Toward a Theology of Dessert

I grew up in a home with very little baking. To smell the aroma of warm brownies or chocolate chip cookies coming from the kitchen was a rare and special occurrence.

Every Christmas, however, my mom would spend days in the kitchen making her signature pastry—pumpkin bread. Her ingredients were simple: ground cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, salt, water, baking powder, oil, eggs, canned pumpkin, flour, and sugar. (Recipe here.) And she would make enough loaves of it for all of our neighbors, teachers, coaches, and friends.

pumpkin-breadWhen I was in grade school, I was sometimes embarrassed to give my mom’s pumpkin bread to my teachers. I wanted to give them something store bought and expensive, not homemade and cheap. As I grew up, though, I increasingly realized that her pumpkin bread wasn’t just a dessert; it was a gift of community and affection. My teachers came to know my mom and our family through her baking.

Today, since my parents live in Florida and my brothers and I live in three different states—Alabama, Tennessee, and New York—my mom sends her pumpkin bread to us in the mail. I usually get my first loaf of the season around my birthday in November. And I share it with my friends.

As my parents grow older, I’m painfully aware that my mom’s pumpkin delivery days will one day draw to a close. I hope, of course, that day is many years away. In the meantime, though, I want to learn from her. I want to inhabit her kitchen. I want to bake for days so that I can give the gift of community and affection—in the simple shape of a loaf of pumpkin bread—to my neighbors and friends.

Desserts in Biblical Times

The biblical landscape is full of stories that center on meals eaten in community together. Meals were opportunities to show hospitality to strangers and demonstrate fellowship to believers. In fact, sharing meals among believers was such an important extension of the gospel that Paul rebuked Peter for refusing to eat with redeemed Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14).

The ingredients used in these meals were typical of their time and place. In Israel, grain, wine, and olive oil were staple commodities. Lentils, beans, and other vegetables were common, too. For the most part, meat was eaten only occasionally, while fish was the more customary animal protein.

As for dessert, although we tend to think of fruit as a healthy alternative to sweets, ancient societies reached for fresh and dried fruits as their main desserts. After all, they didn’t have refined sugar to make cakes or pumpkin bread. So they enjoyed fruits like grapes, apricots, pomegranates, melons, figs, and dates. Honey was “chief among desserts” and used to sweeten other foods.

Sweet But Complicated

Our relationship with dessert is sweet but complicated. When God created the world, he said, “Behold, I have given you . . . every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Gen. 1:29). The Scriptures then affirm the goodness of fruit-bearing trees, saying they are “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). Thus, God made fruit—the main dessert of their time—to be lovely and delicious.

Yet this same dessert—when placed in a particular context—was used by God as a means to test our ancestors’ allegiance and affections. God told Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:16-17). Following their own whims, however, they ate “the forbidden fruit” and, thus, introduced humanity’s complicated relationship with desirable things—they may be “pleasant to the sight and good for food,” but they may also be the means by which we fall.

Solomon takes the other main dessert of the time—honey—and shows a similarly complicated relationship. On the one hand, he celebrates it: “My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste” (Prov. 24:13). On the other hand, however, he warns of its symbolic complicity in deception: “The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey” (Prov. 5:3).

Icing on the Cake

Paul, however, re-narrates the idea of “forbidden fruit” by talking about “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) and the fruit that “leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). In Ephesians, he contrasts “the unfruitful works of darkness” with “the fruit of life [that] is found in all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8-11).

As we contemplate the eschatological reality of our future home in the presence of Christ, God once again turns our attention to desserts. First, he repeatedly tells our forefathers that Canaan will be “a land flowing with milk and honey,” combining milk (a rare and precious commodity in an era without refrigeration) with honey (the chief of desserts). Second, in Revelation, instead of finding a tree with forbidden fruit in a garden, John finds “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” Its leaves are “for the healing of nations” (Rev. 22:2), which fulfills the prophecy spoken by Ezekiel (Ezek. 47:12).

