After you’ve stuffed yourself with Christmas dinner, you can further speed grandma’s afternoon slumber by telling her that your dinner represented something called “commensality” — the social context of eating and drinking. Yes, yawn! But bear with me.
Because food is such a basic and powerful symbol of human existence, its use as a symbol of social, religious, and political ideology is widespread. As one scholar notes, food and drink represent “a peculiarly powerful semiotic device,” something that can powerfully “[bear] the load of everyday cultural discourse.” Because food is so mundane, its role as a semiotic device transcends class and culture. But precisely because it is mundane we sometimes forget the meanings carried by food. A humble family meal, Thanksgiving dinner, fast food, ritual feasting, State banquets: all settings where food symbolizes something more than just nutrition.
The ancient Near East (my intellectual home) provides many examples of commensality. In the Mesopotamian “Early Dynastic” period (ca. 2900-2350 BC), for example, royal commensality — mega state feasts — was used to support the elite classes’ position in society: by emphasizing and elaborating social distinctions, reinforcing intra-group bonds, and distinguishing the elite group from others. Just such a mega-feast is shown on the famous Royal Standard of Ur.
Politically-motivated commensality probably seems like a world away from the experiences with food that exist in the lives of most contemporary Mormons. Mormons may be vaguely aware of ritual feasting in some biblical contexts (such as the annual Israelite festivals or the Last Supper, and of course the Jewish kashruth laws and the Word of Wisdom remind us of the religious dimension of food), but we make a mistake if we expect “ritual” feasting to carry overtly cultic signifiers. The diners at the court of Ur were probably not entirely aware of their participation in a social “ritual.” In the same way, Mormons are probably ignorant of the power of food and commensal rituals in their own religious lives.
Elite commensality in the ancient Near East served to reinforce a social hierarchy. In the New Testament and Early Christianity, commensality appears to be more egalitarian, at least superficially. Communal eating was a feature of the Corinthian church, one designed to be shared by rich and poor Christians alike (although as 1 Cor 11 demonstrates, this did not always work out). The Lord’s Supper has covenantal value among believers who come together as rich and poor, black and white, male and female, to seal a renewed compact with Christ. Thus, Christian commensality seems of a different kind to the conspicuous consumption of the Near Eastern court.
And yet if we dig a little deeper we see that the Holy Communion (the Mormon “Sacrament”) does in fact draw borders between groups in a way akin to royal feasting. The uninitiated and the unworthy are not supposed to partake, and if they do, they do so with the realization that this is a ritual that is not rightfully theirs. The simple act of partaking of bread and wine (water) becomes a symbol of a spiritual “elite,” binding believers together and to God, and separating them from “the world.” It is also an act of redistribution, something the Mormon sacrament prayers make clear. God — the king at this banquet — is presented with gifts by his court (the believers): they promise to always remember him and to keep his commandments. He then promises to let them “have his Spirit to be with them,” the greatest of all Christian gifts. His glory becomes theirs: “this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Of course, Mormon commensality is often much less lofty than this, but no less meaningful. The family table becomes the family altar, the place of communion for the “basic unit of society.” The Ward Social, complete with pot-luck dinner, is a delightfully low-brow assertion of Mormon community. Even the staple foods — jello and funeral potatoes — whilst often mocked, have become fond symbols of Mormon culture, the culture of a “peculiar people,” “not of the world.” Food strengthens groups bonds and demarcates it from others. It’s as old as Ur.
Family reunion picnics, post-Priesthood Session ice-cream socials, and Thanksgiving dinners are further symbols of social communion. Food has even become a historical (and thus for Mormons, religious) hobby. Pioneer food is held in great reverence and Pioneer cookbooks grace many Mormon homes. The consumption of Pioneer food may make the Mormon closer to his literal or spiritual ancestors. And interesting recipes involving cracked-wheat ready one’s belly for the coming day when survival will rely on the consumption of one’s prophetically-commanded food storage. Cracked-wheat parties as a Ward social? The anthropologists lick their lips.
A more formal, much expanded version of this stuff — complete with crazy Akkadian words — is being submitted to a volume on Mormon perspectives on ritual.
1. Meditations on Mormon food include Linda Hoffman Kimball (ed.), Saints Well Seasoned (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), and James Hill and Richard Popp, “Toward a Mormon Cuisine,” Sunstone, May 1988, 33-35.
A somewhat related topic are the food and feasting metaphors contained in Mormon scripture. See Richard Rust, “Taste and Feast: Images of eating and Drinking in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 33/4 (1993), 743-752.
2. See Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard, “Mealtime, Family Time,” Ensign, Sept. 1998, 22. President Ezra Taft Benson said, “mealtime provides a wonderful time to review the activities of the day and to not only feed the body, but to feed the spirit as well, with members of the family taking turns reading the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon” (“Strengthening the Family,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, 51).
3. In 1973, the youth of the church were shown how they can even reverently eat as Joseph Smith ate (Mary K. Stout, “From a Nauvoo Pantry,” New Era, Dec. 1973, 42). Recipes include potato pancakes and rusk.