Taste & See - Wilderness Food
4 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’
7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its colour was like the colour of gum resin. 8The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.
4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
When our family spent a few years living on the family farm, we had a handful of chickens that we kept in the yard. They were sweet and followed us around like dogs, and it was nice for our toddler daughter to have a part of farm life that she could contribute to – loving on them and feeding them was easy and accessible for a small child. When they grew old enough, they began laying eggs and we would get about an egg from each one each day. Yard eggs are so much more delicious than most of what you find in a grocery store. These egg yolks were bright yellow and that’s the good stuff that makes them actually have flavor! I suddenly began to love eggs because for once they actually tasted like something! But, even a handful of chickens, laying about an egg a day means you have 4 or 5 eggs a day and around 2.5 dozen eggs per week. That starts to add up. I was looking up recipes that would make use of our egg abundance – custards and casseroles and omelettes…clearly I have not forgotten these skills. But after awhile, even those rich delicious eggs I’d loved…began to feel exhausting. After a year or two like this, I honestly didn’t like eggs much anymore. Please, anything but nutritional, rich in vitamins and proteins, incredible edible eggs again. Please.
Eventually, our flock dwindled and our lives would bring us back home to Houston. Eventually, I found myself craving bacon and eggs every now and then. But now, I’d just have to buy them from the store. Except now, I began to dislike eggs for a whole new reason. Now that I knew how yummy an egg could really be, when a chicken was happy and healthy, the grocery-store eggs tasted like bland imitations. Now I longed for the days that drove me nuts in the past, when I had more backyard bounty than I knew what to do with. So now, we’re trying to find a balance. Now we have a handful of chickens at home in the city. And we’re trying to manage their bounty better than we did before – giving more away to neighbors or family and letting our growing daughter make a little extra money by selling the eggs to friends.
It’s fascinating to me how time affects our memory and our perspective. Now that the Israelites are out on their own in the wilderness, they think back on the food they had in the empire of Egypt with longing – meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. It honestly sounds amazing, especially when compared to simple grains day after day. Time and again, they grumble and lament their situation, complaining to Moses, impatient and sure that they will die out here and that it would have been better stay in Egypt, even if they were slaves. Somehow, at a distance, the cost of a life of slavery seems less than any other. I doubt that they have forgotten or romanticized the pain and death that goes hand and hand with empire – a system of power and comfort for some which can only exist through exploited labor. And yet, at least in some twisted way it seems safer, easier – because at least there we know the system, we know the danger. Our brain may convince us that we are exercising educated choice, instead of recognizing how the abuse of empire has conditioned us to believe we need it to survive. As human beings, we will pick certainty over freedom every time. You can take the people out of Egypt, but it takes much longer to take the Egypt out of the people.
In the wilderness, the food may be different, but it is always enough. In fact it is often more than enough, so that God must tell the people to only take enough for what they need each day. In the wilderness, the people must come to realize they are no longer subject to a system that insists they work endlessly, always moving and making with no time for rest. In the wilderness where the people must learn to trust God and God’s care over the hollow promises of empire, the food does not require exploitative labor or monolith monocultures that pillage the earth’s nutrients. In the wilderness, we relearn that under God’s banner, food is not an exhaustive commodity, but a sustainable practice. That God cares about what we put into our bodies and why.
When I think about how this takes shape in the world around me, I am conscious of places known as food deserts - less affluent neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce if not entirely absent. As a result fresh produce and quality food is not accessible to the poor. Yet somehow, there is always room for a store that carries sugary over-processed items that resemble food - snack cakes, and chips, and syrupy sodas. The capitalist empire still claims that fresh is for the ones we choose, and that some people aren’t worth the trouble because the bottom dollar matters more than people. It says we don’t mind if poor folks get sick with heart disease or diabetes due to poor nutrition, that’s not our problem. This system says that only lives we care about are the ones with money, with power.
But in this world I also see wilderness spaces that are being reclaimed from empire. Several years ago you began to hear about urban foraging where people learn how to live and eat from what grows around them in parks or even . You discover how much there really is to eat all around us. Lots of plants considered weeds are edible and good for salads. There are plentiful pecans and hickory in the fall. There’s a fig tree on a public esplanade just down the road. And then there are folks who plant that front section of their yard closest to the sidewalk with tomatoes and peppers and other fresh foods, so that anyone passing by who needs it, can have some. Communities are organizing to form gardens together in those very same food desserts that the empire has abandoned.
Those ideas might seem extreme for you. Maybe not. But the question of how to faithfully care for creation and one another through our practices with food points us to these questions - Is it sustainable or does it have invisible costs somewhere? Does it connect people or isolate them? Does it extend life or exploit it?
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy delicious food, or that God is satisfied with us merely subsisting on bland bare minimum. Manna wasn’t all the people would eat forever and ever, God was bringing them to a place flowing with sweet milk and rich honey after all….
But sometimes that gourmet meal has a higher cost than we recognize or remember.
The Gospel tells us that God transforms even wilderness food to gourmet delight - the places and items discarded and written off by power and influencers. It’s the Good News of nose to tail cooking, that makes use or entire butched animal, not just the most marketable cuts. I have, like others, have fallen prey to the lie that eating local and seasonal is difficult and expensive. But it really doesn’t have to be. This meal for 40 people cost $45 and every last bite is seasonal and sourced from Canino’s Farmers Market on Airline. It does take a bit more effort – but that effort is primarily just learning what’s in season and spending a little bit more energy thinking of a recipe that would utilize what I have rather than resenting what I don’t. Cooking and eating this way is simply a tradition and a skill we have forgotten. In Houston, there’s a magnificent restaurant called Indigo that doesn’t just rebrand food that would have been staples for slaves and poor black people but makes a transformative statement about stereotypes and soul food through its menu.
Even our food can tell a story of redemption. We reject the abundant mirage of empire and give witness to God and God’s rich abundance and faithfulness and care by honoring what we do have, what God has given us.