highly ritualized, no matter where they’re taking place. I mean, this debate about at what point do you habit is a ritual or ritual is a habit, but certainly we ritualize a lot of the meals, and both in antiquity, we talked about the rituals there, but also in the current context. So we, you know, we started by talking about Thanksgiving and, and just how, when you think about sort of so-called typical Thanksgiving meals in North America, how ritualized they are, I mean, they happen on a certain date every year. And, and certain expectations are there. I think probably more so in the United States at their Thanksgiving where it’s, it’s more important as a family event than say, Christmas. For most people; this is, that’s your maximal effort to get home to see your family will be Thanksgiving, you know, even if you can’t make it home a month later for Christmas. So and that has its own history, which is also linked to various kind of movements, but also rituals, and then the things that rituals do then. So for example, one thing that rituals do is bind a community very close together, be that a family or a group of unrelated people. And I think, you know, I certainly can point to lots of examples from antiquity where that’s happening, and certainly in early Christianity, meals are central to that; to binding the people, the adherence to Christ, actually adhering them to one another. But I think also, here as well, when when we look at here today, in the contemporary world, when we look at the way meals function, socially, for a group. It brings together say, acquaintances, or even friends, but over that meal there’s a certain kind of intimacy that takes place that over time can strengthen those bonds to one another. And as fractious as some holidays can be for families like Thanksgiving, or other kinds of holidays, or religious or otherwise, there’s sort of family bonding that takes place there, even with the tropes of families falling out, and you know, crazy uncle Ernie, or something happening. That part, in some ways if crazy uncle Ernie doesn’t act out, we feel like we’ve been ripped off that year, because that’s part of the ritual that these sorts of things take place. So when we look at meals, we realize right from, you know, where the fork and knife are set, you know that that becomes part of the ritual, all the way through to, you know, whether the broccoli casserole is made or missing to the other things that go on. We could talk about how these are both everyday occurrences or, you know, Claude Gagnon talks about, you know, the binaries of, for example, everyday meals versus exceptional meals; you know, transgressive meals versus meals that bring people together. So that’s happening throughout history.
So something you were just talking about, and also, I came across this in your paper, I believe it was in the Oxford Handbook of Rituals, Early Christian Rituals. That’s what it is.
Dr. Ascough 8:06
Yeah. So I came across that paper and what you were just talking about, as well, as what you mentioned a lot in that paper was about who is at the meal and who’s not at the meal. And I’d be really interested in hearing how important that takes apart. Because I think that even in our current environment, there’s, you know, there’s definitely a difference in who’s included and who’s excluded. And oftentimes, it’s very purposeful.
Dr. Ascough 8:34
Right. Yeah. So let me start with antiquity because that’s, I’m more familiar with that. But certainly, banquets for example, in the Roman world were semi-public kinds of events where you would receive an invitation to go to the banquet early on, and then a slave might be dispatched to remind you and actually even bring you to, to the domestic space that the house where this banquet was going to take place. And of course, life was lived out in the public more so then now. And everyone would see that you were going and so they would know that they weren’t invited. And that you were and the way a lot of Roman houses, particularly the more wealthy houses are constructed, once the main doors open, and were left open for the day, you could see through the vestibule through maybe the opening gathering area, right through into the open dining area. And so often you could see who was invited, and more importantly, where they were seated. So even in, once you’re in the dining area, they could accommodate usually nine, nine to fifteen people who reclined. They didn’t actually sit but reclined and even where you were placed reclining, which of the three benches you’re reclining on, and your position on that bench was hierarchically stratefied. So, you know, the closer you were to the host, the more important you were — that was this the place of honour — all the way down to sort of being number nine, which of course you didn’t want to be. But it’s better to be number nine than to one of the people at the doorway looking at. So it was very much reminding everyone, both those involved in the meal, but also those outside, just where you fit in relation to, for example, a rich patron. And so today you think about, say a child’s birthday party, which kind of again, has some ritual, has a little meal there. And how upset a child will be you know, if all their friends get invited to somebody’s birthday party and they don’t, right; there’s a sort of inclusion-exclusion. So on the one hand, the child is very excited to get to go, on the other hand, upset to get to go. Or if all of our friends decided to go out, and we don’t get included in the invitation. So So those kinds of affective emotional responses are part of feeling left out of these meals as well. My running club is struggling with this now because of course of Covid, we’re restricted as a group of sometimes up to twenty runners that run. We run regularly on a Monday and then we meet afterwards at a pub for a drink and some food. But now we have to sit in groups of six, certainly no more than ten. And so who sits with who, you know, and you know, what, if you booked ten seats, but you know, there’s twelve people that want to go there. So again, social dynamics are going on around these meals, and the meals themselves sort of reinforce that by saying, oh, you’re included, or you’re excluded.
I’m also wondering, we were just talking about being vegetarian, and how sometimes we can go to a meal, and we can’t eat everything that’s there. And I was wondering, are there any parallels that would have happened in these early rituals? And the sorts of divisions that might have created in the actual dining space?
