Writer, publisher and food historian Christina Ward’s latest book, “Holy Food: How Cults, Communes and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat – An American History,” masterfully intersects religion and food while heavily intertwining history, psychology, recipes and her own wise, non-denominational perspective.
The 368-page book, which is set for release on Sept. 26, 2023, is a massive undertaking, one Ward took many years to write and research.
“There is a joke about non-fiction writing that every sentence that appears on the page requires at least two hours of research,” says Ward, who is also the vice president of Feral House publishing. “I spent five years actively researching and writing Holy Food, but many more years thinking about the convergence of food and religion.”
OnMilwaukee: What inspired you to write about this subject?
I grew up in a “divided” household. My mother was the typical performance-only Catholic and my dad was a thoughtful agnostic who read widely about the world and the innumerable ways we are human. I was also made to attend Catholic grade school from K5 through 3rd grade where I became keenly aware of the disconnects and hypocrisy of what was taught and the teachers. It didn’t help that my dad told us stories of a gentler, less punitive, and introspective spirituality. When my father refused to convert to Catholicism, Immaculate Conception tossed us out.
Christina Ward: Being a weird kid who always asked “why” fueled my interest in how people were the same yet different. Religious beliefs and the foods we eat always stood out to me as signifiers of tribal affiliation. And that too is fascinating…the constant sorting of ourselves into smaller groups of homogeneity. It is more than navel-gazing, as I found and still find it endlessly interesting to uncover why people choose to follow prescribed diets based not on science or their body’s physical needs but on interpretations of thousand-year-old texts.
You are a self-described atheist, yet you clearly find religion fascinating. Expound on your relationship with religion. What about religion is so fascinating to you – but yet nothing you want to personally practice?
The fascination comes from recognizing the previously mentioned disconnect between what people do and what they say. I find the cognitive dissonance of that incredibly interesting. There’s the old joke about whooping it up at the bar on Saturday night and sitting in a pew on Sunday morning. I saw—and still see—so much hypocrisy by people who profess faith that I instinctually knew that god is a concept created by man. Yet, knowing that, I am intrigued by anyone who has that kind of faith in an abstract concept that cannot be scientifically proven. And yes, I know, people claim miracles and other evidence of god, but anomalies are not holy works.
Many people embrace faith for the community aspect. There is a homogenizing and comfortable sense of belonging when people gather for a shared purpose. Religion at its most benign can aid and comfort people experiencing struggles. Religion at its best can help shift cultural positions for the greater good of the community.
Yet too many believers and their leaders—who bear larger blame—have twisted their community and organizing principles of their religion to become a cudgel with which to oppress. It is a fatal flaw: to believe that YOUR version of god and how to “be spiritual” is the ONLY acceptable method and should be imposed on everyone else. Your god may be a jealous god, but that’s between you and Holy Ghost. Modern American religions, especially the thousands of Protestant sects active today, have used their beliefs to force change in our laws and causes more harm to civilization than can be enumerated.
Many of the recipes in the book came from your collection of cookbooks. How large is your collection? What do you love about cookbooks?
Cookbooks, when read with an eye towards history, can reveal so much about our culture. And when considering women’s history, so much of women’s experiences, attitudes, and societal boundaries are revealed in cookbooks. They are an under-utilized primary source of important history. Is this my justification for owning nearly 500 cookbooks? Probably!
You tested every recipe with help from chefs and casual cooks. How did the testing recipes process work?
As to the group testing process, I started in February of 2020, at the start of the pandemic. People were home, unsure of what would happen in the coming months, and cooking projects provided a welcome distraction for many. I used social media to recruit volunteers and assigned them recipes based on their preferences. I really needed folks to test the meat and fish recipes because I’m a vegetarian and couldn’t test them myself!
The tester comments were so useful and often funny. My eternal regret was that I couldn’t find a way to include my friend and chef-owner of Semolina Petra Orlowski’s comment about the Mormon Deviled Egg Casserole: she said that it was the “whitest” food she had ever cooked and that it was what the January 6th insurrections ate before they rioted!
