The Sensuality of the Table with Lauren Peiser
As you anticipate and prepare for your holiday feast, we invite you to pull up a seat at our table to discuss the rich sensuality of the aromas, flavors, and sounds that are embedded in the festive season.
Joining us for this discussion is Lauren Peiser, the Manager of Partnerships at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Today, however, we affectionately dub her our “resident gastronomist” on account of her passion for the enjoyment of good food and drink.
This conversation not only explores the pleasure of a good meal but also delves into the theological aspects of the table and our relationship with food, drink, and the company of others.
We hope you enjoy this delightful conversation as much as we did. Merry Christmas, friends.
Dan: The nature of this sweet and wild season so often can be summarized by what happens at the table. And so we have Rachael such a privilege to have on our, what I would call our resident gastronomisist. Now, just to be clear, gastronomy is the delighting and the full enjoyment of the full spectrum of good food and wine. And to be a little technical here, a gastronome is someone who simply has the ability to enjoy really good food and really good drink. But a gastronomisist is actually somebody who combines good eating, good drinking and theory. And so we have our resident gastronomisist. Lauren Peiser. Lauren, thank you for joining us. And I’ll introduce you more in a moment, but just to say, so delighted to have you with us.
Lauren: Thank you so much. I’m excited for the conversation.
Dan: So have you been referred to in that way before?
Lauren: I don’t know. In the past five years. I don’t know at The Seattle School before, but I think I have in other settings, maybe in my family.
Dan: Oh, good, good. So it’s not, I wondered if you might balk at least a little bit at that introduction, and technically you are the Manager of Partnerships at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. And prior to that you’ve had, how many positions have you had at the school in your five years, which of course we always think about in terms of dog years. So you have really been with the school for about 35 years. How many jobs?
Lauren: I think when we were counting before, I think six. I think six. I think the school doesn’t know exactly what to do with me sometimes, so I’m hopping around.
Dan: Well, I’ll just say before Rachael jumps in to clarify my confusion, the bottom line is you have such an array of amazing gifts that virtually every, shall we say, the school in its ordinary chaos when we need somebody to do a new position… your range of skills, including gastronomy, is fairly complete and rich. So we are very, very grateful to have you as a very significant part, not just of the school, but in terms of the work of the Allender Center.
Rachael: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.
Dan: So as we jump in, the one thing that I want to say is that I think most of us understand this is a season of such high and rich and delightful sensuality. Just to think in terms of we usually kill a tree somewhere in the woods, drag it in, and it’s just a beautiful gift. Usually it’s a small tree. I personally like the Charlie Brown, the tree that clearly is not going to survive, and yet its fragrance is so sweet, peppermint, the smell of gingerbread cookies. Oh my gosh. For every other portion of what this remarkable season holds, there are smells, there are sounds, music that we play particularly Celtic Christmas songs for whatever reason. And you go, I love them, I love them. Why don’t I play them 11 and a half, 12 months a year. But they come, there’s a unique hold to this season. So Rachael, what smells, what sounds, what touch, what sensuality does the season hold for you?
Rachael: It’s interesting because I’m probably going to go in a little bit of a different direction, but I think it’s the season that I’m in of motherhood. And when I was coming into advent in 2021, I was actually in a season of a lot of grief due to some loss we had experienced in our hopes to bring a child into this world. And I was kind of going into that season really angry, thinking about Mary and Elizabeth and these women. So I was thinking about birthing, I was thinking about in some ways the sensuality of the messiness of birthing and tending, but then the messiness of grief. And then I found out that particular advent that I was actually pregnant with my daughter who’s here with us today. And so I think the sensuality of this season for me though, it includes all the things you’ve named like a Christmas tree and certain scents that elicit a reminder of Christmas music. Honestly, we started playing Green Sleeves from the Charlie Brown Christmas album last year, just kind of like, oh, this’ll be Evie’s go to sleep song. And she was four months old. And I wasn’t thinking about the fact that that’s sleep association time. So we still listen to Green Sleeves for nap time. So that’s just been for a whole year. We listened to that 11, 12 months out of the year – Green Sleeves. So I’m excited for that to feel a little more in sync with the season. But some of the sensuality I’m most looking forward to in this season is continuing to ponder the God of the universe coming into our world through the birth canal, becoming a toddler, Evie’s becoming a toddler. So like fit throwing and messy food, eating and eating with her hands. And so I think I’m in this very, very, very elementary primal sensuality phase of this season. And just the wonder of it and watching her explore the world and come alive and imagining what it is for God to have a mother and to be a toddler, as strange as that is.
