As I walked into the room (late due to a rather erroneous website) it was immediately apparent that this was not a normal conference. I had agreed to talk at ‘Thought for Food: the ethics of eating: a colloquium at Blackfriars’ at short notice, despite it taking place the morning after a week’s holiday. And despite it being nothing to do with hedgehogs. And despite it being quite some time since I have talked on this sort of subject.
But I enjoy a challenge and had prepared my 20 minute contribution to the conference … which was not a conference but a colloquium (an academic seminar). So, the reason why it was so different? Five monks in white habits and a nun too, along with 20 or so others, sat around a square of tables. Talking was Professor Angel Mendez – and as I gathered the programme for the day, I found his subject was ‘Sharing in the divine edible gift: becoming nourishment’. Rather different to my diatribe against industrial meat production and call for eco-nutrition.
Angel – what a name for a man in a habit – was talking about eros – desire – and how this can overtake us when we are considering food. But the bit that really stuck in my mind was his statement that ‘the abundance of food was an indication of the generosity of god’. Now I am sure you can see the flaw in this argument and at the end, when no one else was asking questions, I decided, that despite the august and obviously devoted audience, it was time to ask something pertinent.
‘If the abundance of food is an indication of the generosity of god, what does the absence of food indicate?’ Angel rambled on about the fact that there is more to life than just food – and left me needing to comment that surely it is indicative that god is obviously as spiteful as he is generous. I think that fairly clearly set me apart from everyone else in the room. And freed me up to ask whatever I wanted – which, in the case of the crumbs, was one of the most remarkable revelations I have ever had.
The conversation had moved on to the delight of making bread, and how at the eucharist it is a very special event when the bread consumed is local. But then came the problem of the crumbs. A simple wafer leaves no mess, but a small chunk of homemade bread risks shedding a few crumbs. And this lead to letters to Rome to try and work out what to do with the crumbs. Apparently my jaw hitting the table drew attention and someone decided I might need some of the back-story. The crumbs are not crumbs of bread after the bread has been blessed. They are fragments of christ and apparently it is not the done thing to hoover up christ. In retrospect my question, ‘is there not a time when you just want to say ‘get a grip’ to people like this’ was ill-placed, as it became obvious that there were many people ‘like this’ in the room!
By the time it was my turn to talk, I decided that I should just go for it and hope for the best, moving my assault on from fundamentalist religion to the industrial production of meat. And I actually rather enjoyed myself. There was one monk who was sitting in his medieval robes with frayed black jeans and hush-puppies sticking out under the table – checking his mail on his i-Phone. And the older, grey-bearded monk who had been working for many years in the West Indies, describing the delight of receiving best quality Trinidadian grass for his very English pipe, so better to enjoy the carnival!
And the hedgehog connection? While my powerpoint presentation was being sorted out by the IT monk, I took the opportunity to plug my book to the rather bemused audience and explained that there was a food connection, as it contains a recipe for hedgehog spaghetti carbonara. This focussed much of the tea-time conversations!
It was strange to be among religious fundamentalists in the UK – but also fun and challenging. All power to weirdness I say, as long as people do not thrust their weirdness on me (and they get a grip about the crumbs!)