Dr. Ascough 12:01
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So in the, in the Roman world, of course, where you’re seated at the triclinium — Greek, Greek and Roman world — where you’re seated also demarcates how much food you get; your portion will be bigger the more important you are, and the quality of that food. So at a larger gathering, even at one of these Association gatherings that we look at, where they might have multiple triclinia set up in a large room. Both which of those tables you sit at what makes a difference, but also how you could see how much food and the quality of food somebody else’s getting compared to what you’re getting. So it would be, imagine going to a wedding now. And you think, “Oh, you know, I’m a really good friend of the bride.” And then you realize that you’re sitting at the table that’s farthest away from the front. So how good a friend are you compared to the person that’s sitting, you know, up with the bride’s parents, for example. So in the Roman world that’s amplified because then, you know, that table with the parents are getting like the choice cuts of tofu or meat or whatever. Whereas the other table is getting just, you know, a basket of french fries.
I was going to say dry bread.
Dr. Ascough 13:16
So that, you know, you’re still getting fed, but the quality is meant then to reinforce this, those social divisions. We are less intentional about it, even though it happens today. In the Roman world, they are very intentional about it. Everyone knew they were intentional about it; they knew this was the game that’s going on and you wanted to be able to move your way up the social hierarchy. So yeah, then what to do about vegetarians, I mean, especially if it’s a choice or in the case of say, “What do I do if I invite, you know, this acquaintance that just made but he’s he belonged to this, you know, odd religion that I don’t know much about? They worship the singular God and they’re all from Judea, and he tells me he doesn’t eat pork? I mean, what are we gonna do with that?” Right so so this created a problem, a social world as Judeans, you know, they’re working outside of Judea, they’re all over the circa-Mediterranean. And you know, for them, who do they eat with or not eat with? What do they eat and not eat, you know, given the restrictions of Torah. And then for Romans who say, “Oh, nice person, I want to do business with them. But business is best done over a meal. But now, you know, he tells me he won’t eat this or that? That’s kinda weird.” So how am I going to do that and you’ll, it’ll single that person out. And so we see that even reflected in a lot of you know, particularly Paul’s letters of the Book of Acts, as early Christ-followers are wrestling with, a lot of it is actually around how you eat together.
I was wondering if there were any political or social consequences to not being invited to the table or being placed in a lesser position, being like number nine?
Dr. Ascough 14:58
Yeah, absolutely. Social and political; both, right? So whether you’re not invited, of course that’s a clear signal that you’re kind of out of favour, but even to be invited to a place in a lower position is a reminder to you just where you fit. And in the Roman world, then, you would have, you know, if I were in position number nine, the whole meal, I would think, how am I going to ingratiate myself to the host to, particularly if, say, he was my patron. And I, you know, I want to sort of have him look after me more, which was was a frequent dynamic, then the meal setting becomes that place. And so, as in all of life, in Roman antiquity, a lot of it was was based on the honour, what I call the honour-shame game, where there’s a certain amount of honour, that goes around, but it’s a limited mount. So the more I have, than the more likely I am to move up the hierarchy. But I can only gain more honour by taking it away from someone else. So in the meal setting, then, you know, we have our meal, it’s very nice. But then afterwards is a philosophical discussion that takes place and you’ll often you have the wine flows, and you need to be witty, you need to be wise. And that’s a place where if I can make myself shine a little bit better than you two, then maybe at the next meal, you’ll be eight or nine, I’ll have at least move to seven. Right. But if I say something, and you make me look stupid, that I may not even get invited next time. So this dynamic is always present in any of these meals, as well as people are jockeying for those kinds of positions. And so you’re always constantly aware of that. Of course, you know, it’s both, it would be both a great honour and a great fear if you were to be invited to a banquet at the in domicile of the Emperor. Because there you might think, “Wow, I’m so important, the Emperor wants to be there.” Of course, this is also the place where the Emperor, some Emperor’s; people like Coligula, for example, the worst Emperor Caligula Nero used those meal settings to humiliate important senators, I mean, there and actually, you know, cause them to go and commit suicide. Not because they’re embarrassed, but that was just like the commit “you will go,” sort of thing this is your death sentence. So, you know, on the one hand, it’s a great honour. On the other hand, it’s bloodsport, and so meals become the setting for some of them.
I can’t help but think just more anecdotally about the fact that my, my dad has done a lot of travel and international business. And the idea of sharing a meal has been kind of at the center of a lot of his business transactions. And he’s told stories about, you know, being in China, and it’s, where he was, was very, it was a, it was a very big insult to not accept the food that was given to you. And so he would be put in these sticky situations where he would have to eat food that he would not normally eat, especially when it comes to different types of animals, just out of respect. But the thing was, is in order to kind of get the client and you know, have a successful business transaction, you would have to do this. And so I find it really interesting that we definitely still see these kind of themes throughout the world today. But even more so in, you know, a lot of these cultures that there’s a lot of honour and respect still at the center of food and meals and how we share in those meals together.
