Sacred Sweet Tooth: The Symbolism and Function of
Candy and Sweets in Religious Traditions
With Constance Kirker, January 15, 2018
How does the concept of sweets function in the rituals of religion? This was the question posed by speaker Constance Kirker to the audience after they tasted an abundant array of international sweets associated with various religious holidays. Kirker, a retired professor of art history at Penn State University, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore, and a culinary historian, led the group on an exploration of religious symbolism communicated by traditional sweets of each of the four major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam.
Food has been used to symbolize and communicate multiple meanings in religious and cultural ceremonies for centuries and sweets are a large part of that practice. Sweetness, Kirker explained, equals goodness, pleasure, reward and temptation. Representing rare and valuable offerings to gods, portable sweets became the practice, both conceptual and literal. For early man honey was considered nectar of the gods and in Mesopotamia dates and ambrosia were the food of gods. Honey, dates, fruits–dried and fresh were all early sweet celebration foods.
In Hinduism Krishna’s greatness gives way to his sweetness and sugar was peace while eating. In Buddhism sweetness often represented fertility and goodness, and this can be seen in the practice of pouring sweet water on Buddha. The Chinese kitchen or domestic god Zao Shen is offered sweet cakes to insure sweetness in the home. Convent sweets made by nuns are offered on religious holidays and Islamic religious fasts are broken with sweetened breads and cookies. Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and [date] honey. The Christian orthodox Epiphany and Mardi Gras is celebrated with a sweet King’s cake and hidden treasure.
Such examples rolled on in the presentation aided by slides illustrating many of the symbolic and literal representations from Ghanian Divine Chocolate to Hanukkah gelt and candy canes.
Sweetness represents goodness. And, as Kirker reiterated, the “sweetness” of faith and traditions is represented across religions and cultures with candies, sweet baked goods, and fruits.