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Life from Death: An Interview with Director Andrew Brumme

Last week, we introduced you to a beautiful new documentary series on the spirituality of food called Taste & See, and invited you to attend one of the virtual screenings coming up on June 3rd. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be giving you various peeks behind the scenes of this project, starting with this in-depth interview with Director Andrew Brumme.

Drew Miller: You mention on the Taste & See website that this journey of connecting food and faith began for you in earnest when you read Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb. That book is foundational at the Rabbit Room, so I’d love to start there: could you elaborate on your experience reading that book? What were some of the central insights that got your wheels turning? And beyond Capon, what other influences led you into this project?

Andrew Brumme: I still have a vivid memory of my first encounter with Capon’s writing. I’d never heard of him until my brother gave me The Supper of the Lamb as a Christmas gift in 2014. I savored the book slowly over the next few months. Even recalling the experience of reading it now, I feel much of the same delight as that first encounter. That’s really the word that stuck with me regarding Capon, delight. He has this light-heartedness that is profoundly rooted in the most weighty truths about who God is, and who we are in this delicious world. I always picture Capon with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, as if he’s been let in on the most awesome secret and there’s no longer any need to fear. We are simply invited to delight in God’s creation, to taste and see that he is good!

Reading The Supper of the Lamb gave me that first taste, which led me to seeing the goodness of God vividly in all things related to food. Capon loved food and he loved God, and he so strongly emphasizes that it’s not one love at the expense of the other. The material and spiritual are inseparable because God loves, in Capon’s words, “the stuff of this world.” And as we come to love creation as God does, it whets our appetites for our true home.

Growing up in a white suburban American Christian home, food was never really connected to our faith. The revelation Capon gave me was that eating is a profoundly spiritual act. He makes such a masterful case for paying attention, the chief example of course being the incredible chapter on the onion. Our producing team did the exercise of mindfully peeling and slicing an onion together while reading the chapter out loud as a way of kicking off the production process. It’s impossible to view onions in the same way after that! The astounding thing is that the same wonder and delight are available to us every time we come to the table, or spend time in the fields or the kitchen on the way there.

Documentary storytelling is one of the ways I work things out and engage with the world. So my first thought as I finished the book was to locate the author and make him the star of a food documentary like none other. I was terribly disappointed when I learned Capon had passed away only a few years earlier.

Undeterred in my newfound enthusiasm for all things food and faith, I dove headfirst into more expansive research. I found a feast of books and stories awaiting me, many similarly inspired by Capon’s work. Some of the earliest influences were Eat with Joy by Rachel Marie Stone, Food and Faith by Norman Wirzba, Take this Bread by Sara Miles, and Leslie Leyland Fields’ compilation The Spirit of Food. There are many others I draw from, especially as new stories in the series are developed. These are often inspired by a particular book. For example, the first film we’re releasing now got its initial inspiration from Fred Bahnson’s masterful Soil and Sacrament.

It was a delight to discover a diverse food and faith movement, united in the idea that tasting really can lead to seeing. I became convinced that it was through the stories of people actively engaging with food, deeply rooted in their faith, that I could bring alive the spirituality of food in a documentary series.

DM: Taste & See explores the intimate, oft-forgotten relationship between the spiritual and physical, especially as it unfolds within the richly layered context of a shared meal. Could you give us a slow-motion play-by-play of all the layers of meaning that unfold in concert with one another during a shared meal, from preparing to serving to tasting?

AB: This is an ambitious question! Whole books have been written on the subject. I’d especially recommend Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, which has informed so much of my own understanding. But here are a few thoughts about what I understand is happening as we eat together beginning in the field, moving to the kitchen and finishing around the table.

A central theme when we eat is in fact death. We can’t escape the fact that something (be it plant or animal) had to die in order for us to live. And we must eat, or we ourselves will die. So the sustaining of our lives is constantly requiring the death of something else.

If we start with the land that provides our food, the soil is literally “eating death” and turning it into life. Anyone who composts can attest to this wondrous fact!

Moving to the modern day kitchen, which is often far removed from the realities of death if we aren’t preparing or cooking with real ingredients. We have to admit that whether we’re butchering an animal or dicing an onion, something that was living is dying in our hands (or on the way to them) in order to feed us and feed those we love.

Then finally at the table, food takes its final journey as we receive it into our bodies and it nourishes us, keeping us alive for another day. Life from death.

The question then is, what can we do with the energy we’ve been given through our eating, to make our lives worthy of all this death? It can be a pretty uncomfortable and depressing question if you sit with it a bit. Those who follow Jesus can’t help but recall that incredible mealtime scene on the eve of Jesus’ own death as he passed around bread and wine to his closest friends, and told them it was his own body and blood and they were to eat and drink it in remembrance of him. Jesus essentially told us to eat him! Talk about a mystery we need to sit with.