Dr. Ascough 18:26
Yeah, so that, I mean, that’s a great example of one of the ways that the cultural differences and how we ritualize the meals and how what we think is normative is really culturally based. And so when you go elsewhere and realize, “oh, they’re doing it differently; not necessarily better or worse, but differently. And in order to broker those social relationships, I have to maybe put aside some of my concerns, and, and participate in the way that they do the meals.” But it feels very strange, very foreign to us. Like that’s not, somehow that’s not right. But that’s I mean, it’s not a moral judgment, of course, it’s just culturally difference, but it really throws us off. And that shows just how ingrained our own notions of what a meal does or doesn’t look like or what is appropriate to eat or not eat or, or even who is appropriate to eat or not eat with. And so I mentioned Gagnon earlier, and he talks about transgressive meals, and that’s can be both in how they’re conducted or who was invited. And so, again, going back to my field, some of the stories in the gospels talk about Jesus, he apparently he ate and drank a lot, so much so that that that one of the accusations they could level against him is that he’s a glutton and a drunkard. So clearly ate more, enough that people thought that that that and that thought that he was doing so to excess. And interestingly, meal settings are the most common setting for or stories in especially, well, in all the Gospels. In fact, you know, almost a good third of John from chapter 13 through 17 is all just one meal setting, where Jesus does a discourse. And so and yet so meals are where this takes place, and yet Jesus is also presented as transgressing the meal boundaries. So when he eats with other Judeans of the time, particularly the Pharisees and the Sadducees, they’ll say to him things like, “Well, you know, your disciples didn’t wash their hands properly.” Or worse, Jesus allows other people to come in, somebody who’s considered unclean. So somebody who has an illness or is considered to be demon-possessed, or you know, worse in that culture, a woman comes in. And Luke tells the story of a woman who comes in and doesn’t name her but says, “a woman from the city,” which is a euphemism for prostitute comes in and starts wiping Jesus’ feet clean with and using her hair to clean his, well, this is completely transgressive. And yet, you know, Jesus flips it on his host and says, “You know, you don’t like it. But you know, you didn’t bother cleaning my feet. So least she’s doing something you should have done.” That is, it’s actually normalizing something that you transgress by breaking the normal ritual of having your slavery, wash my feet when I came in. So these kinds of stories going all the time where it’s both, you have to understand the cultural codes, what would be expected? And then the stories, they don’t tell us what would be expected because their readers would have known, but what we can see what you know, that is just where they’re being transgressed. And both in what is eaten, how it’s eaten, and who it’s who they’re eating with.
Right. And that’s the whole, well, Jesus at one point washes all his disciples’ feet too and that was quite radical, I remember.
Dr. Ascough 21:48
Right. Yeah, yeah. So in Gospel of John, Jesus sort of bends down when they’re coming in, washes their feet. And then, you know, Peter says, “You’re too important to do this to me.” And you know, Jesus said, “No, no, this must be done for the Kingdom of God,” then Peter, you know, throws the whole, goes all in and says, “Wash my whole body.” Dude, you’re just not getting it.
Dr. Ascough 22:05
This is a, it’s a, it’s a symbolic action. It’s the, both your feet are dirty. I mean, they were sandals in a very dusty, dry environment. So you needed your feet to be washed. But it’s that Jesus here takes on the role of a slave. So there again, it’s transgressive. And yet at the same time, even in being transgressive, it’s forging the bonds of community. It’s saying, you know, like, we’re, all of you are having your feet washed by Jesus, therefore, you’re, you know, no one’s better or worse, no one’s singled out, you’re all in this together. And so you have this, this dual function in meals like that were both it challenges the boundaries, while also still reinforcing some social boundaries, in this case, so bonding people.
And I believe there’s also a story that Jesus tells about, like this rich landowner who invited a whole bunch of people to a banquet, and they all said, “No, no, we can’t come.” And so he invites, all these other people that normally wouldn’t be invited. So I’m just thinking about yeah, like, there’s lots in there that is quite radical.
Dr. Ascough 23:12
Yeah, yeah. And again, very transgressive, and sort of a, it’s an interesting story, because on the one hand, you know, the rich, the landowner has this great banquet, and it’s a deliberate snub against him. It’s so in the honour-shame game, he’s being dishonoured by them saying, “You’re not worth my time, I’m not going to come.” And yet in the story, then it flips because he says, “Well, screw you. I’ll invite other people” and sort of says, “You know, these, these people, these beggars from the street are more important than you that tried to snub me,” so it kind of flips it on its head again. But again, through the lens of the honour, shame, you can see that the play back and forth is, is as you try to, like, both gain honour by shaming the other person.
Was it reasonably common that people would refuse to come to a banquet?
Dr. Ascough 24:04
No, I think that’s part of that whole story.
Okay; I was like, “Why, it’s free food!”
Dr. Ascough 24:06
It’s a fictional story. Free food, but also yeah, if he’s as wealthy and as important as the story sort of leads with, then. Then then, yeah, they wouldn’t. And I think that’s part of the shock value of the parable. So that’s a parable. And that’s just simply the way parables, I shouldn’t say simply, it’s a complex literary form. But that’s how parables work is they start out and that one I think it says “a certain rich man held a banquet” and that little phrase, “a certain man” is an invitation for the listener because they would have been heard early to identify with that character. So “Oh, that’s me. I had a banquet, that’s cool! I’m having a banquet, all these important people.” And then no one comes and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to be that guy.” So it’s, it creates this cognitive dissonance for the listener. So similarly “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” which everyone, I mean, even that title, which doesn’t occur in the Bible, people say, “Oh, I should be like the Good Samaritan.” But the story is “a certain man walked from Jerusalem to Jericho.” And I mean, the guy’s a moron. That’s a very dangerous road, you don’t walk it by yourself ever! And yet the story is constructed at the literary level to say, “You are, you the listener are that person; you’re the moron that gets beaten up,” right? And so it’s not about being a good samaritan to someone else, it’s about allowing yourself in that context to be touched by someone that you would consider unclean. So for the Judean to actually, you know, would rather die than be touched by, in their mind, a dirty Samaritan, has no choice because they’re, they’re so broken. And so it’s putting yourself in a position of vulnerability. And so with the banquet one, too, it’s saying, “you have no control over what these people have done.” And it’s this shaming, dishonouring kinds of actions that that that says, “How will you respond,” and then that particular story, it’s like, then you open yourself up to the other undesirable people, that’s where your community is formed. So I mean, I can make another example just about how, a more contemporary example. Steph, you asked about, you know, how we make these connections? You’re familiar with Harry Potter, I think.
