Milwaukee food historian and author Christina Ward’s new book, Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat – An American History, is a culmination of five years of researching American spirituality and food. The book releases Sept. 26 and explores visions of utopias, great awakenings and the influence they’ve had on food culture.
Despite being an atheist, Ward says that “religion and food have been the prevailing obsessions of my life. I genuinely want to understand why and what people believe and how those beliefs impact our lives.”
Ward says that like many Gen Xers, her interest in cults developed from “over-the-top dramas” on TV, where innocent characters were nearly abducted by a cult. She also saw the Jonestown massacre unfold on the news.
“Hippies were still walking the streets barefoot; even near my grandmother’s primitive farm in Jackson County were back-to-the-landers building geodesic domes for their family commune farm,” Ward says of her growing fascination. “My books all start with the same premise: ‘But wait! There’s a story of how and why something is the way it is … and I want to tell you that story.’”
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Each chapter of Holy Food discusses the history of various religious food rules on what can go into your mouth and when. The book serves as a guide of religious development in this country, including different branches of Christianity, Islam and “Hindu, But Make It American,” as one chapter is titled. Lesser-known religious sects are also featured, as well as secular movements such as hippie and feminist communes and New Age spiritual movements such as the One World Family. Historic photos and documents round out context.
What makes Holy Food a unique reading experience is the collection of recipes – over 75 of them – found at the end of each chapter and adapted from Ward’s extensive collection of religious-themed cookbooks.
“Most book collectors have focus areas or other self-imposed limiters on what they collect lest we become hoarders,” Ward says. “One of my focus areas is cookbooks – specifically, weird cookbooks. Back on the farm, I found a trove of old Theosophist books that my grandfather had bought in the 1910s, including a Rosicrucian cookbook. That was the first one, and the collection grew from there.”
Some of the dishes readers can try out include Heavenly Funeral Potatoes, a recipe from the Mormons; pierogies as made by the Rajneesh Movement; dough gods; a treat from the kitchen of the Mazdaznan, a neo-Zoroastrian religion; and an apple pie a la the Shakers, which Ward says is probably her favorite.
“It’s a bit different than what we commonly think apple pie tastes like because when the recipe was developed, spices and extracts like cinnamon and vanilla were quite expensive,” Ward explains. “The most common flavor additive to baked goods was rosewater. Apples and roses may sound like an odd combination, but the flavors complement each other.”
In writing about the intersection of people’s spiritual beliefs and how they influence what they eat, Ward says there are two main points she hopes readers take away from her book.
“Firstly, so much of American culture is touched by the religious beliefs of small groups of people,” Ward says. “Secondly, your god can tell you what you can eat, but your god can’t tell me what to eat!”
Christina Ward will discuss Holy Food on Friday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m. at Boswell Book Company (2559 N. Downer Ave.).