Having just completed the Christmas holiday and feast, I got to thinking about the ritual aspects of the holiday beyond the presents and sweets, even beyond Santa and Jesus. The philosopher Joseph Campbell described the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree as that of a sacrifice, and our ritual of adorning it with lights and ornaments and other pretty or personal tokens is similar to how many religions of the world bestow honors on their sacrifices.
In preparing the holiday feast and delivering two beautifully roasted chickens to the table, I realized that the act of cooking was also part of the ritual, and a ritual unto itself. Every meal represents a sacrifice of some form or other, and we honor that sacrifice by the way we prepare, cook and serve the food. When we cook, we try to transform the raw ingredients into something new and beautiful beyond the utility of fuel, and by doing so we respect the food with our labor, care and creativity.
Certainly not all food preparation is done as part of a ritual, and cooking is required simply to make foods some edible. But in cooking a decent meal, we often go beyond the basic heating needed to digest the food. Why do we go that extra step of preparation needed to add special flavors or change the texture? Why choose ingredients based on non-nutritional characteristics like color and appearance? Why do we present the food on a platter garnished with things that we may not even eat?
We go that extra mile enhancing and arranging the meal because as with the Christmas tree, we recognize it as a sacrifice that has been made for us in the circle of life. We also honor the food by using as much of it as we can: the drippings and giblets for gravy; the carcass for chicken stock; the celery and fennel leaves for flavoring; the stale bread that becomes pudding.
Of course not every meal receives the elaborate presentation of the holidays, but when we take time and care in preparing and cooking our food, we are not only enhancing our own enjoyment, but are participating in a scaled down version of the ritual feast.