Vanessa OlerComment

The Meal

Vanessa OlerComment
The Meal

My parents used to spend their summer outside Kotzebue, Alaska working on a gold mine. While there are many wild stories often told in our house about that time, the first one I remember is this. It was the end of the season, meaning the ground would soon freeze hard enough to render digging useless. Because the miners struck a particularly strong grain, the Inuit owner of the mine couldn’t attend the yearly caribou hunt. Not only did he miss out on a major tradition, but this meant he could not feed his family through the winter. My dad helped him pack out the last of the miners, gear, and my mom. Then, rifle in hand, turned to Bryan and said, “Let’s go get that caribou.” Bryan was astounded and tried to get my dad to leave on the bush plane headed south. As the plane took off, Bryan had no choice but to accept my dad’s offer.

The two of them took off in the direction of the known caribou migration. After a couple hard days of not seeing even a single track, Bryan offered prayer. A few days later, a single caribou wandered across their path. It had a limp and was clearly straggling behind the heard. Without the herd protection and inability to move faster than the oncoming winter, the caribou would certainly but slowly freeze to death. Bryan and my dad conferred and decided taking the caribou would not only put it out of its misery but also provide enough food for Bryan’s family for the winter. My dad took aim and shot the caribou. They would have to field dress and quarter the caribou in order to carry it back to town on their backs. They approached, my dad with his skinning knife at the ready. Bryan stopped to kneel at the animal’s side. He took specific and sacred parts of the animal, mixed them with melted snow in a rough-hewn wooden bowl carried in his pack. My dad asked what Bryan was doing and he explained: “This animal has willingly given his life to feed my family. I must thank him for his gift. Without killing him I would have killed my family.” My dad dropped to his knees and the two offered the traditional prayer, drank and ate the sacred mixture, and then asked the animal for forgiveness before setting about dressing it.

There are, obviously, many layers to unpack in this story and especially of the first time I heard it. Right here and now, I want to focus on that bowl: a vessel for a meal. Rudimentary and raw, but a meal nonetheless.

I remember the first time I differentiated between food and a meal. I was 13 and complaining that I’d be late to Mutual (I’m sure at the root of this complaint was a cute boy) because he was taking too long to eat family dinner. I made the mistake of asking, “why do we even have to eat dinner as a family anyway?” He set down his fork and walked upstairs. I knew I had it coming! He returned with a VHS and calmly stated: “Once you’ve watched that, you can go to Mutual.”  I rolled my eyes, but I wasn’t a total idiot. I ran to the TV and popped it in. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it was only 20 some-odd minutes long.

Some folksy flute music plays and a quote appears onscreen:

“I make functional pots that are part of a ritual. By ritual I don’t mean some complicated trendy concept, but the simplest one, that of eating. The pot is literally the umbilical cord that brings our food from the Earth. When we sit down at the table to eat, we commune with the Earth. – Joseph Bennion”

I paused. “Wait, isn’t that the guy who made all our pottery?”

Dad: “Yup. Keep watching.”

Toward the end, Joe’s voice can be heard over a scene in his kitchen, where Lee is preparing a family dinner and pulling all kind of pots out of the cupboard to set table with: “I like to think of the home as being an important temple. A place where art and spirituality and these things come together. There’s more of a connection.”

Dad: “Now, why do you think we have family dinner?”

Me: “…. Because through family dinner we make our house sacred? Into a home?”

Dad: “Yes ma’am.”

Our conversation continued long into the night, completely arresting my attention away from the boy at Mutual. The question at heart: what is it about meals that place them so naturally at the center of nearly every holy day, sacred act, and religious tradition across time and geography? Even in non-religious spheres, why are so many of our social interactions in orbit around the food plate?

BILL MOYERS: Your friend Jung, the great psychologist, says that the most powerful religious symbol is the circle. He says, “The circle is one of the great primordial images of mankind, that in considering the symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self.” And I find you, in your own work throughout the course of your life, coming across the circle, whether it’s in the magical designs of the world over, whether it’s in the architecture both ancient and modern, whether it’s in the dome-shaped temples of India or the calendar stones of the Aztecs, or the ancient Chinese bronze shields, or the visions of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, whom you talk about, the wheel in the sky. You keep coming across this image.
 
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, it’s an ever-present thing. It’s the center from which you’ve come, back to which you go. I remember reading in a book about the American Indians, called The Indian Book, by Natalie Curtis, it was published around 1904, her conversation with a chief. I think it was a chief of the Pawnee tribe. And among the things he said was, “When we pitch camp, we pitch the camp in a circle. When we looked at the horizon, the horizon was in a circle. When the eagle builds a nest, the nest is in circle.” And then you read in Plato somewhere, the soul is a circle. I suppose the circle represents totality. Within the circle is one thing, it is encircled, it’s enframed. That would be the spatial aspect, but the temporal aspect of the circle is, you leave, go somewhere and come back, the alpha and omega. God is the alpha and omega, the source and the end. Somehow the circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space.
 
BILL MOYERS: No beginning, no end.
 
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, round and round and round. The year, well, this is November again, you know, and we’re about to have Thanksgiving again. We’re about to have Christmas again. And then not only the year, but the month, the moon cycle, and the day cycle. And this is we’re reminded of this when we look on our watch and see the cycle of time, it’s the same hour, the same hour but another day, and all that sort of thing.
 
BILL MOYERS: Why do you suppose the circle became so universally symbolic?
 
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, because it’s experienced all the time. You experience it in the day and the year, just as we’ve said, and you experience in leaving home, going on your adventure, hunting or whatever it may be, and coming back to home. And then there’s a deeper one also, that mystery of the womb and the tomb. When people are buried it’s for rebirth, I mean, that’s the origin of the burial idea, you’re put back into the womb of Mother Earth for rebirth.

If we bring Campbell's thoughts out of the Ether and plant them firmly on the ground in front of us, we see even FLOTUS Michelle Obama ditched the pyramid (a religious symbol we'll save for another day!) in favor of the circle. She understood the utility of the circle in conveying a greater message when it came to changing imagery of how Americans eat:

ChooseMyPlate

Intuitively, Mrs. Obama and the myriads of bureaucrats involved in the design of the new guidelines tapped into the meal as a marker of immediate time -- breakfast, lunch, dinner -- and its simultaneous ability to connect each individual to the greater whole -- a healthy, progressive society. Even a child can understand this, she said, because it gives them an ideal pattern for something they look at every day. And together, one meal at a time, we can improve the entire fabric of American life. Perhaps what she (they?) didn't realize is the direct correlation to  a uniquely ancient American symbol

A circle divided into four quadrants represented the power of Earth on this continent long before Colonists and their obesity arrived. As noted above, the Solar Cross includes all the elements required to make a meal: air, water, earth to grow and harvest food, fire to process it for human consumption, the totality of which is taken up in the Solar Cross itself signifying this is the same process no matter in which direction you happen to travel. Hundreds of years later, we are ostensibly a secular society or at least a largely "C&E" one which opted out of high holy days, symbolic cave paintings, and ritualized meals. Yet here we are, returning to this powerful symbol to represent healthy eating, to tie us back to something we’ve subconsciously known forever. Jung would be proud! 

The question driving this conversation forward must then be: if we're deriving meaning subconsciously from circular plates and bowls, regular meals, four types of food "enframed" by said plate or bowl... how much more meaning could we glean from eating if we consciously invoked the symbolism of the circle? Could we transcend "healthy eating" into a truly healthy holistic living?