Dr. Ascough 24:39
Of course! And, and you think about the Harry Potter, so I’m thinking the movie here, but it’s in the book as well, but Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and when they first get to the school, what’s the orienting event for them is, of course, a meal, right? And a very highly ritualized meal; a ritual within ritual. So at that very first meal, they have the sorting hat. And in that context, the sorting hat is going to tell you who your community is going to be, for your time at Hogwarts. And so it’ll fit you in and once these newcomers are told, which house they’re going to be in, they have to go over to that table. That’s who they’re going to eat with. And yet there’s a separation you’ll even between the tables. And then there’s a table where the students are versus the head table. Center of the head table is the headmaster, right, and then in decreasing order of import. Name the people at the end. You know, who are they if we know them? I mean,
Hagrid, maybe, I don’t know
Dr. Ascough 27:16
I was gonna say the one that we know is that the end is Hagrid, of course,
Dr. Ascough 27:20
the groundskeeper. But then, where’s the janitor?
Oh, yeah, that’s right!
Dr. Ascough 27:24
He’s not even at the table. He’s standing off to the side, right?
Does he never get to eat, that sucks
Dr. Ascough 27:29
I guess, right? He has to eat by himself.
No wonder he’s so angry.
Dr. Ascough 27:33
That’s that look on his face, right? And so it’s, it’s a nice little illustration, I think JK Rowling has either by design or by luck, kind of seen how important ritual is within a meal. But it’s not about the food. It’s about, about how that meal setting constructs social hierarchies. And of course, we find out later on, in fact that the food doesn’t just appear. There’s a whole layer underneath of sort of lower-class citizens, right, that the house elves that are involved, I believe. But I think so.
Yeah, you’re right
Dr. Ascough 28:12
Who are making all that, that Hermione later on will sorta take some social action to sort of get some rights for this guy. But at first you say, “Oh, this food, isn’t it wonderful, it just appears” but then you realize there’s another hierarchy too. And so, you know, these are the slaves who are ubiquitous at meals in antiquity, but are not paid attention to; they’re just kind of there as instruments to bring the food to the important people, least important in their own minds. So these are all, it’s this hierarchical structuring, which is reinforced, reinforcing the status quo, right? It’s saying teachers are more important than students and, you know, these class divisions, even among the houses by, you know, different things. And the janitor, yeah, off to the side. And so it actually reinforces the social hierarchy right there in a meal.
But, I’ve been listening to a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Texts. Have you heard of that?
Dr. Ascough 29:04
No, I’ve heard of it, I haven’t actually listened to it.
It’s very good! They talk about meals a little bit, too. And one of the points that they had was, like, we don’t know a whole bunch about the backgrounds of these students like, like, like if they’re rich, poor, but like, all at the same meal, they’re eating the same food. And so they’re all kind of like brought together in this and it’s also like, the, I think the only time really that everybody at Hogwarts is together. So just like kind of, though there are these divisions within the different tables and the different house tables, they’re also all together and they’re all eating the same food, which is, yeah
Dr. Ascough 29:40
Yeah. And in that context, in that particular context, you see, they’re all dressed in their black gown,
Dr. Ascough 29:46
Which is a, levels the playing field. So you can’t have ostentatious clothing. You can’t have your very rich clothing while your, your less wealthy friend has their poor stuff. So that’s one way you can regularize that sort of, the hierarchical divisions at a meal and say, “for this meal, we are all equal.” Now, of course when the meal is over and and this is one of the points I make in the article that Steph referenced earlier, it’s transgressive insofar as this social divisions no longer matter. Look, we’re all just the same. But we have examples of inscriptions that say that a slave and a master belong to the same association get the same food, like it’s very, very important that 60 people in this group — no more, no less — it’s always 60. And they all eat the same. And in theory, it says anyone can become president. And we know from the name some ome of the members are slaves. So in theory, a slave could become president, I actually doubt that ever happened. But everybody gets the same portion. You think, “Wow, what a great group, everyone’s equal.” But you know, as soon as they step outside of that meal, the slave is not equal to the master or any other master. The slave is still legally a slave and therefore property, not even under the eyes of law in Roman, the Roman world, not even human. So so the meal provides a temporary suspension of some of those social divisions. Which, which then fall back and so yeah, and Harry Potter, you see that that, yeah, there’s that suspension there. But then, outside of that meal setting, there might be the jockeying for the social hierarchy, again.