Dessert as Feasting

Today, however, we do not yet live in the promised land. Instead, we live in the overlap of the ages, the already but not yet. How, in this context, do we think about dessert?

Theological FrameworkIn the Bible, there are three primary modes of eating: ordinary, fasting, and feasting. “An ordinary family meal,” R. K. Harrison writes, “would not involve the preparation of more than one dish of food, so that, when it had been served, the member of the household who had cooked the meal would have no further work to do. This thought probably underlies the rebuke to Martha (Luke 10:42), when Christ suggested that only one dish was really necessary.” An ordinary meal, therefore, may or may not have included a simple, unadorned dessert like fruit.

In feasting and fasting, however, we see two very different modes of eating. According to Kyle Werner, a classical composer, amateur chef, and former Gotham Fellow:

In the Bible, we see God regularly calling his people to fast and to feast. Through fasting, we learn an increased dependence on God’s strength; our physical appetite helps intensify our spiritual appetite. On the other hand, feasting reminds us of the original goodness and bounty of God’s creation, the redeeming work he is doing, and our fellowship in the body of Christ. Our regular eating routines can benefit greatly by being expanded in both directions through the extremes of these two spiritual disciplines.

In feasting we see the glorious purpose of dessert. Although it is not necessary to life for daily sustenance, dessert can give us a foretaste of the divine. In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller writes:

The work-obsessed mind—as in our Western culture—tends to look at everything in terms of efficiency, value, and speed. But there must also be an ability to enjoy the most simple and ordinary aspects of life, even ones that are not strictly useful, but just delightful. Surprisingly, even the reputedly dour Reformer John Calvin agrees. In his treatment of the Christian life, he warns against valuing things only for their utility: “Did God create food only to provide for necessity [nutrition] and not also for delight and good cheer? . . . Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?”

Work of a Baker

Most of us are not only consumers of desserts; we are makers of it, too. Like my mom, we use recipes and buy ingredients. We knead dough and shape cookies. Does the gospel have anything to say about our baking? What considerations should we think about if we want to integrate our faith and our work?

This week, we are going to delve into five aspects of the work of a pastry chef: (1) theological framework, (2) food sourcing, (3) consumer health, (4) innovative creation, and (5) food waste.

This five-part series is not intended to cover every consideration that a pastry chef must make. Nor is it intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the five considerations that we have chosen. (These topics are massive in scope; hundreds of books have been written about each one of them.) It is also not intended to be the final word on the topic.

It is, however, intended to start a conversation. We hope that our daily installments will be the matches that spark the fire of our discussion. To that end, we invite you—whether you are a consumer, an at-home baker, or a professional pastry chef—to join the discussion this week. We invite you to explore and imagine with us how the gospel informs our baking.

Feel free, of course, to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section. Also, if you have time, we invite you to share your favorite dessert and pastry recipes. At the end of the week, we’ll compile all of your recipes and share them on our website in a downloadable PDF file. 

Happy baking! 

* * * * * *

Note from Collin Hansen, editorial director of The Gospel Coalition: This week’s series on how pastry chefs integrate their faith and work emerged from our editorial staff’s concerns about the narrow range of questions we typically ask ourselves as we apply our belief in Jesus Christ to everyday tasks. As Bethany Jenkins, our director of Every Square Inch, explored all the ethical issues facing the men and women who bake our cakes, we were amazed by the far-reaching implications of the gospel. You may not agree with every conclusion, but we’re hopeful the series will provoke you to think carefully about the costs and opportunities of discipleship, whether you’re baking cinnamon rolls for your children or arranging an elaborate dessert for display only.

We’d encourage you to read The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision of Ministry if you’d like to learn more about why we devote so much time and attention to seemingly mundane matters as baking. Our Council members affirm:

Too many Christians have learned to seal off their faith-beliefs from the way they work in their vocation. The gospel is seen as a means of finding individual peace and not as the foundation of a worldview—a comprehensive interpretation of reality affecting all that we do. But we have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Such a church will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit.

