Christianity and Food

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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While other major religions are beset by a variety of strict prohibitions and behavioural taboos (see muslims and food, hinduism and food, and jewish dietary laws), Christianity restricts itself to variations on the themes of fasting or abstinence, with no exclusions from the kitchen. There were, it is true, some early Christians who continued to follow many of the Jewish laws which are stated in the Old Testament, but these were gradually jettisoned.

Food and faith, however, remain inextricably entwined, and proper observance of dietary rules has continued to define many Christians’ experience of the church. Medieval Christianity counterbalanced its many feasts (for which see christmas foods and easter foods) with even more fasts, which varied in intensity (see lent). Most fasts were in fact abstinence from one sort of food or another, but the early medieval Catholic church was keen on fasting for its own sake at various points throughout the year, and the Orthodox churches remained enthusiastic until the present day. Catholics progressively liberalised their observances, and Protestants liberalised them still further. Religious orders were always more extreme on dietary matters, imposing constant fasts and restrictions such as the Benedictines’ prohibition on meat eating (unless sick). The history of monasticism and its many reforms often involves culinary backsliding and a calling to order. Within the Catholic and Orthodox churches too, hermits and anchorites have displayed every sort of relationship (sometimes problematic) with food and eating.