Food is one of many factors that distinguishes one culture from another. It has been used for ceremonial purposes, sacrificial rituals, and some food even holds symbolic meaning based on religion. Why do people of the Jewish and Islamic faith choose not to eat pork? Why is wine and alcohol often associated with parties and celebrations? The origin of many of today’s cuisine and dining traditions can be traced back thousands of years, and often have a religious significance.
Religion has influenced people’s food choices and traditions since ancient times, and much of its impact is still prominent in today’s world. In everyday life, it is easy for anyone to take note of religion’s presence in food and different types of cuisine. In grocery stores and supermarkets, foods are often labeled as “Kosher” or “Halal”; and with holidays such as Lent and Ramadan, it is clear that many traditions that began thousands of years ago are still important to people in today’s society. The ban of pork products within the Jewish and Islamic faith, for example, dates back to ancient Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians were known for having a strong dislike– perhaps even fear– of the pig. For this reason, pigs were never depicted in hieroglyphics, even though they were present. Believing that the animals carried parasites and leprosy, it was only Egyptians of the lowest social class who were swine herders, and they were banned from entering any temples or places of worship. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat suggests that is why the pig has become a forbidden food source: That attitude could be at the root of the Jewish and Muslim prohibition of pig meat.
Moses… declared the animal unclean… this taboo slowed down Islamic expansion into China, for the Chinese love pork as much as carp and ducks… Today a certain amount of pig meant eaten in Europe, particularly ham, comes from China. (370) This shows how religion has influenced not only what a certain culture chooses to eat, but also how it has affected trade and migration patterns throughout the world’s development. It is clear that food can hold so much religious significance, that it can even prevent two cultures from integrating with each other, as shown by the lack of Islamic presence in China.
With various religious beliefs, comes various opinions about certain foods. “…Patterns of behavior vary among followers of different religions, resulting from different norms” (Heiman, Just, McWilliams, and Zilberman). An example of clashing viewpoints is the difference between Greek, Muslim, and Chinese opinions about wine. The ancient Greeks are some of history’s greatest lovers of wine. They used wine for celebrations and believed it to be a drink of the gods as it was made by Dionysus, the god of wine. Alternatively, some Muslims forbade wine. This is most likely because of their fear of its effects, and drunkenness was looked down upon.
There was, however, a Muslim mystic by the name of Nabulsi who declared that wine was the drink of divine love. Like Nabulsi, some chose to believe the Chinese proverb that states it is not wine that intoxicates– man is the one who becomes intoxicated, because he is weak (Toussaint-Samat 234). These different views of wine, or alcohol in general, is still evident today as some Muslims choose to drink it while some choose not to. In Christianity, wine is symbolic of the blood of Jesus, and holds significance particularly in the Catholic church for occasions such as communion.
Symbolism, perhaps, is the most obvious connection between food and religion– it is not the food itself that is sacred or significant, but what it stands for. Michel Desjardins explores how food can be a symbol in different religions and cultures: At times, food also function symbolically– for example, when prayer before eating express thanks for divine concern, when the Passover meal commemorates mythic stories, or when the Arabic Muslim and Christian coffee ritual calls on the divine. Other times food is offered directly to deities…(153)
Not only does religion affect what some people eat and do not eat, but also the types of meals that are made, the preparation, and the rituals that are paired with the food. Christian traditions involve praying before partaking in a meal, and Jewish customs call for elaborate feasts that are prepared by traditional methods. Another common use for food is sacrificing or offering certain foods to deities. Buddhists often present rice and or fruits to statues of Buddha– a long-standing religious tradition.
Religion has greatly impacted the culinary world in the past, as well as today. The combination of religion and cuisine has proven to be deeply rooted in the history of mankind and the development of different cultures, as people all over the globe still maintain these traditions. Whether one is partaking in wine during communion, preparing Shabbat dinner, setting food before Buddha, or makes a lifelong decision not to eat pork, religion has an obvious presence in today’s society.
Works Cited Desjardins, Michel. “Teaching about Religion with Food. ” Teaching Theology and Religion. 3rd ed. Vol. 7. Oxford: Blackwell Ltd. , 2004. 153-58. Heiman, Amir, David Just, Bruce McWilliams, and David Zilberman. “Religion, Religiosity, Lifestyles and Food Consumption. ” Ebscohost. Web. <http://www. agecon. ucdavis. edu/extension/update/articles/v8n2_4. pdf>. Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Paris: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.