Real Cheese and the Eucharist: On the Rhetoric of Dietary Restrictions

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The other day, I went to a local coffeehouse for breakfast. The restaurant is an entirely gluten-free facility that also caters to other dietary restrictions. The restaurant is somewhat of a hot-spot for those of us with food allergies or dietary restrictions because it accommodates most all of them. While the entire facility is gluten-free (not to be confused with wheat-free), they also have vegan breads and cheeses, so anyone can order most anything on the menu.

When I was there for breakfast, I ordered a side of cheese grits with my meal. My server followed-up by asking, “Would you like those with real cheese?” And forgetting for a moment that they offer vegan cheese, I stumbled and nodded, “Yes, real cheese.”

It occurred to me, in that moment, that for such an inclusive menu and facility, there were still power dynamics at work. I will say that their menu refers to such things as “dairy” or “dairy free,” but the question, which has been asked of me more than once (hey, they have good cheese grits!), suddenly disrupts the seemingly level playing field of dietary restrictions in this particular space by implying that vegan and dairy-free cheese is fake or inauthentic. Issues of power and authenticity come into play for dairy free and vegan options at this restaurant that normally exist for nut-, gluten-, shellfish-, etc free items at other restaurants: they are seen as other or different and can therefore have certain stigmas associated with them. After all, the same claims of realness or authenticity have been made about the realness or authenticity of gluten free bread.

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For example, you may recall the Vatican issuing a letter stating that, for the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Communion offering must contain, at the very least, low-gluten.  Citing a 2003 circular letter, they argued,

“‘Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.’ It added that ‘Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials and without the use of procedures that would alter the nature of bread.'”

While others, such as the Episcopal Church (among others), permit the use of gluten-free Communion offerings, thereby positioning themselves in a more inclusive light — assuming, of course, they understand all of the issues of cross-contamination, etc. and ignoring that the wine in both instances could also contain traces of gluten — the Catholic Church requires that even those with celiac disease either eat the low-gluten offering or only partake in the wine.

The realness, authenticity, or inherent nature of the thing is invoked in a number of ways. While the use of that notion of authenticity within the Catholic Church certainly has more apparent consequences, those same dynamics (of who and what gets to count as real or authentic) are also present in that simple interaction at the coffeehouse. In the brief exchange over cheese, a boundary was drawn delineating what gets to count as a proper dietary restriction and what doesn’t, though I doubt the server meant to say that or even realized the ways in which that classification of “real cheese” implicitly othered those who would prefer or require dairy-free options. For, as Steven Ramey argues in his “Accidental Favorites: The Implicit in the Study of Religions,” our language is not free of bias, so we must be cognizant of the ways in which we discuss religion — or in this case, cheese — so not to accidentally perpetuate certain normative ideas, assumptions, or power structures.

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