Dan: And for you, Lauren, especially as we begin to weave into what this season has brought you with regard to the table and your love of food and wine and how you set the table. But first just what broad sensuality comes for you during this season?
Lauren: I love what both of you shared because they both feel very resonant because I have a 2-year-old, just turned two yesterday actually and a 5-year-old. And I was tucking in my five-year-old yesterday into bed. And he is like, I cannot wait for Christmas. This is going to be the best Christmas we’ve ever had. And he’s just really, really excited about it. And I think for me, some of that is the dancing and the letting loose and enjoyment of the Christmas songs and putting up the tree and actually laughing with my kids. And yeah, I think the food too, it’s so different in different seasons because before having kids, it would’ve been the hours of focused cooking and picking out the wine that’s going to pair with it perfectly and being very intentional about what is going on the table. And now it’s like, okay, how can we be creative here? How can I cook something while my kid needs something else and they’re throwing things? And so it’s both, it’s how do you make beauty in the chaos of it all? And I feel like that feels very resonant, both of those things right now, having young kids where you can’t have the beautiful table that you want or the picture of what you think beauty is, and then also getting to eat the cookies and just love them and have that childlike delight is really sweet to get to see that through my kids. So that’s what I’m looking forward to. Oh yeah, Francis, last night, my older one, he’s like, can I have a candy cane tomorrow? I’m ready for a candy cane. Is it Christmas season? So he’s all the little things he so excited about, which is sweet to live through him in that.
Dan: Well, it’s just such an important category that sensuality is in some ways at least part of the message, if not a means by which we get closer to what it is that we most want our bodies and heart to be delighted in. And without those smells, without that taste and just hearing of your son’s thrill, I’m like, oh, oh, oh, it’s so sweet. And oh Jesus, what would it be like for me to have that sense of this is going to be the best Christmas ever. So before we jump in to the table, I want to hear just a little bit about how you came to be not only a gastronome but a gastronomist, not just one who enjoys food and drink and provides it for others, but actually that you have developed a whole lot of theory and thought, particularly theology about the table. So at least first how did you get into food and then how did that move you into thinking about in some sense the theology of the table?
Lauren: Yes, I love that question. I’ll try and not take the whole rest of the time sharing because it feels like a long story. But as a young kid, I feel like I was always drawn to food and cooking. And in that sensuality piece probably like we all talking about my son just getting excited about eating a cookie and how sweet it is and the culture which was both had Christianity tied into it and also a lot of intention about productivity and having a good image was also attached to that, and so I feel like I loved, I had so much joy. I remember that being a young kid and having a ton of joy around food and eating. And then I realized through other people’s eyes not my own that, oh, I was chubby and that is not necessarily a thing to be delighted in. And that was some of the shattering for me of, oh, okay, this is actually not good to enjoy food in this way. It’s not good to get excited about something that’s sweet. Oh, this is something that needs to be tamped down and not expressed. And so for me, there was a lot of connection to what is talked about a lot purity culture of being pure and pleasing God with self-control and discipline around food. And so I carried that with me for a long time and to had a lot of experiences where I was able to find healing in that. But I got to study abroad in Italy and I studied food and wine there and it was really just a transformative experience for me. Not necessarily saying Italians are the only ones who know how to eat well, that’s definitely not true. But for me, just jumping into another culture where there was so much enjoyment around food and everyone was in that world and okay with that, and there’s a lot of intention around eating, a lot of intention around enjoying food. Dinners were long and slow and just really fun. And I was just taken into another world that was so beautiful for me and my body just felt at ease and relaxed. And I feel like the 5-year-old me started coming alive again at the table and I got to go to farms and vineyards and see people really having a lot of intention around how they’re growing this grape and going out and touching it every day and looking at it. And then even people, they spent their whole lives focusing on how to make pecorino cheese. And I just like, you can do that? You can spend your time doing that? That’s okay? And so I just was so in love with that idea and just my body knew that this is what I need to do. I need to do something around food and providing a space for people to feel free around food and feel shameless around food. So that was the first experience for me of feeling a lot of just call, I guess to say call to do work in that. And the theory piece, I would definitely say for me theory has, it just has come after the practice and then reading a verse much later in the Bible and going, oh wait, I think this is what I was experiencing over there. This is resonating for me now. So it’s never been a, I mean would just life circumstances, I’ve not been able to go to graduate school and study all of this stuff. I mean, I would love to do that. It would be so fun,
Dan: Not till we give you another 5 or 10 more jobs.
