Toward a Theology of Dessert
I grew up in a home with very little baking. To smell the aroma of warm brownies or chocolate chip cookies coming from the kitchen was a rare and special occurrence.
Every Christmas, however, my mom would spend days in the kitchen making her signature pastry—pumpkin bread. Her ingredients were simple: ground cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, salt, water, baking powder, oil, eggs, canned pumpkin, flour, and sugar. (Recipehere.) And she would make enough loaves of it for all of our neighbors, teachers, coaches, and friends.
When I was in grade school, I was sometimes embarrassed to give my mom's pumpkin bread to my teachers. I wanted to give them something store bought and expensive, not homemade and cheap. As I grew up, though, I increasingly realized that her pumpkin bread wasn't just a dessert; it was a gift of community and affection. My teachers came to know my mom and our family through her baking.
Today, since my parents live in Florida and my brothers and I live in three different states—Alabama, Tennessee, and New York—my mom sends her pumpkin bread to us in the mail. I usually get my first loaf of the season around my birthday in November. And I share it with my friends.
As my parents grow older, I'm painfully aware that my mom's pumpkin delivery days will one day draw to a close. I hope, of course, that day is many years away. In the meantime, though, I want to learn from her. I want to inhabit her kitchen. I want to bake for days so that I can give the gift of community and affection—in the simple shape of a loaf of pumpkin bread—to my neighbors and friends.
Desserts in Biblical Times
The biblical landscape is full of stories that center on meals eaten in community together. Meals were opportunities to show hospitality to strangers and demonstrate fellowship to believers. In fact, sharing meals among believers was such an important extension of the gospel that Paul rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with redeemed Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14).
The ingredients used in these meals were typical of their time and place. In Israel, grain, wine, and olive oil were staple commodities. Lentils, beans, and other vegetables were common, too. For the most part, meat was eaten only occasionally, while fish was the more customary animal protein.
As for dessert, although we tend to think of fruit as a healthy alternative to sweets, ancient societies reached for fresh and dried fruits as their main desserts. After all, they didn't have refined sugar to make cakes or pumpkin bread. So they enjoyed fruits like grapes, apricots, pomegranates, melons, figs, and dates. Honey was "chief among desserts" and used to sweeten other foods.
Sweet But Complicated
Our relationship with dessert is sweet but complicated. When God created the world, he said, "Behold, I have given you . . . every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food" (Gen. 1:29). The Scriptures then affirm the goodness of fruit-bearing trees, saying they are "pleasant to the sight and good for food" (Gen. 2:9). Thus, God made fruit—the main dessert of their time—to be lovely and delicious.
Yet this same dessert—when placed in a particular context—was used by God as a means to test our ancestors' allegiance and affections. God told Adam, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat" (Gen. 2:16-17). Following their own whims, however, they ate "the forbidden fruit" and, thus, introduced humanity's complicated relationship with desirable things—they may be "pleasant to the sight and good for food," but they may also be the means by which we fall.
Solomon takes the other main dessert of the time—honey—and shows a similarly complicated relationship. On the one hand, he celebrates it: "My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste" (Prov. 24:13). On the other hand, however, he warns of its symbolic complicity in deception: "The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey" (Prov. 5:3).
Icing on the Cake
Paul, however, re-narrates the idea of "forbidden fruit" by talking about "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22) and the fruit that "leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life" (Rom. 6:22). In Ephesians, he contrasts "the unfruitful works of darkness" with "the fruit of life [that] is found in all that is good and right and true" (Eph. 5:8-11).
As we contemplate the eschatological reality of our future home in the presence of Christ, God once again turns our attention to desserts. First, he repeatedly tells our forefathers that Canaan will be "a land flowing with milk and honey," combining milk (a rare and precious commodity in an era without refrigeration) with honey (the chief of desserts). Second, in Revelation, instead of finding a tree with forbidden fruit in a garden, John finds "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month." Its leaves are "for the healing of nations" (Rev. 22:2), which fulfills the prophecy spoken by Ezekiel (Ezek. 47:12).