I think it’s essential to apply this to all of our eating, not just a ritual during a worship service (and don’t get me started on flavorless wafers and shots of grape juice). What does it mean to eat eucharistically? I think it’s being mindful of the death constantly required to give us life, especially the life of Jesus given for us. This earth-shattering truth is present in every part of our engagement with food. If we’re aware of this, how can we not respond with gratitude, joy, wonder, and ultimately, worship?

DM: The filmmaking process is shrouded in mystery for most of us. How did you decide whose stories to explore, and how did you go about getting to know these people? What was filming like, and how has the pandemic impacted the production of this series?

AB: Mystery is a good word, because I think the verité style of documentary filmmaking is very much about being a witness to an unfolding mystery. This process is an unscripted approach where, as much as possible, we are a “fly on the wall” to what’s taking place. My job as director is to be fully present and listen, actively discerning what story we are being given and to follow the breadcrumbs where they lead. It’s terrifying and thrilling at the same time, because we never know if we’ll return from a shoot with something we can edit and use in a film or not. But it’s so much fun when we are given such a gift.

There is also plenty of preparation involved. While we don’t write a script, we do try to assemble the right ingredients so that when our crew shows up, there is the potential for a story to emerge.

For Taste & See, rather than an educational film with a bunch of talking heads waxing eloquently about food and faith, we are taking a story-driven approach, anchoring each film in one individual’s journey.

We were looking for people wildly passionate about food, with expertise and credibility in the food world, as well as a deeply rooted faith—chefs, farmers, bakers, winemakers, and other visionaries engaging significantly with food as a profound spiritual gift.

We were intentionally staying away from the preachy types and those who view food as a cheap spiritual metaphor. Rather, we sought out people with a contagious joy for life and a particular window on that joy through food. Those who are tasting and constantly seeing afresh, and whose experiences could help us to do the same.

One of the biggest challenges was that so many people had incredible experiences from their past, but we needed to capture an actively unfolding story. I am always asking what they’re doing now with food, looking for opportunities that might set the table for something to emerge when our crew shows up.

The actual production shoots were really short, usually less than a week. We always began our time in person with a subject sharing a meal, before we brought out all the cameras. We found that breaking bread together allowed a human connection so that when the gear came out (which by definition is a really unnatural context for genuine human connection), we had more of a foundation to build upon.

The pandemic was a real challenge as you might expect, but nonetheless, we felt miraculously provided for during that time. Our last shoot for the first film was in San Francisco in March 2020. We had booked tickets from Europe (where our production team is based) earlier in the year, but the US travel ban was announced the same week we were supposed to get to the US. It turns out our flight was literally the last one leaving Europe, arriving within hours of when the travel ban went into effect. Because some of our team are European nationals, they would have had to quarantine for two weeks had we arrived hours later. This would have made the shoot impossible. We filmed for three days, capturing the critical final meal in the film, and then cut our trip short when Europe’s borders were closing. We came back with just enough material to edit together the first film, which I was able to do remotely with our LA-based editor doing the months of confinement.

The two years of the pandemic that followed were challenging in terms of my own job situation. I’d hoped to be able to raise funding to keep producing the other films in the series, but apart from being able to edit the first film, the project really came to a standstill because we had no funding and I had to find other work. It’s been a very stretching journey, but I’m so grateful we seem to be emerging from that period. We’re really grateful for the virtual screening events coming up. We’re hopeful these will provide the necessary funding for us to continue producing the series.

DM: I love that this docu-series is living out its mission not only in its content, but in the distinctly invitational way you’re choosing to share that content. Tell us about your decision to share this project via virtual screenings, where viewers are encouraged to invite friends and eat together. How do you hope for the sharing of Taste & See to embody its central claims about community and creativity?

AB: There were two big influences that led us to release the first film as part of a virtual cinema event.

The first was this Rabbit Room community! You all are so community-driven, it’s contagious. When we started talking, one of the first things Pete emphasized was that everything the Rabbit Room does grows out of relationship. It was important for me to come and screen the film for your community as a next step in us getting to know one another. I was also a participant in last year’s Hutchmoot: Homebound, your incredible conference that was moved online due to the pandemic. The team did such an amazing job of making it more than just a bunch of online videos. There was so much intention in the conference design to help build community in connection around the content. As we talked about partnering with the Rabbit Room, the conversation naturally turned to how fostering community could be a part of the experience. So that was one big influence pointing us to design a robust approach to virtual screenings.

