When I was five, I fell in love with the poetically named Wendy Woodcock. We played outside constantly, but I didn’t really like going inside her house. Everywhere you looked, there was a huge cross draped with a dead Jesus. I had no idea who Jesus was and, to this day, I cannot imagine growing up with a tortured corpse watching your every move.
There was nonetheless a singular, truly awesome incentive to face my fears and follow Wendy inside. She had an Easy-Bake Oven! Our snack was always the same — heated-up pieces of Sunbeam bread. Wendy called it “Bread of My Body” and served it with Kool-Aid. With very little exposure to religion, I didn’t realize for years that I’d been regularly consuming the flesh of Jesus, topped with peanut butter and jelly.
“Perfect! Eating inevitably brings up the spiritual. That’s why communion is the most sacred ritual of Christianity,” my friend Daryl White, an anthropologist specializing in both food and religion studies at Spelman College, remarked after I told him the story. You chew and swallow, you evoke the mystery of transformation — taking something into the body and converting it into something else. This mystery, what it means to be human, lurks behind all eating whether conscious or not.
“And, besides,” Daryl cracked, “southern cooking is like baptism – total immersion in oil.”
Buddhism offers a technique – mindfulness — by which we can explore the mystery of immediate experience, including eating. It’s something Bill Addison, dining critic for Atlanta Magazine, knows a great deal about.
“Before I became a food writer, I studied with Natalie Goldberg, author of ‘Writing Down The Bones’ and a longtime Zen Buddhist,” he told me. “During one retreat, Natalie threw out an in-class writing topic: ‘Tell us about a meal you love.’ Everyone’s writing suddenly became so detailed and full of life. Natalie laughed and said, ‘Eating may be the only time in our lives when we’re really awake.’
“That idea has never left me,” Bill said. “Eating engages all of our senses and brings us to the moment, which, for a Buddhist, is what spirituality is about. Not good, not bad: simply the crunch of a radish and its peppery taste.”
So where can you find enlightenment on a plate? It needs to be a place where the chef is bringing the same mindfulness to his cooking that diners bring to eating. Bill, like me, raves in this respect about the mainly-vegetarian David Sweeney, owner of the defunct Dynamic Dish. He is now offering a pop-up menu Wednesday nights at The Sound Table.
“I feel the loving intention behind his food,” Bill said. “He’s practical and matter-of-fact about cooking: It’s not magic, it’s good ingredients sourced locally from hard-working farmers and prepared with care.”
Others do much the same. Here are a few recommendations
The Sound Table. David Sweeney’s menu is offered Wednesdays, starting at 5:30 p.m. Combined with the always-fantastic music, you are going to get very, very high on life. 483 Edgewood Ave., 404-835-2534, www.thesoundtable.com.
Miller Union. I’m sure you remember that scene in “Gone with the Wind” when a starving Scarlett O’Hara yanks a root vegetable from the ground, takes a bite, gags and proclaims, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Well, if Steven Satterfield, a brilliant Southern chef, had been there to prepare the radish, turnip or whatever the hell it was, Scarlett would have had a more amiable spiritual moment. 999 Brady Ave., 678-733-8550, www.millerunion.com.
Sufi’s. This restaurant’s name refers to Sufism, a relatively esoteric branch of Islam best known in the West for the (arguably) gay 13th-century poet Rumi (who inspired creation of the Whirling Dervishes). Sufism is all about beauty and the spirit. If you order the fesensjoon, a stew of pomegranate and ground walnuts with chicken, your brain will whirl and you will go to heaven real quick. 1814 Peachtree St., 404-888-9699, www.sufisatlanta.com.
Lips. In many indigenous cultures, people who transgress normative gender roles have been accorded priestly roles (like the berdache of Native Americans). So, go get yourself healed at Lips’ Sunday gospel brunch. Seating is 12:30-1 p.m. for a meal and a show. It won’t exactly encourage mindfulness, but I’m sure some queen will tell you to “get off the cross because we need the wood for a fire.” 3011 Buford Hwy., 404-315-7711, www.lipsatl.com.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, conducts workshops in various subjects, including gay aging and the psychology of taste.