Review: Consuming My Religion: Holy Food, by Christina Ward

No matter how busy they were creating the universe, some gods always found time to lay down the law on what their worshippers should eat. Diets and deities have a long history. Whether it’s the laws of kashrut detailing what Jews can and cannot eat; fasting through Ramadan; or Christians politely asking God for their daily bread, food (or the lack thereof) has always heavily figured into religion. And not just in the Abrahamic traditions. It’s hard to find a religion that hasn’t issued several edicts on the proper selection, acquisition, preparation, and consumption of comestibles.

Author Christina Ward ponders food and faith in her new book, Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat: An American History. A mouthful of title that nonetheless encapsulates all the delectable stories and histories sandwiched between its covers. 

The Bill of Rights started the show in 1791, with the opening chords: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Since then the country has seen a never-ending inundation of brand-new faiths and variations on the old ones. Ward focuses on this spiritual boom with an eye toward the inter-relatedness of America’s religions as well as one of the few things all humans can agree on: we gotta eat (breatharianism, notwithstanding). How we eat though is a big difference between denominations.

Ward is the vice president and editor of Feral House, Inc., a publisher never known to shy from the world’s weirdness. Though Holy Food is published by Process Media, Feral House’s sister press, it continues the Feral House tradition of reporting from the cultural and societal borderlands. But while Holy Food covers its share of undeniable kooks, cranks, charlatans, and crackpots, Ward goes beyond simple sensationalism., She expands the book’s parameters to show the influence of more mainstream religions that experienced accusations of heresy and worse during their respective Geneses.

Author Christina Ward

Ward provides a commendable survey of American religious beliefs and Utopianist/commune experiments. From the first colonizers/religious separatists in the New World, to the Anglo-Israelite House of David, to the health restaurant cult of Father Yod and the Source Family, to the litigious Satanic Church, to so many others, Ward provides greater context and insight on America’s panoply of faiths. Far more than most Americans receive in school or the media. Ward reveals how no religion is born in a vacuum, with one sect leading to another as prophets and preachers schism and cross-pollinated with and away from each another. America has never shown greater innovation than in its ability to rebrand and resell anything and everything, including religion. A clichéd as it sounds, despite our differences, we have more in common than those in charge would have us believe.

Ward is an excellent guide to the American religious scene on two fronts, faith and food. For faith, she  provides a nice, non-academic, but well-researched survey of America’s religious movements. While an atheist, Ward is exceedingly fair. Not in the sense of credulously endorsing every self-proclaimed prophet’s claims of conversations with God, angels, or aliens on flying saucers. Rather she gives every group a hearing, summarizing their beliefs according to their literature, and letting their history speak for itself. Writing with clarity and not a hint of camp, she recognizes the peculiar beliefs of many of her subjects without denigrating them. She’s no chump, however. Ward also calls out negative practices like misogyny, racism, abuse, and the like.

Two passages from the book show that she is willing to hear anyone out…

“We must also accept and consider that there may be other voices from the cosmos speaking to Americans.”

Without ditching the possibility of celestial chicanery practiced here on Earth, of course…

“The Tanakh and the Old Testament have similar versions of Jeremiah, Chapter 23, that warn against prophets and believers delivering ‘messages’ from God, as God is perfectly capable of communicating with his believers, thank you very much.”

As for food, Ward’s bonafides are intact. She’s written two other books on the subject and collects faith-based cookbooks. Her hobby provides Holy Food with 75 intriguing faith-based recipes, presented between chapters with titles like “Utopian Dreams,” “The Lost Tribes,” “Hindu, but Make It American,” and others. The recipe sections are a nice touch, with further religious coverage woven in with the ingredients and instructions. We learn, for example, about the connection between the Nation of Islam and the humble navy bean, frequently used in their pies and soups—the former declared surprisingly good by Ward’s recipe testers. 

Unsurprisingly, most of the recipes are vegetarian, reflecting many religious groups’ aversion to violence toward animals and others to the “unhealthiness” of meat. Those seeking Fleisch in their diet can look to the Germanic Amana Colony’s recipe for Schinke Salat (ham salad) or the Swedish Janssonites of Bishop Hill, Illinois’ Swedish meatballs. I imagine most people will be as intrigued as I am to whip up a batch of Ron’s Motherfucker Beans, 1960s revolutionary Dadaist anarcho-collective Black Mask/The Family’s contribution to American cuisine. Ironically, Ward’s testers found the recipe extremely sweet.

1928 Moorish Science Temple Of America Convention in Chicago. Noble Drew Ali is front row, center in white.

For home team fans, the Windy City is well-represented. Ward covers local religious figures and faiths of the last 100 years. People like David Amman and Otoman Zar-Adusht Ha’nish (born Ernst Otto Haenisch) who founded the Zoroastrianism-inspired religion of Mazdaznanism and a temple on Lake Park Avenue in the 1910s. Mazdaznan followers practiced breathing exercises and ate a vegetarian diet wherein specific foods could only be consumed at specific times of the year. Down on the South Side, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community built the Al-Sadiq Mosque at 4448 South Wabash, which remains the oldest mosque in America. Ward provides an especially thorough and interesting account of Chicago’s Moorish Science Temple of America, established by the mysterious Noble Drew Ali in 1925. It’s worth noting that Ward provides a thorough accounting of Black religious movements in the United States in Holy Food—a history woefully overlooked elsewhere.

“My intention when I began Holy Food was to show how food and religion are intertwined into American history and our everyday lives,” says Ward in her concluding chapter. Does she succeed? Yes, and deliciously.

Holy Food is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.