Lauren: And I mean that has been part of it getting to be around the people at the Seattle school too in Allender Center. I have been able to make connections of just getting to be a little bit of an armchair expert of getting to have conversations with others and say, oh, okay, this is about the theology. I didn’t even know eco theology or feminist theology were things that people spent tons of years studying. But I was like, oh, this is what I’ve been experiencing in my life, but I didn’t know there was a whole field of study around it. So yeah, it’s been piece by piece that the theory has come alive for me around food. It’s been much more of an embodied practice.
Dan: So in some ways to be able to underscore that whatever delight you found without going perhaps into too many details, there was a certain shaming and a silencing of that delight and to be called chubby and to have that become a realm in which restriction control, efficiency, productivity in so many ways, most of us do not grow our own food. We don’t go touch the grapes that we eventually come to be able to encounter either on the table or through a glass of wine. Everything is built on efficiency and productivity. I go to the store and I don’t think about the animal that had to be indeed killed for my sake. I don’t have to go and think about the labor involved in developing the broccoli that I am going to eat. So there is a certain degree of thoughtlessness with regard to food and certainly not much practice other than what happens directly in the kitchen. So it is such a sweet thing to hear that in some ways Italy saved you. It gave you a chance to return to something of shame-freeness, not shameless, but a shame-freer stance with regard to food. But you’ve been developing and thinking about the table and its role not only in your life, but in terms of your own theology of thinking about that. I’d love to hear where that has taken you.
Lauren: Yes. Yeah, yeah. So as you’re saying the table, it’s really easy to think of it as the one place where you’re sitting down to eat a meal. And when you have had more time to be in the field, be, even in a winery spending time crushing the grapes, you realize there’s so much more than just what’s at the table right now than the food you’re eating. Every single thing that you put in your mouth has a story and it’s touched other humans and other non-humans. And I’ll share a little bit about my experience. So after I went to Italy, I was just wanting to do more and more around food and wine. And so I decided to get a job as a cellar intern. They even call them cellar rats. I had no idea the difference between a large scale winery, wine production versus the family wineries that I studied at in Italy. And so I took a job with a very large winery and I was driving to California and like, oh my gosh, going to be such a romantic experience. I’m so excited. And then I showed up day one, and I’m in a factory, this is kind of wild. And the work was grueling and I worked mostly with migrant workers and they don’t just do internships, they work their year round. And it was grueling work and it felt like all the sensuality and pleasure was taken out of it, and it was about efficiency and moving quickly through it. And that experience for me too made me a lot more critical around what am I inviting to the table right now and how is my table that I’m setting really creating a table for everyone else too, a table of enjoyment and pleasure. And I think that of course, in our society too, it’s hard if you’re spending all of your time trying to analyze every single product that you buy to make your table curated in the best way. It’s hard. And then you get stuck in purity culture again, but also being able to ask what are the stories that this food and this drink is holding? And has this created pleasure for others or has this created difficulty and struggle and oppression for others? And so that feels like a big part of my table is: how is every piece caring for others? Not just my own nuclear family, but my greater family and community. And so that feels like a big piece. And Jesus, of course, is the greatest example of table setting. I mean, he ate with so many different people, and that was really his place to have conversation and break boundaries. And the way that he invited people to the table wasn’t in a way that was who’s in and who’s out. It was… how can we have a meal together and how can I know you more and how can I invite you into a different way of being? And so I’ve been very… wanting to also emulate Jesus also in setting the table. I think that’s what I would say.
Rachael: Well, when we were talking about this, there were some words you used and maybe I’ll call them back for you because I would love to hear just a little bit more, and I think it was so compelling to me. You were talking about Jesus relating to himself as the bread and the wine, and you said, why not water and lentils? In some ways, if it’s just a common table, if it’s just a common food and drink of the day, why not water and lentils? What is it about bread and wine? And you use this language of the matter and the magic, and even talking about that, your current definition of the table, which I’ll let you speak more to, but you talked about that you think one of the most subversive acts of the Bible is Jesus gathering with the disciples for that last meal before he was killed. And it was just, I would love to hear more about for you, even as we’re thinking about this season of God being embodied and taking on our human sensuality. Yeah. Tell me more about the matter and the magic and the subversive act of the table.
Lauren: Yes, yes. Yeah. So I can’t remember how this idea first came into my mind, but I think, so my husband makes a lot of sourdough bread, and I’ll say he was a sourdough bread baker before the pandemic. So truly sourdough breadmaker…
Rachael: An important clarification because a lot of us tried. I tried to become a sourdough bread maker and it never worked. So I like that clarification.