Dr. Ascough 30:10
Draco and Harry all the time!
Dr. Ascough 31:26
Draco and Harry being the extreme examples of that, yeah.
So I know, we’ve been talking a little bit about banquets specifically, and kind of those very formal meals. But I know, Jacqueline, you had maybe a little bit to say about the kind of difference between the everydayness of us sitting down and having dinner versus the more celebratory meals itself. Maybe you can kind of chat a bit about that.
Yeah. So back in my undergrad a couple years in I was staying at this, it’s kind of hard to describe, like, it was sort of a cross between like a residence and like a community living situation. So there was a couple that owned a house, but then the rest of all university students, there was about 10 of us, I believe, and so, um, yeah. And so it was, it was an Anabaptist-based community home. So it was, it was Christian, but you didn’t have to be Christian to live there. It was just kind of expected that you like you would respect the beliefs of others, that sort of thing. And so a very important part of living together in community was specifically supper. So the rest of the meals, like we shared food and everything throughout the day, but supper, it was kind of expected that we would make an effort to come and eat together. And part of that was just like logistical. It was also just because that was like the main, the main time when we’d all come together and like chat. A lot of us went to different institutions, so we would meet together over the meal, talk about our days, we would invite guests over. The house was called the Emmaus House. And so it was based on the story about, just after Jesus had died, the disciples were walking to this place called Emmaus. And they were walking and, like, quite sad, because their friend had just died. And all of a sudden, this man’s on the side of the road with them and starts walking with them and talking. And it’s Jesus, but they don’t realize it until, I believe, it’s like they get in and start eating together. Yeah, they just all of a sudden realize it’s Jesus. And so the idea of how the divine can be with us, without realizing it, or just, just finding, finding God in the everyday that sort of thing. I was just thinking about that, and how, like, how that connected with how we did meals every day. It was it was kind of like an every day, like it was every day, so it was normal, but it was also special. And so I’m just kind of curious about that the distinction between like, the banquet meals, and, yeah, just communion on meals and like the being set apart from other meals, but also the everydayness of the ritual. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on that?
Dr. Ascough 34:09
No, that’s a lovely example of how things can be both exceptional and, and sort of regular at the same time. Because there is an exceptionality in our culture to saying “you will have this meal, you know, as much as you are able to be at this meal every single day,” you know, that actually runs against the grain of “I’m just gonna grab something quick, on the way out the door or, you know, out of you know, Tim Hortons or something on my way to class.” So so it’s saying, “Let’s slow down and make this special,” but it’s also a regularly occurring thing that you actually are expected to be there and then, I like that: you erase yourself rather than you write your name in. It’s just, you’re gonna be there unless you tell us otherwise. That’s another really good example, I think in that case of, you know, with people living together, it’s a way of saying that we are more than just the sum of our parts. We are a community and so that, you know, once a day, we make the effort to connect as community and we do so over a meal. And I think it fits with a tradition both inside and outside Christianity. I think it’s pretty ubiquitous across cultures where food is that point where it’s, it’s sharing, and choosing to eat together says something about who you want to be with. So none of us can go without food; we all have to eat. But we don’t have to eat with each other. Right, that’s where we have a choice, right? We have no choice about eating, and so that we choose to eat with, in the case of Emmaus House, the same people every day and, you know, open to inviting other people says, “I am choosing, deliberately choosing this community. And I’m looking to build community there.” And I think, you know, in the certainly in the Anabaptist tradition, food is very, very important for that.
Dr. Ascough 35:56
So that’s it, you know, that’s an example of how it carries on in that. And interesting, that the name is interesting to me, of course, you know, as a biblical scholar, because I had not really thought about it much, until I was invited into this work on meals that, you know, I said it, you know, grabbed me for 10 years. And so that’s one of the passages to look at and realize, you know, in the Gospel of Luke, which is where that text occurs, it’s, it’s a turning point in the story, the realization that not just the tomb is empty. But in fact, Jesus has this presence, this risen presence that they recognize, it’s precisely at the meal that that gets recognized. And that was one of the things you realize what’s going on with meals is worth so one of the question asked me, so “what’s going on with meals at the literary level?” So you go back to the Gospel of Luke, and particularly in my case, read forward to the Gospel, or through the Book of Acts and realize how central meals are at key points throughout the whole way that Luke narrates early Christianity. And I think, you know, this in your case, that’s, that’s, that’s a carried on, in saying, for, for Christians together, or, as you say, at least gather extensively, as a Christian community, whether or not your Christian, meals have to be a central for that, and I think carried on nicely.
What I find really interesting is we’ve been talking a lot about how central food and meals are, to a lot of the stories throughout the Bible, but I can’t help but think about all the times that abstaining from food was also a very central part. And we hear this across religious traditions, that fasting is a pretty central part to most kind of spiritual experiences. And I’m wondering if you have anything to add on that?
