Many religious traditions have shared meals as part of their practice.
Jewish tradition has the Seder or Passover meal, in which specific symbolic foods are eaten, representing different aspects of the Passover story. The youngest person present must ask, “Why is this night more special than all other nights?” and various other symbolic actions are performed, such as leaving the door open for Elijah, and raising a toast to the idea that one’s next Seder will take place in Jerusalem.
Christianity has the Eucharist, which commemorates both the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples, and also the meal he is said to have shared with them at Emmaus after his Resurrection. The meal consists of bread and wine consumed in a sacred manner. There has been much conflict throughout Christian history about what the Eucharist means, who is allowed to partake of it, and what its effects are. Nevertheless it is a powerful ritual. Stephen Lingwood, a Unitarian minister, suggests that communion represents Jesus’ radical hospitality – his willingness to eat with people marginalised by society, such as prostitutes, tax collectors and publicans.
In Wicca, the shared meal is known as cakes and wine, and is usually consecrated by a woman and a man (or a same-sex couple), and then shared among the participants in the ritual. A portion is kept for offering to the deities as a libation.
In some Hindu traditions, a portion of the food is offered to the deities while it is being cooked, and blessed food is known as prasadam.
The ancient Greeks had a ritual of sharing bread, which is where we get our word symposium, which literally means ‘together bread’. In ancient Rome, there were dining clubs devoted to the god Bacchus (god of wine), which presumably had a ritual or spiritual aspect.
Many religious traditions (including Buddhism, Christianity and Paganism) give thanks for their food before eating. Typically, the meal blessing might include thanks to all the beings and processes that went into creating the food, and a wish that everyone in the world might have enough to eat.
Cooking can also be a spiritual practice. It is in many ways akin to alchemy (the transformation of one thing into another); indeed, a cooking vessel invented by a medieval female alchemist – the bain-marie – founds its way from the laboratory to the kitchen. In Jewish tradition, the preparation of food has special rituals associated with it. The magic of a lovingly prepared meal is powerful stuff, restoring both body and mind.