Lauren: Yeah, I feel like he would want me to clarify that. So he spends a lot of time making sourdough, and it’s a magical process to see really what is dead coming to life again through fermentation. And for wine, I think it’s fascinating and I wish sometimes we didn’t have this science to explain things away of why things ferment? But at the time of Jesus, they didn’t have scientific reasoning for why grapes turned into wine. It was magic, it was divine. And so they would pick the grapes, let them sit and say, okay, okay, the gods need to show up, and then we get to have this magical drink. And so for the disciples at the time, I mean, I don’t know, this is my theory, but with God, with Jesus saying, this is my body broken for you. And he’s talking about something that they have their hands in, they know they make the wine, they make the bread, but they also know that part of it is not theirs too. They need to call on the divine to take what they’ve worked with their hands and see the miracles or the magic come to be. And so when he says, eat this and remember me, I just hear him saying, I’m going to go. I’m not going to be here, but you’ll find me again in the matter, in the magic, when you put your hands in the soil, when you hug a loved one, when you are okay to touch the wounds of others and wait for me to show up, that’s where I’m at. If you are willing to slow down enough to touch, touch what is beautiful, and also touch what is not what we deem as not beautiful and allow my magic or miracles, whatever you prefer to say, I like magic, to show up. And I think right now in our culture, there’s so much polarization and there’s a lot of fear and escalation of things, and it’s so easy to see problems and say, how am I going to fix this? What am I going to do Alright, I need to use my human tactics to take care of this mess. And I think I keep asking who are going to be the ones that gather us around the table when all the chaos is happening in our world, who are going to be the ones that gather us? And that was Jesus, before he died. I mean, he could have very easily said, I’m not hungry. I don’t want to eat. I’m going to go off and care for myself. Or he could have said, all right, how are we going to protest against this? And those things have their place, but he also felt it was very important to eat together and have a meal together. And that feels so subversive in these times. Something that I really like. He’s a psychologist philosopher, Bayo Akomolafe, but he says the times are urgent, so we need to slow down. And that is what I feel like Jesus was doing is not creating more urgency and saying, let’s slow down. Let’s be together. Let’s see each other’s faces and shame free, let’s see each other enjoying something. And even with Judas who he could have very easily not invited to dinner, and we often do that now where we say, okay, who’s not going to be invited to the table? We need to be selective because we don’t want anyone ruining our table. But I think the table is very, to me, is dancing too. We’re dancing with the food, we’re dancing with other humans. We’re dancing with the rest of the world when we’re sitting and enjoying. And this thought came into my mind, I think it’s been over, I dunno, just so much hurt in our world. But when you’re dancing, you don’t have time to create a scapegoat because you’re caught up in the dance with others and you’re caught up in the food. You’re caught up in the enjoyment or in the pain of others. And when we don’t slow down and we’re not present with others, then we need to create a scapegoat. And when we’re present with others, I think that’s how that can melt away. And so that is some of the subversion that I think that Jesus was doing at the table.
Dan: Well, just even if in this season you do not invite a Judas to your table, the fact of time is in and of itself subversive the reality of saying, we had a dinner party just a few nights ago. My wife and a dear friend made a Georgian meal for friends who knew that we had gone to the Republic of Georgia this last summer. And one of the things we said before is it will be what Georgians call a Supra, which is a banquet that is built around toasting and not a kind of, I toast to you, each toast takes anywhere from two to five minutes to complete. And so we prepared people before they came to the table that the meal was going to be served plate by plate over two to three hours, and that everyone would be expected to offer multiple toasts. And you could have seen these are really lovely, lovely friends and neighbors, but the look was, what in the name of God are you talking about? What, first of all, a meal for two to three hours. And the idea that, again, a typical American meal, everything served at once. So you sit at the table and have your salad and then your main course and then your dessert, and that’s about a 30 to 45 minute process. But when you basically say no, you will be served individual plates through the evening, two to three hours, wine for two to three hours, toasting for two… it was awkward. Not all shall we say, lovely. But it was fabulous because we were violating the custom of the normal evening of 45 minutes to an hour at most at the table. So when you think about the disruption of the table, I think most of us think about the comfort of the table. You’re really in one sense creating this intersection between that which is full of delight, full of joy, but also disruptive. I’m assuming that you’re more than aware that you’re combining that paradox. How has that worked out for your dinner guests?
