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'Holy & Hungry' show connects faith, biscuits and gravy
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Caitlin Kenzie Scott's unique style of cooking and baking serves her well as a hostess. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Caitlin Kenzie Scott's biscuits make her soul rejoice. She smothers them with chorizo gravy and infuses apricot preserves, creating a sweet and savory medley that breathes new life into her favorite Texas-style recipe.

"When I first tasted them, I thought, 'Whoa! I need to be thankful for whatever just happened,'" she said.

She calls them Jesus and Mary biscuits, and says they illustrate how her faith and love of food are deeply intertwined.

When the flavors meet, "I'm praising," said Scott, 27, who lives in New York City and runs the blog "Grits to Grace." Eating, like God's grace, "is about love and abundance," and it brings people together, she said.

Scott's theology of food, as well as her biscuit recipe, will be featured alongside other spiritual chefs on the new show "Holy & Hungry with Sherri Shepherd," which premieres Sunday, Aug. 23, on the Cooking Channel. Shepherd previously co-hosted "The View" for seven seasons.

The series focuses on how cooking can feel like an act of worship, but it also illustrates broader links between food and faith, according to religion experts.

"Faith isn't just believing in certain kinds of doctrine," said Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School. "The way you cook, how you eat and who you eat with can become expressions of faith."

Food and fellowship

Scott's spiritual approach to baking and cooking has led her to a variety of professional roles. She most recently served as personal assistant to the senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City, where she helped host meals for small groups of congregants.

In her "Holy and Hungry" segment, Scott prepares her Jesus and Mary biscuits and other dishes for one of these gatherings, describing her cooking philosophy and sharing in fellowship with the people she's feeding. The 15 diners speak about how food has informed their faith.

"One person described eating food that others offer as a sign of care and hospitality. It's an opportunity to lay aside ego and fear," Scott said. "Food is essential to creating relationships."

Even the earliest Christian community recognized the power of a shared meal, said Wirzba, who published Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating in 2011.

"If you read Acts, you get descriptions of early Christians living together, sharing goods in common and eating all the time," he said. These stories, as well as modern experiences like Scott detailed, illustrate how "the membership of the body of Christ becomes strengthened by something as simple as a meal."

Faithful fellowship over food also bridges gaps between religious traditions, said the Rev. Brian Sauder, executive director of Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental organization.

"There's something very powerful about eating together. Something very spiritual," he said.

He once belonged to a Mennonite church that shared a parking lot with a mosque. The two congregations agreed to a joint gardening project, and found themselves transformed by the unique fellowship opportunity.

"We shared our faith perspectives, as well as some amazing stories. Mennonite farmers were talking with Muslims who grew up in Egypt," the Rev. Sauder said. "Food connects us on a very human level."

Faithful dining

Although the idea of a spiritual chef might be novel, the relationship between food and faith is also expressed in a variety of other, more traditional religious rituals and programs, including the distribution of bread and wine during communion in most Christian churches and the dietary guidelines associated with faiths like Islam and Judaism.

"We can't think about Judaism without kashrut, Islam without Ramadan, Hinduism without vegetarianism," Wirzba said.

While researching his book, Wirzba studied religious commentaries on food, exploring how eating shapes church life. He learned about how faith communities throughout history have expressed their religious beliefs through preparing, sharing and eating food, concluding that food's role in religion grows out of its place in life as a whole.

"Eating is not some incidental thing we do in the course of our daily life. It's the heart of life," he said. It makes sense for faiths to tap into something so fundamental.

By taking the role food plays in people's lives seriously, religious communities better serve others, supporting food pantries, hosting meals and nurturing a spirit of hospitality in members, Wirzba said. Through charitable programs and rituals like communion, "we learn to be food for the world."

Soul food

In spite of the many ways faith and food are connected, it's easy to write off congregational meals as gimmicks or efforts to attract more members, Wirzba said. He acknowledges that food is a safe choice to build a program around, but believes it's a powerful one, too.

"These are occasions when (faith leaders) don't have control over what's happening. People are sitting together" and sharing what's on their mind, he said. "Important ministry can happen there."

Similarly, the Rev. Sauder said the natural relationship between food and faith often results in action around larger issues like the environment or poverty.

Many of the congregations involved in Faith in Place support gardens each summer, inviting church members to sweat together and share their harvest with the community. The gardeners raise their awareness of struggles other people face to put food on their table, which leads to a more conscious congregation.

Through food initiatives like gardening, "we start to ask questions about larger (societal) issues, hunger in the community and food scarcity," the Rev. Sauder said.

Faith leads people to be more intentional about food and vice versa, Scott noted. Her goal in preparing a meal is not only to fill the stomachs of herself and others, but also to nurture the spontaneous gratitude she felt when she first bit into her Jesus and Mary biscuits.

"Some food physically nourishes you but fails to spiritually nourish you," she said. The spiritual impact of a plate of food "is just as important as nutritional data."
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