New Work Forum: On Food and Religion in Cevasco’s Violent Appetites

By Eleanor Barnett

Copper-deficient & copper-replete fleeces, Royal Veterinary College. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Copper-deficient & copper-replete fleeces, Royal Veterinary College. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Violent Appetites begins with an account from the Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland’s time living among a Seneca family in the 1760s. During his mission, hunger would afflict both Kirkland and his hosts at various points, but they would diverge in how that hunger was understood and experienced. To colonists like Kirkland, Native appetites marked them as different, inferior, and in need of missionizing. A minister of British decent, Kirkland’s story provides one example of how food played a central role in attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity in early America. ‘For the missionaries’, Cevasco says, ‘it was just as important to be able to communicate about food as it was to instruct Indigenous peoples in matters of the soul’ (p. 8). In exploring the history of early American hunger, Violent Appetites has much to tell us about the interconnectivity between food, religion, and spirituality in the northeast.

To Native Americans, better adapted to their local environment, hunger was ‘an inevitable part of a cycle of seasonal subsistence’ (p. 24). To the Europeans who colonised America, Cevasco explains, hunger was instead deeply rooted in the Christian calendar of fasts. By withdrawing from food, Europeans sought to repress the physical to focus on spiritual pursuits, often using fasting to give thanks or offer penance to God. In early America, where hunger struck down colonists who lacked the skills needed to feed from the land, hunger was seen as evidence of divine punishment. Its absence, by contrast, was to Christians a reward of divine providence. Although colonial accounts (and many subsequent histories) failed to understand Native food practices, Cevasco shows how Native peoples also used food to deter divine wrath, through feasting rather than fasting. For example, in February 1765, the leader of the Seneca at Kanadasaga, Onooghwandekha, warned his community that to give up the feasts that they celebrated in the name of the god Taonghyawagon in favour of Christian practices, would have grave consequences: ‘All all will be gone’, he declared (p. 55). Wabanaki war feasts, meanwhile, used extreme eating as a way of mortifying the body, much like Christian fasts.

Religion and spirituality also runs through Cevasco’s discussion of cannibalism in early America. Without the ‘hunger knowledge’ needed to survive in the natural environment, Europeans sometimes resorted to cannibalism rather than starve to death. But it was the ‘ritual cannibalism’ of certain Indigenous peoples that sparked the most horror and condemnation from colonists. Wendat communities, for example, reportedly consumed the flesh of their enemies in a ritual of war. Colonists used Native cannibalism to dehumanise Indigenous people and to justify their missionizing efforts. Cevasco again breaks down the perceived differences between colonial and Indigenous groups, by highlighting how European Christians practiced spiritual and medical cannibalism. In the Reformation, Protestants rallied against the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist was thought to literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. The impassioned hunger to – symbolically – taste and consume Christ expressed by many colonial Protestants nevertheless ‘nudged’ them close towards ‘Catholic literalism’ (p. 119). Europeans, especially Paracelsians, also literally cannibalised bodily materials like urine, breast milk, bone, and even preserved flesh known as ‘mummy’, for their supposed medicinal benefits. For both colonists and certain Native peoples, therefore, ritual cannibalism played an important part in establishing ‘social and spiritual bonds’ (p. 114).

Since food is essential to the maintenance of earthly life, and its absence a threat to survival, it is unsurprising that food has long been tied to spiritual beliefs regarding divine intercession. While examining hunger in the northeast, Violent Appetites exposes the centrality of food in the expression and formation of different religious identities. In early America, colonists encountered a land that they did not know how to cultivate and people who ate and hungered differently from them; food was used to justify colonisation and conversion efforts. Yet, what Cevasco does so well is to shake the traditional Christian and Euro-centric narrative which traces colonial power and dominance, through a critical reading of colonial accounts alongside consultation with modern Indigenous writers. Native peoples possessed superior food knowledge which enabled them to survive in American environments, and resisted Christian conversion efforts by continuing to enact their own, rich – and until now little understood – spiritual foodways, in the face of colonialism.

Dr. Eleanor Barnett is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cardiff University, where her research focuses on moments in which food was exchanged between people of different faiths in order to better understand cross-cultural encounters: the divisions, inequalities, and friendships that shaped the early modern world. She is working on a book version of her PhD from the University of Cambridge, entitled The Reformation of Food, and will shortly be publishing a trade book on the history of food waste from the medieval to the present day. She has also published articles in Renaissance Quarterly and the Historical Journal, and as Historyeats on Instagram she posts food history content everyday to a wide audience. 

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search