Where and how does food become a religious issue? I can think of two cases. The first is when we have a relationship with what we eat. The second, when there are purity issues at stake. In his Moral Foundations theory, Jonathan Haidt says that human concepts of purity are shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination, and holds that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by eating something that has been contaminated. While this has not, in my experience, been the case with the Pagans I know, it is common in many other religions.
I’ve found the first case is far more common for Pagans. Ritualizing the harvest of a carefully raised animal is now not uncommon among Heathens. Of the Pagans I know who garden, raise livestock animals, or grow their own food or herbal medicines, every single one has a relationship with the land, and the living beings that thrive there. Such relationships are deeply interactive. Goats are fed and milked. The milk is drunk, and soap is made nourishing humans and creating products that can be gifted or sold. Chickens are fed and housed, their eggs supporting bodies and their antics providing food for the soul. Gardens are carefully planned, mulched, fertilized and the harvest proudly shared, or preserved.
As I write this, Samhain has just passed. I think about my maternal grandfather who left his family in Boston because he was tired of being beaten over a badly recited catechism. He fled north to Maine where he must have helped one of the locals work the fields in exchange for room and board. He was listed on the 1910 census and then dropped off the radar for a while as he traveled around the country doing whatever job came his way. He did stone masonry and lumbering, and worked the railroads, and eventually made it back to Maine where he married my “Old Maid” grandmother. I never knew him, and barely knew her before she developed dementia.
Connecting with them is a challenge. Grandpa is a bit easier because mom was close to him and I have more stories. I like to do things with stone and wood as he did, and I often feel him near me when I am building rough stone walls or doing carpentry. Grandma is tougher. Mom found her critical and doesn’t talk about her much. But I know she cooked. And I know she canned food because some of the jars are still in the basement, 50 years later.
The next principle is eating clean food produced without chemicals, preferably using biodynamic or permaculture standards. Even the average American today understands the concept of “organic,” although the reality is not quite the same. USDA organic certificationis most certainly better than conventional agriculture in terms of spraying fewer nasty chemicals on our food, which adds up to less poison in our air, water and bodies and healthier farm workers.
It does not however, mean that there are zero poisons on the veggies. Organic standards allow for naturally occurring pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to be used. In addition, these standards, in practice, do not do anything about feeding soil fertility, or about the quality of life for livestock.
One of the most important beliefs that Pagans hold is that life is cyclical. We are born, we live, we die, and are re-born. Death is not escapable. No one gets out of here alive. Mortality is part of existence, but all things return. Relationship is another aspect that defines Pagan attitudes about food. For Pagans, deity is immanent in the world. Every rock, every tree, everything that moves and breathes is sacred. Including what we eat. It is very common for Pagans to feel a deep kinship with both animals and plants. This creates an ethical dilemma that conflicts with the natural cycles of life and death, and is not easy to solve. How does one eat one’s brother? Industrial farming is repugnant to anyone who takes the time to look. But even more so to a Pagan who claims kinship to all living things.
Veganism –the practice of eating no animal products at all - has been one solution to the relationship problem, although, as with the general population, vegetarianism – not eating animal flesh, but consuming dairy and eggs - is more common. For physiological reasons, veganism is extremely difficult to maintain, and generally requires far more asceticism than is generally acceptable in Paganism. Vegan Pagans don’t get much sympathy in a religion where enjoying one’s food can include exclaiming over bacon and groaning over a chocolate confection. Although most Pagans still eat a standard American diet, vegetarianism is common. I have yet to go to a Pagan event that did not have some sort of vegetarian option for food.
The first principle of Pagan kosher is eating locally. Local is a scale of distance. It might be the chickens in your backyard, or on your roof if you live in a city. It might be the milk you buy from the farmer in the next town, the grain from the next county, or the potatoes from the next state over. This both cuts down on the use of fuel needed to transport food and honors the place where we live. We live in a highly mobile society and, as Pagans, it can be hard to connect with a local landscape. We often use meditation as a way to make that connection, and while that is a valid approach, knowing what lives near your home that can feed you is far more visceral.
Jews may avoid shellfish and pork, and Hindus can pass on the beef. Having food laws in the context of religion is a familiar concept, but why would I suggest such a thing for Paganism? I am not advocating for is a set of hard and fast rules such as never eat walnuts,but a set of guidelines. By Pagan, I mean the family of modern religions that honors the earth and women, and that may use ancient cultures as models for ritual construction and more tribal living. I am borrowing the term “kosher” because it is in common use, and because my husband is Jewish. I acknowledge there is an aspect of cultural appropriation to using a Jewish term when I am not Jewish, but it is my hope that we Pagans will come up with a term of our own. One of my friends suggested "Eating Gaian."