Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology by Jennifer R. Ayres. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013. 233 p. $46.13 (Hardcover).
This morally robust yet concise volume comprises a series of primers on the global and American food systems and explications of the theological and ethical implications of the incommensurateness in the economics and policies of the American food system in a style of Liberation Theology. It is grounded in a clear-eyed yet hopeful down-to-earth ethnography and present-day accounts of church-supported initiatives in sustainable, imaginative urban farming (to fulfill the imperative of ‘food sovereignty’) and transnational food justice. Ayres chose that her grounded practical theology would centre mainly on the complex and ironic tension between food and economic security, on the one hand, and sustainable agriculture on the other. (Ayres, xii) Introducing this magnum opus are the contingencies of a single tomato as illustrative of the tangled nature of food politics as a whole, and the metaphysical notion of the Lord’s Table is introduced thereafter. Part I begins with an investigative journalistic approach, citing Michael Pollan (in the New York Times Magazine in addition to his books and allied films) to bring home to the reader the popularity of food issues and their economic, moral, and political impacts, and to discuss how this seemingly never-ending Zeitgeist of corporately consolidated industrial agriculture came to be in the United States.
I shall now succinctly encapsulate a key flashpoint in Ayres’ monograph, and tie that back to a certain chapter (Desjardins) in the previously reviewed anthology. Chapter Six (Transformative Travel: Education, Encountering the Other, and Political Advocacy) delves into the transnational impacts of neoliberal, supply-side economic policies of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), specifically on Mexico and its culinary traditions and culture. An answer of solidarity to this problem is the Chicago Religious Leadership Network for Latin America (CRLN)’s consciousness-raising program of Encuentros (pp. 119, 122-129), a most grounded aspect of the directive of transnational food justice. This “Tortillas and Trade” quest is then hermeneutically explained in terms of the dialectics of radical hospitality. This has parallels with the inter-denominational and interfaith food bank endeavours that the Desjardins describe in their “The Role of Food in Canadian Expressions of Christianity” anthology chapter. (Desjardins, 77)
In the appraisal within and between these academic works, various thematic parallels can be observed by the reader, which encompass arguments of historical meaning relevant to religious studies. Cross-references of various analytical points between authors is very common in the constituent essays of Edible Histories, Cultural Politics, particularly but not exclusively of those within the same thematic section. The creation or re-articulation of ethnic and politically germane identities through recipes and other food-related discourses is an exemplary thematic parallel between Eidinger’s essay and Iacovetta’s texts (in the anthology and in Gatekeepers). Identities of political significance and community-building are also forged in Ayres’ Good Food, throughout the entire ethnographic portion of the narrative (mainly Part II). These books are thus more apt to be viewed in a comparative approach than one might think.