This struck me: You wrote about "death cakes" being a prevalent part of funerals in certain cultures centuries ago, and even though we don't eat "death cake" at funerals these days, it remains customary to eat food with family, friends, coworkers etc. after funerals. Why do Americans have such a hard time/refuse to draw lines from "weird" practices of the past to contemporary mainstream life? (It reminds me of how Christian holidays are all based on Pagan holidays, but so many Christians don't know or believe that.)
I’m so glad you caught that! I think my entire body of work is informed by the basic questions: Why do we do/say/behave this way? How did this ‘thing’ come about? Despite many who believe in “the Virgin birth,” everything has an origin story. Everything comes from something. In my view, one of the modern disasters that was a consequence of religiously dominated politics, is the decimation of public education.
Schools used to be well-funded and taught important topics like History, Civics, and if I remember correctly from about fourth grade, what advertising and persuasive speech is. No more. Without knowing our history and developing contextual discernment skills, we lose context and understanding of how things came to be. I promise, I’m getting to the actual question!
The less we know about our factual and cultural past, the easier it is for bad actors to co-op traditions and assign new meaning to them. You point out the suppression of pagan belief systems by Catholicism. Yet it happens in the non-secular world too often as well. The Indian Boarding School system of the US of the recent past actively worked with Christian churches to remove native people from their elders who held the knowledge of the community and their mother language to ensure native people were severed from their past. I’m giving the most horrific examples of the practice of cultural erasure, yet it applies in a smaller way to our other cultural practices.
Death cakes and funeral feasts have a rich history rooted in specific beliefs and practices that have been forgotten. My work in documenting these traditions is my way to keep these notions relevant for people. It’s also why I write for general readers and not academic audiences. I want a kid who’s just attended their first family funeral to ask one of the elders why we gather at the Pulaski Inn for lunch after the burial. Or why friends send deli trays to grieving families sitting shiva. Or why Muslim families rely on their community to bring them meals during the initial days of the proscribed mourning period. All these traditions have religious significance that many have forgotten. We participate in these rituals without understanding why we’re doing it. I want everyone to understand and respect the Why.
I also think that the more we understand about spiritual beliefs and religious traditions, the less likely we are to fall prey to those who use religion as a weapon of oppression.
You wrote “We feel nostalgia for the food of our childhood without understanding what brought those recipes to the table.” What are your nostalgia foods and why?
I do have nostalgia foods. What makes them nostalgic is never the food itself but the memories that were formed during making or eating the food. Whenever I feel sickish, the only thing I ‘can’ eat is buttered shell pasta…like my dad made for us as children. Corn on the cob takes me back to my grandmother’s farm with a passel of cousins working hard and running wild. I’ve got a few negative nostalgia foods too. I choked on a Nacho Cheese Dorito when I was quite young and just the smell of them all these years later makes me gag!
What do you hope readers get from this book?
Firstly, I grateful to everyone and anyone who takes time out of their busy lives to read Holy Food! I’m agnostic about what I want people to “get.” If one reader has an “aha” moment about a food from their childhood or makes Dough Gods or is reminded about their own cultural food history, then I am wholly satisfied.
My secret hope is that readers will truly absorb the beauty of the First Amendment. Those words and the concept have made us the country we are—good or bad. Because within the First Amendment is the secret to the sauce of what makes us American: Your god can tell YOU what to do, eat, believe, and say, but your god cannot tell ME what to do, eat, believe, and say. To impose one’s religiously informed beliefs on anyone else is profoundly un-American.
Christina Ward will embark on a book tour from Brooklyn to L.A. with stops in Milwaukee on Sept. 29 at Boswell Book Co. (6 p.m.); Oct. 21 at the Good Hope Branch Public Library (2 p.m.); and Oct. 22 at Lion’s Tooth Books (2 p.m.).
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.