Dr. Ascough 37:53
Well, I think it’s interesting, because fasting is just another ritualized way of eating but in this case, not eating. So it’s again, choosing, it has limited span, right? You can’t, you fast too long, you die. So so it’s, it’s for a certain period of time, that you choose to separate yourself for, you know, for a specific purpose. And it might be, you know, a spiritual commitment, it might be fulfilling a vow. And yet, there’s always, the breaking of the fast is usually highly ritualized where it to, even if it’s just, you know, simple bread and water, or is an elaborate kind of group thing where individuals have separated to fast and then come back together, to break that fast. And so both the fasting itself, but also the coming back together, these highly ritualized moments that that bond, the community of those who have fasted, even when the fasting itself is ritualized, it might have prayer, or meditation or something else going on during it where the individual can connect to the divine. So in the Christian tradition, sort of meditation on God, but certainly not, I mean, it’s across different traditions as well, where fasting is important. But lik I say, it’s a very limited, very limited time span.
The majority of what I know on this subject between, on the intersection between food and religion has to do with like fasting, disordered eating, which foods in the diet industry are considered like sinful versus what will you know, purify, detoxify you, all that. So I was just, we’ve talked a lot about the meals themselves being important, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the specific foods that are part of these rituals that might be religiously or ritualistically significant?
Dr. Ascough 39:45
Yeah, it’s, a couple of things to pick up on there. So very important things to pick up on there, is a lot of it — so when you talk about sort of diets, whether they’re fad diets or sort of ongoing kinds of diets, or disordered eating practices, which themselves can become highly ritualized, right, in their behaviour. Habituated if not ritualized. But they often get certain rituals in order to prevent myself from eating or overeating or eating too much or eating enough. And a lot of it comes down to control. Right? So it’s control of the body, control of emotions through hrough eating. And in some ways, this is what the restrictions around food or drink, even, in different religious traditions are often about control and commitment; either individual control or communal control. It’s interesting. If you ask a Mormon, at least in my experience, if you ask a Mormon, why they won’t have, or why they won’t eat chocolate or drink coffee, or Coca Cola, they’ll say, well, because it has caffeine. And that’s actually not why they’re restricted. They’re restricted from those things, just because, right? So there’s, it’s not that there’s something in there, it’s just that this is a test of your commitment to God; will you abstain from these rather attractive things? And so that’s a form both of showing your self-control, but it’s also a form of a hierarchy to show, to have communal control. We know who’s in or out of the community by what they will or won’t eat. And, and so, with disordered eating practices, for example, that’s a form of showing self-control, like I can control my body, what goes in and out of my body and control my weight that way. But then, I don’t know a lot about this, but it’s sort of interesting that there are web groups that support groups for people with bulimia, but not to help them get through it. But in fact, to encourage the practice.
They have their own websites, they have Twitter accounts, Tumblr accounts. There, it’s very interesting. They have, like, commandments sometimes with very religious or spiritual language they often use to encourage you to adhere to those rules, and discourage you from eating. It’s sort of also oftens, it often elevates eating disorders to like a sort of godlike or spiritual presence or power in your life that you need to obey at all times.
Dr. Ascough 42:38
To me, it’s really curious, I mean it’s like very, I haven’t looked at a lot, but just whereas on the one hand, we might react and say, “Oh, that’s disordered eating.” But then we might look at, you know, one of the saints in the Christian tradition, for example, that might only eat berries for four years that “Oh, you know, what a beautiful commitment to God.” Well, wait a minute.
Or locusts. Why?!
Dr. Ascough 43:01
John the Baptist had a pretty messed up diet, right? And yet, he’s, you know, St. John the Baptist. And, and so, you know, again, it’s a, it’s, it’s a, if you pull back, it’s sort of a social control thing of who gets to label those. And I can take this person from history and say, “What a great saint” and yet look today and say, “Oh, you know, what an abhorrent practice that should be stopped.” And yet, on the surface, they seem to be doing similar things, demonstrating control of one’s self, one’s appetites. And then in the case that you’re pointing to Rachel, then it for a larger purpose, for a larger cause. At that level, they seem to be very similar, yet one is vilified, the other is highly praised. So I think yes, and maybe the work is going on there. It’s a little bit out of my field, but seems to be a lot of work could be done on that in terms of ritual commitment, of ritual and religious practices and commitments.
I did some research in my undergrad about medieval Christian women who have sort of been retroactively diagnosed with anorexia mirabilis, “holy anorexia.” And I always found that really, really interesting about the motivations for their restrictions and fasting, the sort of punishment they brought unto themselves, and how that is incredibly similar to a lot of the trends we see in the diet industry today. And a lot of these Pro-Ana and Mia sites.
Dr. Ascough 44:34
Yeah, it seems again at sort of, at the post-Enlightenment development of science and then we sort of retroactively go back and start reading these sort of ancient texts, ancient practices and realize just what more is going on, than the way the stories are narrated at that time. Which is where I think then, as it started out with, it’s sort of one thing just to observe sort of patterns around meals in my case, but when you start bringing the modern theories in. So people that study meals today and say, “Okay, so that sociology, that psychology, that anthropology, that can now be applied to the ancient texts as much as possible.” I mean there’s always limitations around it. And we realize so much more of what’s going on. You know, and even on the opposite side, retroactive attempts to explain things. Well, the reason you know, Jews don’t eat pork is because they realized there’s a bacterium in it. No! Of course they didn’t realize that back then. Yeah, I think it’s one of those things where somebody decided we’re gonna eat that we’re not going to eat that, right, and it’s got, you know, and then you put the overlay of God’s command on it, and then you’ve got a, got a rule to follow, but it’s about control.
