“For me, that analogy of a death—a decomposition creating this wonderful flavor—it’s a promise of something better. I experience that over and over again when I look at cheese, when I smell cheese and when I look at the microbial ecology of cheese. That’s the wonder for me: that it’s a promise of life beyond death.”
This is how Sister Noella Marcellino, a Benedictine nun and microbiologist, describes cheese toward the end of the Netflix documentary series Cooked.
The divine inspiration is her own “Bethlehem” cheese, which she makes by hand using raw, old world methods that are borderline dangerous in their authenticity. Apparently, the cheese really stinks; she characterizes the scent as bodily, almost too embarrassing to name. One scene shows her sniffing it closely as she and another nun stack the wheels—now covered in a velvety, grey layer of fungi—in dark closets. A camera outside meanders alongside the dairy cows around the shrouded abbey in rural Connecticut.
Food journalist Michael Pollan, already an impassioned narrator, finds new tones of tenderness during this humble finale to his series. Fermentation itself is “miraculous,” he tells us. And trying Sister Noella’s cheese, a “conversion” experience.
I have not had the privilege, but to that I’ll say “Amen.” It’s perhaps one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.
I am a Christian. A daughter of a pastor, an alumna of private religious education, an editor who has held various roles in faith-based publishing. I’ve often been surrounded by loving, gracious, intelligent believers, and the practice of faith deeply enriches my life.
The business of faith, however, exhausts me. There is Christianity—the beautiful force and life-giving community I’ve known since my youth—and then there is “Christianity” the brand, rendered vapid by sound bites, dollar signs and party lines. In my work (and especially in Nashville, Tenn.), I inevitably bear witness to this odd tangling of the commercial and the spiritual. This can be utterly depleting—the platforms, the vocabulary, the politics, the warped, ego-driven misrepresentations of something I hold very dear.
So I have fought hard to preserve it. Held it close and quiet. Kept it out of comment sections and tried to read it better books. Reached for it on the dark nights roiling with doubts. Yes, it’s still there. You’re still there.
And lately, I have found that I must feed it. Literally. In seeking out new sacred spaces for myself, I’ve experienced a silent, personal revival in my kitchen and around the table.
I won’t pretend to be a very good cook, though I’d certainly like to be. I have yet to make a risotto. Sometimes I put produce that belongs on a shelf in the refrigerator. Anyone with real culinary skills would be appalled by my knife work. But I am a thankful and present chef. Almost giddy, actually. I treasure prep time over a cutting board and daydream about my pantry items when I’m away from home. To me, crafting and consuming meals, or simply watching others do so, has become nourishing in every sense. I understand what Carmelite monk and mystic Brother Lawrence meant when he expressed that he drew near to God while peeling potatoes. Many evenings, I sit cross-legged on the twine rug in the middle of the kitchen and peer through the glass of the oven door as the mozzarella on a (usually quite rustic) pizza begins to bubble and bronze and spread like a sunset. A peace comes over me, warm and rewarding. This feeling—more like a prayer, really—cannot wholly be described, and it certainly can’t be argued. Only savored.
Cooked isn’t the only documentary treating food preparation with such reverence. In the past couple years, Netflix also released Chef’s Table, a stunning series that takes viewers into the lives and kitchens of some of the world’s most notable chefs. At the top of each episode, Vivaldi’s “Winter” tumbles in dramatically over slow-motion clips of chefs creating dishes that might also pass as bouquets or paintings or pornography. It’s dripping, smoking, oozing, cracking, drizzling, simmering perfection.
And if the Chef’s Table opener is lust at first sight, then the conclusion is true love. Each story builds to a cinematic “menu reveal.” After the viewer has spent an hour with a chef—learning about their inspirations, flaws, families, gardens, critics, triumphs—only then do the filmmakers decide to fully unveil why this man or woman is world-famous in the first place. The music swells, and their culinary masterpieces are introduced, one-by-one, freshly plated, twirling in a soft spotlight. The camera practically salivates, staying close enough to catch the sheen on the fish scales, the specks on the delicate floral garnish, the breath from the bread. Depending on the personality of the featured chef, this sequence may be playful or gritty. But it is always astonishing.
And I always cry.
I could be cynical about this cool food documentary revolution, as people can be about everything (and as I sometimes feel I must be). There’s a clear formula to the narratives and aesthetics of these films, and I’m not supposed to like that. But beyond the expert editing, there is something true about them—both elemental and artistic—that I don’t just like, I need.
Cooking is transformative, in more ways than one. Human civilization grew up around grain, and since then, the path of history has wound through wine cellars, paddy fields, spice markets, coffee plantations, modern bistros and barbecue pits. In feasting, in fasting, in famine, cultures derive power and identity from their relationship to food.
Further, I believe the creation of food can also be sacred—a foundation for ritual, unity and liturgy. And while every religion has its savory traditions, the one I’m most familiar with ultimately looks to a Man who broke bread, drank wine, called for seafood and craved breakfast. His table was inclusive, his meals miraculous. Taste and see that the Lord is good, I read as a child, in a book that obsessed over milk and honey and olives and fatted calves and daily loaves. Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.
When I watch shows like Chef’s Table or Cooked, something stirs within me—like flavor from rot, and life from death. They rarely address religion directly, but they are true stories focused on what sustains us: heritage, hard work and food. These are hallowed facets of humanity. As Alain Passard, featured on Chef’s Table: France, says of his decision to become a chef, “I was determined to enter this temple.” And when spirituality does pull the filmmakers’ focus, it can be as profound as a brilliant “Cheese Nun” whose voice falls to a hush when she discusses milk proteins. “I stand back and wonder at this Creator,” Sister Noella says.
Stand back and wonder.
I relish this idea, in such a noisy time in our world and in my life. I need all the reminders I can get that, when the words disappoint or fail, there are still other options.