Lauren: That’s a great question. And I mean, something that I feel like is true is it’s not a single effort. I remember, I really wanted other people to slow down and eat with me and go slow, but it was no one else was on the same… And so I can’t do this by myself. I can’t by myself and eat a three hour meal. I need others to do this with me. And so there needs to be a collective agreement. And sometimes there’s not, and you try and invite people into that. I think that my kids are not good at sitting at the table. But another example, it’s not at the table, but my son, this was a few weeks ago, and I was so heavy with grief over everything that’s happening in Israel and Gaza. I was crying a lot. It was just a hard morning. But he really wanted to play in the mud. And he has some, I would say, sensory divergence. And I would say in some ways it’s disruptive. He needs a lot of touch all the time, touch. And so he really wanted to build in the mud, mud, bricks outside. And I was like, okay, I’ll do this. I don’t really feel like it. And by the time we did this for three hours, he was so, for him, it was so what he needed, and by the end of it, I was like, this is what I needed, I needed to touch the mud for three hours and just feel it in my hands and even squish it in the worms and everything. I was there. And so my kids invite me to other tables that might not be sitting around the table with food, but into this disruptive slowness that I need. There’s so many things that my kids do that they lead me to that feel annoying and in the way and getting, oh, I wanted to prepare for this thing, or I didn’t get finish writing this or I didn’t put the clothes away, but they disrupt me, and I so often… after that, that’s what I needed. It might’ve been what they needed, but it really was what I needed. And so I think inviting others to create tables for you in ways that maybe is their way of doing it is also part of the disruption. And so I know I’m talking about my kids creating tables for me rather than me creating tables for others. But I think they’re a wonderful example of that disruption of being in your body and not having this product that you’re necessarily creating after. And yeah, even after that experience, my son for days, we built those mud bricks together, and that was just the best. And I was like, it was the best. It was healing for me too.
Dan: Well, as we come to something of a close, there are so many more things to come back to, but to underscore that each of us, we all want to create meaningful moments. There is something about good food, and this is a season where if there is likely a significant effort to be put in to creating that sensuality of smell of evergreen and peppermint and gingerbread and Turkey, et cetera, et cetera, then what you’re describing is how do we create some degree of disruption so that it isn’t just a lovely meal that several people prepared, other people will clean up and then put on the table. And some of that is by who you bring to the table. And also some of what is involved is setting the tone for what you want at the table. And that sense of, yeah, we all know that around Thanksgiving, what are you each grateful for? I mean, I refuse to ask that question, at least it didn’t come up at our Thanksgiving, but we did ask questions that eventually got around the realm of what has brought you a sense of honor, what has brought you a sense of delight in this year, therefore leading into that question. But I think in some ways, you’re inviting us all to slow down, create much longer spaces, and to indeed invite people to this sense of Jesus is in the bread because in part, it is the picture of death and resurrection, and he is in the wine because of the magic, the miracle, the inversion of death to life. So all that is the richness of what you bring. When you think about what you will most hope for your day of celebration on Christmas, what have you planned?
Lauren: I think one thing is planning to be attentive to what’s emergent and what’s coming to the surface. And yeah, like I say with young kids, sometimes your plans that you have the way that you want to make the day go, oh man, okay, we’re going to wake up and we’re going to have cinnamon rolls at six, and that’s going to be this. It’s like, Nope, they’re going to be interested in that box that one of their gifts was in for three hours. Or maybe there’s, like, Rachael, you were saying earlier, you, you’re going to have this lovely meal, but actually your kid is having a tantrum because wanted to have no pepper on his mac and cheese or whatever. And so I think some of the planning and some of what I think Jesus did so well is how can I be present and sit long enough to see what’s emerging and tend to what’s emerging? And so I think I want to make really good food, and I will also allow my kids to disrupt that in some ways. Oh my gosh, I have so many times where I have this vision of how I want a certain plate to look, and I have it all here, and then by the time it gets there, so just like, and just throw it on the plate. I don’t even care, but it tastes really good.
Dan: Put it in the blender.
Lauren: Just forget it all. But going back to that joy, that is really what I want to have the intention for is am I able to capture that joy and tend to that joy and the kids with the food all over their face on the floor, and am I able to be present to that, to the mess and going back, yeah, even to my childhood stories of how can I let my kids savor moments and feel my delight and their delight? And I think that’s my plan for what our Christmas day will look like. And we, we’ll have to see how it actually goes and what it actually looks like.
Dan: Well, for us all knowing that Christmas is, but a few days, there is that sense of, oh, may you bless the chaos and may you know that nothing that you have planned will likely be as you would wish. But there’s still something in the anticipation for us of creating the plan that has to maybe more delight than the actual process itself. Yet in doing it, who knows what level of chaos and yet what level of play may be involved. So we deeply and sincerely wish you all a remarkable tasty, sensually, delightful and wild and chaotic, but beautiful Christmas. Merry Christmas to you all.
Rachael: Merry Christmas.
Lauren: Merry Christmas.