One thing that I’m really interested in surrounding meals is kind of, one of the rituals that I think we see today in various forms is this idea of being thankful for your meal before you start eating. And we see that within the Christian community, about praying, and I think at least when I was growing up, that was very common in my household, where we pray before our meal, and say thanks to God, and thank God for the day, etc. But you even see that today in, you know, the kind of spirituality community where you’ve got people standing in circles holding hands and thanking the earth for giving its abundance and bounty for your meal. And I’m very curious about, you know, if anybody has any anecdotes, or insights into this idea of being thankful for your meal. Something that I’ve noticed, especially with a lot of people that — I don’t know a better term to put it other than white-girls-super-into-yoga, they really have this practice now where it’s like prayer, it’s like the things that you often see within a Christian community, but it’s removed from that. And instead, it’s looking to fully honouring your meal and where it came from. And I think that that kind of theme is very similar, you just kind of take the higher power out of it. And I’m very fascinated by that. And I don’t know as well, if this has been, if this has kind of been the perspective throughout time, or if this is something we’ve really changed in the contemporary age, especially because I think there’s such a disconnect between where we get our food from, and where we sit to eat it.
That reminds me of, we were recently talking about Zac Efron’s show “Down to Earth,” and he has a quote here, when they go to the eco-village, and they’re, the community is all standing together holding hands. Zach does a voiceover he says, “being grateful for the meal, which you’re about to have is not necessarily a religious thing, it’s just a solid approach to life; taking a little time to give thanks throughout the day is something we could all do a little more often. So that really relates to what you were just saying, Stephanie.
Dr. Ascough 47:54
So it’s a curious thing, that we maintain that sort of ritual of giving thanks, but are a bit vague on just what’s behind there. And I’m not arguing that should be something behind there. But it’s, it’s for me, it’s, it’s, you know, in looking at ritual, it just speaks to just how important the ritual is that we would want to keep it even without having to worry about whether there’s something bigger behind it to receive my thanks when I do that. And then I think it shows in the, in the case of this Zac Efron example that you gave, then what that does for that community is bind them, right. So we go back to that idea that, in fact, in that meal by ritualizing, by adding a little prayer or whatever it is, a little saying of thanksgiving ahead of time, it’s something we all do together. So no matter how we might eat the meal, in what order, I might eat the vegetable before the meat or whatever; whatever I do there, we started all doing the same thing. And that’s what helps define us as a community. But certainly, there’s a long tradition of giving thanks, Steph, you’re asking about that. I mean, in the traditions I know, which is you know, relatively few, from the vast array throughout history, but in the traditions, I know, there is, there are examples of this giving of thanks for food, right? So, I mean, it gets introduced into Christianity through Jesus at the so-called “Last Supper” where you know, the stories at least narrate him doing this. But that seems to be very much predicated on the Passover Seder, and some to some degree, so then it sort of got antecedents in, in, in Judaism, you know, our modern notion we started today talking about Thanksgiving. And this, this very defined holiday in the United States and in Canada, certainly in the United States, has a long tradition. I mean, when the first Europeans got here, already, they found Indigenous Peoples that were giving thanks for food they had. The Indigenous Peoples were used to giving you know, their blessings on food to the Christian tradition. So so that then they continued that both separately and, you know, at times together, but it wasn’t sort of ever formalized, I think it was George Washington, who sort of first declared, you know, on on the last Sunday in or last weekend, and in November, you know, will be a day of Thanksgiving. But even that wasn’t a formal day. And it was, you know, Abraham Lincoln in the late 1800s, post Civil War, that said, “one way that we can unify the nation is to make this a more regular, traditional time, when family will get together.” So again, this is the emphasis in the US on family. Family will get together and celebrate the bounty that comes from the earth. But it certainly wasn’t in, he didn’t invent that; George Washington didn’t invent that. The Europeans didn’t bring it here, although they kind of contributed; the Indigenous People, you know, didn’t invent it. And at least you know, they were doing it. But, you know, they didn’t learn it from someone else, either, right? It’s their own tradition. So so so we’ve got what we call Thanksgiving is sort of this, this amalgamation of these historical and cultural forces that have come together in North America. Plays out differently in other places around the globe, but certainly is representative of the idea that we give Thanksgiving, or we give thanks for food that comes to us.
I can’t help but think, going back to even just the title of our podcast that this kind of idea of giving thanks for food, regardless of if it’s for directly giving thanks to a deity or not, there’s a certain element of infusing the numinous into the experience you’re having. So even from the perspective of the non-religious, who choose to give thanks to the earth for their meal, or whatever it may be, it’s almost creating this sense of awe and appreciation for what’s around you, which I think can be really powerful. As we’ve seen, you know, I think, the idea of just religious experience and bringing people together under these ritual experiences, regardless of if it’s got its roots, in politics, in social structures, etc, it does kind of create this different level of community, which I think is the really powerful thing about communal meals, especially even in the contemporary age. There’s definitely a certain feeling I have when I gather with my family for, you know, Thanksgiving or Christmas meals. And it’s something that I don’t want to give up. You know, like, I never want to miss a Christmas, I never want to miss Thanksgiving because there is this certain numinous quality to it.
