The doctrine of the Real Presence is a stumbling block and a sign of contradiction (John 6:60). It is also Our Lord’s great gift to a sinful and confused world.
Instagrammable food is a major trend, from tie-dye colored Starbucks Frappuccinos, to fanciful unicorn and mermaid food and drinks. Speedos, a café on Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach, was deemed “the Most Instagrammable” by Big Seven Travel, and also has 440,000 followers on its Instagram account. On one level, this fad seems to be incredibly successful.
In its own way, Instagrammable food feeds basic human needs. It is social in that one can virtually “share a meal.” When family meals are rare, the internet becomes a virtual family. Strangers commune over dishes, exchange recipes. Instagrammer/ cook Alison Roman became an overnight sensation with her trending #TheStew, a picture-perfect combination of garbanzo beans in coconut curry. Technology supplants the family dinner table.
Instagrammable food follows the dictum that presentation matters: “one eats with the eyes first.” This explains the various Instagram food fads, from gothic “activated charcoal” foods, to starry and cosmic “galaxy” ones. On Instagram, it’s all about the photo finish. Appearance is everything.
Since ‘appearances can be deceptive’, “Instagram-worthy” food has its dangers. An April 2019 study by the New University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, titled “Social Media Influencer Marketing and Children’s Food Intake: A Randomized Trial,” published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in their journal Pediatrics, showed that the promotion of unhealthy food on social media leads to childhood obesity. An August article by Rachel Hosie in Insider showed how the desire for social media attention contributes to food waste.
A notable example of this waste is Antoni Porowski (of Netflix’s Queer Eye) advertising the special room service Sip and Slurp menu at the W Hotel in Washington DC. The menu includes a cellphone stand and lapel mic. In the promotional video, Porowski samples surf and turf, two burgers, truffle fries, a charcuterie board, a Hawaiian pizza, cherry pie with vanilla ice cream, and a carrot cake tower. Unsurprisingly, with such a massive amount of food, there are loads of leftovers (or waste). In other words, food appreciated simply for its appearance influences actual consumption.
Interestingly, there are plenty of pictures of the Eucharist on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, though the Eucharist in itself is not visually interesting. But a livestream Mass in a beautiful church with a majestic liturgy argues that the Mass is the most “Instagram-worthy” meal of all.
The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, however, transcends appearances. At the consecration, the bread and wine maintain their appearances, while truly becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. For the Eucharistic celebration, proper matter is important; this is the reason why there was debate over yuca — last March, Vatican officials came forward to say that the concept of yuca replacing traditional Eucharistic bread will not be part of the upcoming Amazon Synod this October. The matter does matter, according to canon law. The ingredients must be the same as Christ used when he uttered the words of consecration at the Last Supper; the words and matter must align with the historical facts, even if rice is more available and sparkles are more pleasing to the eye.
For the Eucharist, however, in opposition to our visually obsessed culture, appearances are irrelevant. Through the priest’s consecration, the substance of the bread and wine become the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood (CCC 1375-1381). St. Thomas Aquinas’ great Corpus Christi hymn, “Tantum ergo,” says, “Faith will tell us Christ is present, when our human senses fail.” Transubstantiation transcends ordinary appearances. Due to Original Sin, human senses are dimmed. In the healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41), Jesus taught that spiritual blindness is worse than physical. “Seeing” the true substance of the Eucharist takes the eyes of faith, which the smartphone can’t capture.
When ‘optics’ take precedence, food’s main purpose (sustenance) is often lost. Some have joked that unicorn and rainbow foods taste artificial. Dining becomes a purely aesthetic and stylistic experience. One can see the growing popularity of the unnatural with the “Beyond Chicken” at the Atlanta KFC that drew crowds. The point of the product was that it mimicked chicken without being chicken. Artifice, and even outright deception, are applauded.
While current food trends exalt the unnatural, the Eucharist is supernatural. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that grace improves Nature instead of destroying it. In the Mass, there is thanksgiving for the grain and the grapes whose substance will become the Body of Christ. Transubstantiation is the ultimate spiritual reality. It is the definitive, essential truth, hidden in plain view.
This being the case, beauty which glorifies God in the context of the Mass and the Eucharist makes common sense. When a tabernacle is reverently placed and beautifully adorned, it calls attention to the Real Presence and gives it the honor it deserves. The murals at Mission San Miguel in California, the mosaics of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, the rose window at Notre Dame all are in service to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Mass is more than a visual treat or a “shared meal,” it makes Christ present. The Eucharist not only feeds the body, but the soul.
Instagrammable foods, on the other hand, often ends up wasted because its actual object is not nourishment, but entertainment. Since the Eucharist is indeed the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Savior, Our Lord made sure nothing went to waste (John 6:12-13). The Eucharist is so precious; it shouldn’t be treated like a mere garnish in the course of the Mass. Moreover, the Bread from Heaven is no simple entrée; it is a sacrifice. It is the ultimate sacrifice, one that humans alone are incapable of manufacturing.
Today, in our culture, food is no longer about food. It’s performance, business, politics, art, being “Liked.” A return to belief in the Eucharist brings a spiritual nourishment that truly satisfies. The doctrine of the Real Presence now, as in the time of Jesus, is a stumbling block and a sign of contradiction (John 6:60). It is also Our Lord’s great gift to a sinful and confused world. The Eucharist made St. Thomas Aquinas, typically seen as a cerebral philosopher, into a poet. As he wrote in Pange Lingua, the sequence for Corpus Christi, “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of His flesh, the mystery sing; Of the Blood, all price exceeding, shed by our Immortal King.”