For more on this particular topic of food and theology, watch this short lecture from David Kim, executive director of the Center for Faith & Work and the pastor of faith and work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He addresses our tendency to separate our eating from our praying and demonstrates how the gospel changes our view of food.

  • fctorino

    “And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.” And he added, “These are true words that come from God.” Revelation 19.9

  • rstarke

    Isn’t it interesting how times have changed when it comes to “homemade” versus store-bought food? Here in the Bay Area, home made baked goods, like pies or cookies, are a luxury for those blessed with elusive “spare time” and are valued as such. Store bought baked goods (with all of their unwholesome, unnecessary ingredients added to extend shelf life), are the norm, but more out of necessity.

    This is going to be such an awesome series – thanks for putting it together!

  • john8

    Thoughtful article, thanks for helping bring everything under the heading ‘for the glory of God’.
    I think I will disagree however with the exposition of Luke 10:42, it seems to me, in context, to not be about the menu rather but rather one ‘thing’, which Mary then is given as an example of finding – fellowship with Jesus. As I read it the problem with Martha is not that she is preparing food incorrectly rather that she has focused on physical food rather than the bread of Life. Practically, preparing a ‘one main dish only’ meal could be an application of that truth, but I don’t believe that is the thrust or meaning of the passage.

    • Bethany Jenkins

      John, I was under the same impression until I did a little more research. Although, I have no doubt that a double entendre could be happening there as well.

  • FaithFilled Foodie

    Thank you for your very insightful article Bethany. I really appreciate how you have helped us see the many profound connections between food and faith. I have been seeing a number of these connections over the past 10 years and they have grown to have a significant impact on my faith. These connections along with the constant prodding of the Holy spirit have inspired me to develop a unique 5 course meal that helps people experience the Gospel with all their senses. I have been overwhelmed by the appeal and response of my dinner guests so far. I truly believe sharing the Gospel through food and genuine conversation could revolutionize the way we share our faith. Thank you for sharing your insights. Rev Kim’s video is also an excellent summary of how God constantly reveals himself and his message through food. I am looking forward to more blog posts on this topic to come. God Bless!

  • Marionette

    I am elated that you chose to do a series on this topic!! I work at a theological seminary and am passionate to be part of a vehicle that equips God’s people to minister faithfully. I have however been searching for a new hobby since I sometimes struggle to unwind and relax. I’ve always loved cooking and exploring new recipes and I somehow ended up deciding to start a food blog. After making the decision I battled to come to grips with whether it is a legitimate hobby to pursue. I was afraid that it will only serve as a distraction but through a series of events I realized what an amazing platform it could be to connect with people that I won’t otherwise come into contact with and to convey Christian truths around community and celebration that has been lost in our society. I’ve started reading up on topics like the theology of food and am in the process of writing a paper on the Communion meal as an actual meal. It’s really a field of study that has gripped and excited me and I cannot wait to read your posts!

    • Chris

      Marionette, if you enjoy it, you’re gifted at it, and there’s no moral imperative against it, it’s legitimate. You don’t need a theology of food to go into the kitchen, whip up deliciousness and bless others by sharing the results. There are people everywhere who need people like you! If you’re enjoying one of God’s gifts, and He opens the doors to new friendships and opportubities to share the love of Christ, that’s all the theology you need. :) I believe this applies to any hobby or vocation we may pursue. It is for freedom that Christ set us free!

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  • Chance

    Bethany, thank you for these articles. This is true Christian integration. Soli Deo gloria!

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  • Christopher Zodrow

    Kuyper filtered through Keller is going to perpetuate the mistake of confounding reformed theology with philosophy. They are two different things, and modal issues are not addressed comprehensively by the former. Please, take some time to read the materials from the whole of the Dutch tradition, particularly the works of Herman Dooyeweerd. The church is not the place to do this kind of thinking on behalf of the whole kingdom of God.

    Theology is not philosophy, and reformed philosophy is an equal with the church’s theology, not subject to it. The “gospel” as narrowly defined by some confessions and the TGC is not the basis of philosophy.

    Christopher Zodrow

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