Thanks to the Chez Panisse, the Slow Food Movement and Michael Pollan, Americans are more likely now than a generation ago to ask where their food comes from. This is a useful and healthy question, and how frightening is it that we so rarely know the answer? But, honestly, we at the Egg had never spent much time asking it of our most important meal.
Oh, we've served parishes where the answer was pretty clear. We've used a lot of bread baked by parishioners, and in our first call were lucky enough to have an old guy who made wine in his basement, and brought it over in gallon jugs. Provided that you have no theological objection to leavened bread (and we don't), this is probably the most spiritually and liturgically satisfying way to get things done.
Mind you, it's not perfect. The homemade wine was too sweet, not strong enough, and so heavily sedimented that that on the last Sunday before a new delivery, one consecrated sludge. Leavened bread, by its nature, crumbles -- and crumbs at the altar are something to be strenuously avoided. So despite the many charms of DIY Eucharistic elements, we confess that we are just a bit more comfortable with a chalice full of tawny port and a paten loaded with little wafers.
Given the obsessions of the oenologically inclined, it is easy to fine out where your wine comes from; most vineyards will happily cite you their average rainfall and the pH of their soil. Our sentimental preference: Brotherhood Winery, America's oldest and for most of our lives a local house. ("Local," at one point, meant amost within the parish boundaries).
Wafers are more of a challenge. We usually buy them mail-order, from any of three or four suppliers. Over the years, we have tried most the varieties: tiny, giant, "priest's host," whole wheat, gluten-free, stamped with a cross or a lamb or sometimes a crown, wrapped in cellophane or packaged in a jar. While we certainly have our preferences (small and ultra-thin, thank you, so we don't have to masticate our Savior), the truth is that one supplier's product has always struck us as as being pretty much the same as another's.
And now we now why: they're all made in the same factory. According to this fascinating and slightly disturbing article by Rowan Moore Geraty posted at Killing the Buddha, 70% of the communion wafers sold in the US are produced by one company, Cavanagh. Founded in the 1940s, they created the first machinery for mass-producing the wafers, and today (it seems) a great many church supply houses sell Cavanagh products.
According to Geraty, Cavanagh's innovations have had a double effect. One, not really examined in the article, is to centralize production -- bread is no longer a locally-made product, but one shipped long distances from a factory. The other, which occupies much of the article, is that the product has been secularized. What was once largely the work of nuns, and constituted for them both a ministry and a means of sustenance, is now the work of a commercial industry.
Indeed, a lot of the article is drawn from two sources: Cavanagh, and the Benedictine sisters of Clyde, Missouri, who are the largest remaining monastic manufacturer. Geraty makes it pretty clear that the nuns resent Cavanagh's dominance in their industry, but the sisters in Clyde seem to run a pretty big shop themselves. We can't help wondering whether the article would have been improved by interviews with a couple of micro-suppliers as well.
The article has flaws. Its description of pre-Cavanagh wafer production can't be quite correct. Geraty talks about nuns with cookie trays, but we have seen medieval wafer presses in museums -- they look a little like those long-handled sandwich presses that some people use with an open fire. The emphasis falls heavily upon Roman Catholic institutions and practices, to the extent that Protestantism is misrepresented (the move toward weekly Communion among Lutherans and Episcopalians, for example, has a history that long predates Vatican II). But this is small stuff.
For us, the most bluntly disturbing part of the article is not the beginning, in which Geraty's roommate eats unconsecrated wafers as a snack food, but the end, when Geraty describes in passing something called the Chasid Cup:
The online promotions for the Chasid Cup show the hermetically sealed container with a shot of grape juice and an individually wrapped Communion wafer against a purple background with slick font and a tantalizing picture of grapes reminiscent of juice advertisements.
We've heard of this monstrosity, but assumed it was something used by Baptists or community churches or ... well, somebody like that. But the following sentence reduced us to tears, and then prayer, and then tears again:
The product is billed as a sanitary and convenient alternative to conventional methods of serving communion, with sales growing, according to one church goods importer, primarily in the Lutheran market.
Oh, please, no. Please, please, please no.