Burgers, metal, and religious offense

Really, really kicking myself for never visiting Kuma’s Corner when I was living in Chicago.

For those of you who don’t know, Kuma’s Corner is a burger joint on the North Side who names all their special dishes after heavy metal bands. Seriously, why did I never go there? And why don’t they franchise and open a branch in Boston?

Anyway, Kuma’s latest special, the Ghost, is causing a bit of controversy. The dish is a 10-ounce patty on a pretzel roll topped with slow-braised goat shoulder, ghost chili aioli, and aged white cheddar cheese. Sounds tasty. If I ate beef, I’m sure I’d try it, mostly for the ghost chili aioli.

The Ghost burger (picture from the Chicago Tribune)

The dish is named after the Swedish heavy metal band Ghost, sometimes called Ghost B.C. I’ve seen Ghost live once, and they were pretty good. Not my absolute favorite kind of metal, but heavy, tuneful, and theatrical. Good live show.

Ghost/Ghost B.C.

But that’s not all. The finishing touch on the Ghost burger is a bit, shall we say, Roman: a red wine reduction and a garnish of an unconsecrated communion wafer.

This all makes sense, because Ghost the band crafts their image in a kind of inverted imitation of the Catholic Church. The instrumentalists dress up in monk’s robes and the singer wears corpse paint and a papal mitre. The effect is intentionally blasphemous. (Bonus: the singer takes the stage name Papa Emeritus, which I guess would technically be the title of Pope Benedict XVI now).

Kuma’s Corner calls their burger “a fitting tribute to the supreme blasphemous activities carried out by the band itself.”

Others aren’t so amused. Jeff Young at Catholic Foodie (via Chicago Tribune):

“It’s not the Eucharist, but it’s still symbolic. For us as Catholics, the Eucharist is more than a symbol, it’s a sacrament. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that symbols aren’t important. … It is a mockery of something that is holy. The same thing could be said of the band itself.”

I’m pretty sure that’s the point. I mean, it’s a tribute to a blasphemous band. But a cow is a symbol of God to many Hindus, which by this logic would mean that any burger is a mockery of something holy to them, and I think that Young would agree that Hindus complaining about beef in restaurants would be a crazy thing. We certainly don’t see Brahmins writing letters to the editor whining about the mere existence of Outback Steakhouse.

In addition, the communion wafer at Kuma’s is unconsecrated, meaning it hasn’t even undergone the act that’s supposed to turn it from just a cracker into a symbol. To use the Hindu analogy again, if you’re a priest and someone steals your cow, kills it, and makes it into dinner, you’d have a right to be pissed (and not just for religious reasons). That doesn’t mean you’re justified in complaining that other people enjoy a random steak every once and a while. You’re not even justified in complaining if some teenager decides to rebel with a #1 combo on the Wendy’s menu. Your religion doesn’t get to run other people’s lives. Cluck all you want, by all means, but no one should have to listen to you.

But look at me, talking about cows. The issue is communion wafers (unconsecrated). These things are mass manufactured and take on no symbolism until they’re blessed by a priest. Even under the doctrine of transubstantiation, unconsecrated altar bread is just a bread, not the body of Christ. Thus eating it as part of a burger isn’t even as confrontational as PZ Myers and his “heinous cracker abuse.” Fortunately, I don’t think anyone’s sent death threats to Kuma’s Corner yet.

The Ghost burger is a tribute to an aspect of heavy metal culture, a culture in which nothing is sacred (besides, you know, “don’t kill people,” “if you see a child in a mosh pit, help them find their parents,” “thou shalt not listen to ‘untrue’ music,” “thou shalt argue incessantly about what’s ‘true’ and what isn’t,” etc.). It’s also a very diverse culture, religiously. Metal fans and musicians are atheist, agnostic, spiritual, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Pagan, etc. Tom Araya, lead singer of Slayer, is Catholic himself, and still sings songs entitled things like “God Hates Us All.” That is simply the nature of the beast. No, I don’t expect Jeff Young at Catholic Foodie or Bill Donahue of the Catholic League or the Pope or even PZ Myers (sorry for grouping you with Bill Donahue–eesh) to grok the mechanics of metal subculture, but suffice it to say that this supposed controversy is probably just going to boost sales of the Ghost burger and maybe Ghost, the band, themselves.

What I don’t get is why people are complaining about it at all. There’s this sense among some religious people that even a vague kind of side-eye to their belief system is intended as an automatic slight. If a Catholic takes offense at someone eating an unconsecrated communion wafer, they’re very likely looking for an opportunity to be offended. Same with our hypothetical Hindus protesting Outback. Same with a Muslim who sends a nasty letter to a musician who samples the muezzin’s call for a song.

Cultural and religious symbols lose their original meaning to those outside the culture or religion. Maybe a non-Catholic likes the taste of wine and bread together. Maybe a non-Hindu just likes cows and refuses to eat them. Maybe a non-Muslim likes the sound of the call to prayer and just finds it beautiful. By the same token, Catholics are free to not eat the Ghost burger (or to order it without the wafer, which is an option). If Kuma’s invents the Muhammad burger next (there is no heavy metal band named Muhammad that I am aware of), Muslims are free to not eat that. Hindus are free to not eat any burger (except veggie or turkey or… you get the idea). None of those people are justified in being pissed at those who create or consume those things. No one can tell you you can’t be offended, but think about why you’re doing it and whether it’s really warranted. Otherwise you’re going to end up spending your life unable to enjoy anything. If it turns out God does exist, this whole Ghost burger thing is proof that it does have a sense of humor.

About nkrishna

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