What does it mean to eat eucharistically? I think it's being mindful of the death constantly required to give us life, especially the life of Jesus given for us. This earth-shattering truth is present in every part of our engagement with food. Andrew Brumme

The second influence was the frustrating reality that we had hit a wall. As we looked for a home for this project to get out in the world, we discovered that the mainstream distribution thinks our project is too spiritual,” but the religious distributors think we’re not spiritual enough for their niche audiences. We’ve been caught in this middle space of thoughtful, spiritually-themed content designed for a diverse audience. We know this audience exists, the Rabbit Room community being a chief example! So rather than wait for distributors to get on board, we decided to bypass the traditional gatekeepers and make Taste & See directly available to audiences through a virtual cinema event.

The exciting potential of the virtual cinema event is that the model has allowed us to design an experience that fosters connection, which is a core theme of Taste & See. Eating connects us to the land, to each other, and to God. In essence, the virtual cinema event is designed to be more than just watching the documentary online. Each ticket includes access to the first film as well as a panel discussion with Andrew Peterson, Norman Wirzba (agrarian theologian, and subject in one of our next films), and me, moderated by Lindsey Patton.

Beyond the content, we’ve also worked with the Rabbit Room to design an event guide with discussion questions and a recipe inspired by the film. Our hope is that people will watch the film and panel, and then connect more deeply with their family or friends as they eat together, interacting about what they’ve just experienced. I’d love people to really make an evening out of it and gather in person or virtually with a few others to watch and discuss the film, and share a meal.

A premise of Taste & See is that mealtime and eating is sacred, and not just at special celebrations or holidays. Every time we come to the table, there is the potential for encounter and connection if we mindfully and prayerfully engage the experience. I really hope Taste & See opens people up to what the table can be, or rather, what the table already is. We just need eyes to see and taste buds to taste the reality of it!

DM: What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten? Who were you with? Were you celebrating something together? Set the scene for us.

AB: The most memorable meal I ever shared was an amazing meal in and of itself, yet the weighty significance of it was realized only two years later.

Three college friends and I were hosted by dear friends, Jason and Michelle, several years after we graduated. They lived on our university campus where Jason worked, and the two of them had a hugely significant spiritual mentoring role in each of our lives. Since graduating, we had dispersed geographically so the four of us being together was unique, and the chance to visit Jason and Michelle together was even more special.

We arrived at their Sacramento house after some hours on the road, and as we came through the door our senses alerted us to the fact that something extraordinary was happening in the kitchen. Jason had been preparing the meal for 24 hours. That fact alone was hard for me to understand as a 25 year old who didn’t pay much attention to what I ate apart from whether or not it tasted good. I later learned about a previous chapter of Jason’s life when he was immersed in the Sonoma County food scene and won local original recipe contests. He really was an incredible cook, and I think it all grew out of his deep love for local, seasonal ingredients and his deep love for people. These two loves were woven together as he cooked for us.

The table was beautiful, each place set with a lovingly crafted menu card listing the courses we’d be enjoying together. A dual melon soup, gorgonzola stuffed figs with balsamic glaze, a smoked duck pizza, a homemade batard loaf…I know there were other incredible courses, but those were the details we can remember some 15 years later.

It pains me now that I can’t remember every detail. Two years later, Jason passed away suddenly at age 36. That meal was the last time I was with Jason in person. My memories of the meal are infused with Jason’s contagious passion for life, which we could somehow palpably taste in that meal.

The most vivid moment for me is when Jason served the cold melon gazpacho. I recall a sort of humorous confusion at the very idea of a cold soup, much less a sweet one. Who thinks of such things? I wondered to myself. The yin-yang pattern of the pureed green honeydew and orange cantaloupe was a visual feast before anything even crossed our palate. When it did, I remember a feeling of refreshing delight. The subtle sweetness, the notes of each melon intact and yet perfectly blended, it was the most surprising and wonderful experience.

The whole meal was an absurdly extravagant gift from a generous and loving friend to a young man with an unrefined palate.

I’m reminded of the words of the main subject in our first film, Shomriel Sherman, who lost her own mother suddenly, and reflects throughout the film on life and death as it relates to eating and the table. She sees mealtimes as serious times, though they are generally fun and joyful. It’s a weighty joy when we feast because there’s never a certainty that we’ll have another meal with these same people.

When we screened the film at North Wind Manor, Pete concluded the evening by reading the Liturgy for Feasting with Friends from Every Moment Holy, and it opens with these lines, which I think are an appropriate way to end:

To gather joyfully is indeed a serious affair, for feasting and all enjoyments gratefully taken are, at their heart, acts of war.In celebrating this feast we declare that evil and death, suffering and loss, sorrow and tears, will not have the final word. —Doug McKelvey, “A Liturgy for Feasting with Friends,” Every Moment Holy


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