Dessert as Feasting
Today, however, we do not yet live in the promised land. Instead, we live in the overlap of the ages, the already but not yet. How, in this context, do we think about dessert?
In the Bible, there are three primary modes of eating: ordinary, fasting, and feasting. "An ordinary family meal," R. K. Harrison writes, "would not involve the preparation of more than one dish of food, so that, when it had been served, the member of the household who had cooked the meal would have no further work to do. This thought probably underlies the rebuke to Martha (Luke 10:42), when Christ suggested that only one dish was really necessary." An ordinary meal, therefore, may or may not have included a simple, unadorned dessert like fruit.
In the Bible, we see God regularly calling his people to fast and to feast. Through fasting, we learn an increased dependence on God's strength; our physical appetite helps intensify our spiritual appetite. On the other hand, feasting reminds us of the original goodness and bounty of God's creation, the redeeming work he is doing, and our fellowship in the body of Christ. Our regular eating routines can benefit greatly by being expanded in both directions through the extremes of these two spiritual disciplines.
In feasting we see the glorious purpose of dessert. Although it is not necessary to life for daily sustenance, dessert can give us a foretaste of the divine. In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller writes:
The work-obsessed mind—as in our Western culture—tends to look at everything in terms of efficiency, value, and speed. But there must also be an ability to enjoy the most simple and ordinary aspects of life, even ones that are not strictly useful, but just delightful. Surprisingly, even the reputedly dour Reformer John Calvin agrees. In his treatment of the Christian life, he warns against valuing things only for their utility: "Did God create food only to provide for necessity [nutrition] and not also for delight and good cheer? . . . Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?"
Work of a Baker
Most of us are not only consumers of desserts; we are makers of it, too. Like my mom, we use recipes and buy ingredients. We knead dough and shape cookies. Does the gospel have anything to say about our baking? What considerations should we think about if we want to integrate our faith and our work?
This week, we are going to delve into five aspects of the work of a pastry chef: (1) theological framework, (2) food sourcing, (3) consumer health, (4) innovative creation, and (5) food waste.
This five-part series is not intended to cover every consideration that a pastry chef must make. Nor is it intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the five considerations that we have chosen. (These topics are massive in scope; hundreds of books have been written about each one of them.) It is also not intended to be the final word on the topic.
It is, however, intended to start a conversation. We hope that our daily installments will be the matches that spark the fire of our discussion. To that end, we invite you—whether you are a consumer, an at-home baker, or a professional pastry chef—to join the discussion this week. We invite you to explore and imagine with us how the gospel informs our baking.
Feel free, of course, to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section. Also, if you have time, we invite you to share your favorite dessert and pastry recipes. At the end of the week, we'll compile all of your recipes and share them on our website in a downloadable PDF file.
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Note from Collin Hansen, editorial director of The Gospel Coalition: This week's series on how pastry chefs integrate their faith and work emerged from our editorial staff's concerns about the narrow range of questions we typically ask ourselves as we apply our belief in Jesus Christ to everyday tasks. As Bethany Jenkins, our director of Every Square Inch, explored all the ethical issues facing the men and women who bake our cakes, we were amazed by the far-reaching implications of the gospel. You may not agree with every conclusion, but we're hopeful the series will provoke you to think carefully about the costs and opportunities of discipleship, whether you're baking cinnamon rolls for your children or arranging an elaborate dessert for display only.
We'd encourage you to read The Gospel Coalition's Theological Vision of Ministry if you'd like to learn more about why we devote so much time and attention to seemingly mundane matters as baking. Our Council members affirm:
Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith-beliefs from the way they work in their vocation. The gospel is seen as a means of finding individual peace and not as the foundation of a worldview—a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do. But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians' engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God's creation in the power of the Spirit.
For more on this particular topic of food and theology, watch this short lecture from David Kim, executive director of the Center for Faith & Work and the pastor of faith and work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He addresses our tendency to separate our eating from our praying and demonstrates how the gospel changes our view of food.