Many people include food or drink as part of ritual itself. In some groups and practices, this is part of the Great Rite (blessing the cup and bread). In other groups and practices, it’s part of a simpler, more general, shared blessing and symbolic community meal.
The question is, though, why food, and what food?
My take on it is that we use food for this for two reasons. First, food is a really powerful creator of community. I actually just wrote an essay as part of a job application about the power of homemade cookies – but the same thing goes for a lot of other foods. Eating together, however simply, brings us closer, makes us a community more easily than a random group of people in the same place.
But there’s another part of this: eating food and drinking liquids is a wonderful way to carry the energy of a ritual inside us, to use it to help it grow the work of the ritual in our every day actions. By eating and drinking ritual foods, we carry that blessing with us, into our cells and bones and blood and brain and every other part of our bodies in a very direct and practical sort of way. That’s really pretty cool, when you think about it.
The most common foods are wine and bread. There are a bunch of good reasons for this – many of them the same reasons that bread and wine (or grape juice) are used in other religious traditions for a shared meal. These food have a lot of historical resonance behind them, but they’re also pretty easy to provide in a wide range of settings. They don’t need to be kept especially warm or cold, you make them ahead of time (and can make bread days ahead of time if you can freeze it.)
But I’ve got another theory about why these foods are so popular.
Both wine and yeast breads rely on a transformation within the food itself that isn’t always true of other foods. Both rely on yeast (a living being, if a very small one) taking nutrients from the ingredients, and transforming those ingredients into something new. That’s not true of milk. It’s not true of water. It’s not true of an apple, or a carrot, or a strawberry in the same way.
Many people have also found that wine and bread hold energy better than many other alternatives – in other words, something makes it easier to infuse them with a particular energetic pattern that can then be more easily taken in and integrated by the people consuming the ritual foods. My theory is that it’s because these foods have that living transformation at their core in a way that other options don’t. It’s not that you can’t charge water, or milk, or fruit, or vegetables – but they’ll hold that energy differently, and somewhat less potently.
What does this mean?
In my ritual work, it means that I make sure that there is a living, transformed food and a living, transformed drink at ritual. My preferences are to have wine and homemade bread as an option, but there are certainly other options. Other kinds of alcohol (especially those that rely on a yeast, including beer, ale, and mead) are good choices.
If bread is a problem for someone, I’d pick a seasonal fruit. In my experience, the structure of how the energy is held is different, but it will still work well enough for most purposes. (In a few cases, I might want to explore other options, but if someone can still drink what’s in the cup, the fruit might be fine.) I do think it’s important to find something seasonal, and ideally locally grown, however, so that the fruit is connected with the seasonal or magical work you’re doing more easily.
Alcohol also has options – a good thing, since some people don’t drink, some people take medications that make drinking a problem, and some people need to avoid alcohol for other reasons. One of my students suggested a great alternative – yogurt lassi, which is based on fruit and yogurt.
You could also use water or milk kefir, which use something very similar to yeast to transform a liquid. (Water kefir apparently comes out like a slightly carbonated water, and you can mix it with fruit juice easily. Milk kefir is getting more common in grocery stores, and it’s something like a very drinkable yogurt.)
Another option – though one that can be a bit of an acquired taste – is a splash of suitable vinegar that includes the mother in water. There are a number of recipes out there for making fruit-flavored vinegars. Apple cider vinegar is often sold with the mother (the active beasties making the vinegar vinegar) included, and you could mix this with the more common wine vinegars.
I’ll note that you don’t need to pick really expensive choices: most of my ritual wine is in the $5-10 a bottle range, and I’ll use the rest in cooking and occasional drinking if I have left-overs.
I do want (when I live in a bigger house with a better cool spot for some of this) to try my hand at making kefir, vinegar, and mead, but that’s a long-term project. (The latter two take some storage space that stays relatively cool, which I don’t quite have easily. The former is easiest with some specific bottles to handle the slight carbonation, and I’m waiting on acquiring more stuff until I know where I’m ending up with whatever new job comes my way.)
Now, when I’m doing solitary and personal ritual, I don’t always include a ritual meal. I do sometimes give an offering to my Gods – but that might fresh clear water, it might be incense, it might be a commitment of some kind, or it might be food. If I do choose to charge food or drink as part of the ritual, I usually pick something that’s relevant to the ritual focus, and I consider whether using the scaffolding of energy that’s possible in alcohol is a good fit. (Often, that’s true. Sometimes I decide it’s not worth going and buying a bottle of something.)
The question of what to do with offerings depends on cultural preference, among other things. I normally make a small libation of food and drink from ritual outside for group ritual. However, for personal ritual, I often treat the meal as a shared meal with my Gods. I’ll place a small amount of food on the altar, leave it there for the rest of the ritual, and then when I’m done, consume it mindfully.
The question of chocolate:
I’ve said occasionally that I have yet to meet a deity who doesn’t appreciate chocolate as a ritual offering. I’m sure there may be some out there, but most Gods appreciate it – either because it’s something we like so much, or because it’s something They like. Either way, it’s one of my favorite choices for a small ritual shared meal.
One reason it can make a good ritual food offering is that it’s small and easy to store. However, if you’re using it, it really ought to be a food you consume, rather than one you libate, as chocolate is not good for a number of animals (including dogs.)
[last edited December 24, 2016]