Food and Faith

From Patagonia to St. David, from pizza joints to cloistered monasteries, Baja Arizona cooks are bringing communities together for a plate of food—and a side of faith.

September 5, 2015

ArtisanIssue 14: September/October 2015

The work of growing, preparing, and sharing food has been inextricably linked to the exercise of faith and acts of religious service since the first stirrings of civilization. Food rules and rituals abound in most major religions, helping to define the beliefs within each community. In southeastern Arizona, evidence of the power of the relationship of food and faith is clearly seen throughout the secular and religious landscape.

Ecuador-born Cecilia San Miguel, the owner and chef of the Velvet Elvis Pizza Company in Patagonia, says, “When I’m cooking, I’m praying.” She prepares fresh, healthful meals and serves them in a dining room festooned with icons of the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as the actual portrait, on velvet, of Elvis Presley. San Miguel does not admit to being religious, but is a person of faith, with deeply held beliefs based on her cross-cultural experience with shamans, priests, and healers.

Her business reflects her beliefs: the purity of ingredients, the community table where strangers may meet over a meal, the quietly comfortable service. It is a caring, mindful experience. You can order, eat, and run, but most guests linger. It is a place for sharing a sense of community, even for those visitors just passing through.

Food as a tool for defining a community is clearly expressed at the monthly community buffet served by the Buddhist monks at Tucson’s Wat Buddhametta temple and meditation center. As many as 200 local non-Buddhists enjoy the hospitality of the monks each month at a buffet supper of Thai food prepared by the monks and their “mothers” from the community. This is an inversion of the usual relationship in which the monks rely on the community to sustain them in their lives of prayer and contemplation. Donations from guests help the monastery to pay its bills and continue charitable works.

“When I am eating, I am meditating,” says AjahnSarayut Arnata at Tucson’s Wat Buddhametta temple and meditation center.

“When I am eating, I am meditating,” says AjahnSarayut Arnata at Tucson’s Wat Buddhametta temple and meditation center.

Because Buddhist monks rely on their community for their sustenance, the dietary restrictions on monks are open-textured and practical, says AjahnSarayut Arnata, abbot of the Wat Buddhametta. “Your life depends on the community. You eat what you are given,” he says. “If there is meat in the bowl, that is your meal.”

The daily meals of the monks, taken in silence, end with an afternoon luncheon, an act of moderation that puts less of a burden on the community that sustains them. The meal is taken slowly, the abbot says, to aid digestion. “When I am eating, I am meditating.”

Abstention from certain foods and periods of fasting as a path toward the sacred are commonplace in some religions, but not in Buddhism. “Fasting is not required,” the abbot says. “Buddha says it is not the middle path. He tried it, he says, and it doesn’t work. The mind is not at peace when you are hungry.”

Fasting, however, is a part of religious practice at the Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, near the San Pedro River in Cochise County. Father Henri, the French-born abbot of the monastery, explains that fasting is an important element of Benedictine spirituality, following the scriptural model of Christ in the desert. He links the physical and the spiritual, saying that an empty stomach also “empties the mind, so that it can be filled with the word of God.”

Meals at the monastery are quiet, with food served and eaten in silence while a designated reader offers a text to illuminate the spirit. “The church and the dining room are the same,” Father Henri says. “In church we break bread through the Eucharist, and that flows over into the dining room where we break bread together. At the meal we take nourishment for our bodies from the food, and spiritual nourishment from the readings.”

Bread is an important part of the economic life of the monastery. The bakery at Holy Trinity produces Benedictine bread for sale. The round, crusty loaves are baked using whole grains and whole wheat flour, with raisins and other dried fruits and pecans mixed in.

The pecans used in the bakery come from a mature orchard of nut trees along the roadway at the front of the monastery grounds. More than a ton of nuts are harvested in midwinter, some put aside for the bakery, and some packaged for sale in the monastery visitor center.

Father Henri combines the literal and the symbolic in describing how important the sharing of a meal is within the Benedictine order. “The central idea of the sacrament of Holy Communion,” he says, “is that Christ became bread.”

That fundamental tenet of Christian faith, linking spiritual and physical food in celebration of the sacred, is both the belief and the business of Santa Rita Abbey near Sonoita. The bakery at Santa Rita Abbey produces thousands of pounds of altar breads used in the celebration of Mass in hundreds of churches across the country.

“There is something holy about working in a kitchen,” says Sister Victoria.

“There is something holy about working in a kitchen,” says Sister Victoria.

Santa Rita Abbey is the cloistered hilltop home to Cistercian nuns, led by Sister Victoria, who pioneered the establishment of the bakery as a way to sustain their monastic lives. The Cistercian order, like the Benedictines at Holy Trinity, follows the Rule of Saint Benedict, but with a somewhat stricter interpretation of its requirements for quiet solitude and a simple, balanced life of work and prayer.

Sister Victoria speaks animatedly about the deep beliefs of her way of life, and the simple pleasures of preparing food as part of her service to others. “There is something holy about working in a kitchen,” she says. “A little thing like peeling carrots frees your mind to be with God.”

When the abbey started making altar bread 15 years ago, everything was done by hand. It was a matter of learning by doing. They found a convent in Canada that was producing altar breads. That led them to France, where Sister Victoria found a company that made bakery equipment specifically for producing the wafers. Today, many technical elements of the process are managed by computers.

The altar breads have only two ingredients, whole wheat flour and well water, so temperature, timing, and humidity are critical to producing a well-founded wafer. The Santa Rita version is a little darker in color and more substantial than what other bakeries offer, in order to make them more like bread, more directly evocative of their symbolic meaning.

Limiting their workday to only five hours to balance their lives in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict, the sisters still produce more than 13 million wafers per year.

Sister Victoria can cite chapter and verse on the meaning of the sacramental wafers, but beyond that, she points out that food is important throughout the New Testament. “Jesus talks about food all the time. When he restores life to the little 12-year-old girl [in Mark 5:22-43], what does he tell her family? He doesn’t say ‘go pray.’ He says, ‘Give her something to eat.’”

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