Dr. Ascough 52:41
Yeah, it’s interesting that like, in the work I’ve done, so I’m more specific, but I think an example of this, Steph, is, you know, when Peter — so in the book of Acts, it talks about Peter has this vision of a, this — So he’s he’s hungry, he’s praying, he’s hungry, he orders room service. But you know, before room service arrives, he has this vision of a blanket coming down with all these foods on it that says, “You can eat anything.” And so he realizes this is God telling him that non-Judeans can start following this very Jewish Messiah. And so he realizes this, and he goes out and talks to Cornelius and some others and baptizes them. And when he gets back to Jerusalem, the other Jewish leaders are pissed off at him. Not because he baptized them. They’re pissed off at him because he ate with them. That’s what they say like, “Why did you eat with the non-circumcised?” You think, “Okay, that’s, that’s, that’s curious.” And then you get a little bit later in Acts, they have a council in Jerusalem. And everyone comes together, including Paul, who’s been working among the uncircumcised, and they say, “What are we going to do about the uncircumcised?” Like, that’s the question, should they be circumcised? That’s the question they ask at the beginning of Acts 15. The answer at the end is, here’s what they should eat. Or in fact, in this case, here’s what they shouldn’t eat. So they answer a question about, like cutting the body with what should or shouldn’t be eaten. So in those two cases, it goes back down to food and it sees there, Steph, what you’re saying: the food is somehow intimately linked to the numinous. And in this case, the monotheistic God, and as you know, non-monotheists start following this God, it comes down to, you know, can you eat, can you eat with them, and what can and can’t be eaten with them. And that’s, again, a curious way that food becomes a central part of, of that experience of the Divine, right? And all the ways; as we’ve seen from Rachel’s example, of movements of people sort of supporting each other and what they’re not eating, to the Emmaus example. So the Roman groups that I study, where food is that that link, that connection to the one hand, the Divine, but really what it’s functioning as is community building. It’s each other; that’s the commitment connection. And the Zac Efron thing, as I said, also illustrates that.
Well, in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Daniel, there’s that, that whole section of just like, when the Jewish people are in exile, and maybe they feel like they’re losing their identity a little bit, too. And so what was one of the main things that they focused on, it was, what, what they ate. And so it was a way that they made themselves distinct and remembered their identity from the people that had come and taken them off into exile. So, yeah.
Dr. Ascough 55:37
Yeah. And certainly, you know, at least, at least in for many scholars too, that thinking that that’s when the whole “P” tradition was written, right? So a lot of the stuff that shows up in Torah, actually wasn’t there in the earlier renditions. But it’s right in the Babylonian exile when they, they had the priestly tradition that adds a lot of the regulations around community and a lot of that has to do with food, what you can and can’t eat. Yeah, it’s people out of their context thinking, “Yeah, what, how are we going to define ourselves?” And they do that around food.
Is there any rituals that you’ve come across in your research that you’ve adopted into your own life?
Dr. Ascough 56:13
I’m much more cognizant, for example, I mentioned my running group earlier. So when I joined them, I was both excited to have you know, this new community; I could get new friends and people I could be involved with. But just then to sort of what I know about ritual, at least, and meals is to then sort of also be both part of it. So in the group, and yet and outside of the group observing for them, just how much, you know, the location of, you know, being at a pub and ordering food, ordering beers meant in terms of the community relationship of a group that, you know, when I joined had been together for 23 years, right. So I was really new to this group. And yet, they were willing and accepting of me and other people have joined since me so so they take new members, and yet for those that have been around, you know, 23 years, how important it was that at that time, the Brew Pub, which is where we meet, provided free nachos. I mean, that was important to us all, I mean, just one or two plates of free nachos. So then we’d order an extra beer. I’m sure it’s also economically in their interest, but just how important that that that that connection was being made over food.
What about you other ladies? Are there any traditions that you’ve brought into your own life? Or any that you find interesting?
So there’s this ritual that I heard that the Emperor Charlemagne used to do he, he had a tablecloth of asbestos. And so I guess he, I don’t know, just wanted to look cool, or didn’t really want to clean up after the meal. So they actually ate right off of the tablecloth of asbestos. And then once they were done, he would just pick up the tablecloth and throw it into the fire, and it would have looked super cool!
Dr. Ascough 57:54
So I’m definitely not going to do that for myself, but I kind of wish that I could.
Yeah, I’m definitely not coming over for a dinner party.
Dinner and entertainment at Jacqueline’s.
Dr. Ascough 58:11
Putting your health at risk!
Like, eating right off of it!
Dr. Ascough 58:15
Well, just I mean, even in that example, how interesting, you know, as I said earlier, we all have to eat but what we eat and who we eat with we can make choices. And yet even in some of those choices like Charlemagne or I think back to the Romans who unknowingly just you know, used lead and a lot of things even in their their their water piping. And how we don’t always realize that what we’re eating is harming, is as much harm as good and you know, we just have to look at contemporary North American society to see a lot of what we can consume is really not that healthy for us. And, and, and so, you know, how we become aware just of the importance of this at so many different levels. At the ritual level, the cultural level, social level, but the health level, as well. That how much impact what we eat, and how we eat has on our lives.