So I have been thinking about food. Beyond the obvious daily contemplations about food: “What am I going to have for breakfast?” “Is it time for lunch yet?” “Do I have to get an ice cream cone before I have to be back at work?” “What do I need to buy for dinner?” I have been giving food more thought. I have begun looking at how so much of life, in one way or another is connected to food. Obviously, food is the sustenance that keeps us all alive and makes us who we are. But is that really as obvious as I think it is? Do we all realize that about the food we eat?
Over the years I have encountered various part of a puzzle that I am just putting together now. I spent summers on a farm as a kid and so I know the routine a bit. I have read An Omnivore’s Dilemma, twice, and much of that resonates with me. I have traveled and lived in several countries and have seen how “other” people do it. And by it I mean grow, eat and consume food.
In the United States, I am under the impression, we don’t recognize that there is any other way to do anything other than OUR WAY. But as I have come brutally confronted by the contrast between our way and “other” ways I have come to see the shape and texture of the way of living that I was raised in. It is only by leaving a system that you can see it clearly.
There are countless ways to grow, eat and consume food. These different approaches to keeping ourselves alive have wildly different outcomes, not just on the food produced and the health of the people who eat it but also who we become. The food system is a complex interwoven system of dependencies from environmental, nutritional, biological/physiological, sociological, psychological and emotional and in many places even spiritual.
Most of the time I eat in a food vacuum. I eat for taste alone. Sometimes convenience, cost or boredom are a factor, but rarely do I acknowledged the complex threads of the food system I participate in. And regardless of whether I notice them, each of them impact me with every choice I make, and my choices in turn impact the larger system.
What am I trying to say? I am an eater. Do we ever consider ourselves eaters, as if there were an alternative label or behavior? Because I don’t consider an alternative, I don’t think we contemplate our role or responsibility to ourselves in the system. This chasm of awareness and reason has grown in the recent decades and has completely abandoned all connection since WWII (at least in The United States). We don’t cook at home like we used to. We don’t grow or even know how to grow vegetables. Globally there has been mass migration to cities, where a garden plot is no longer possible and so the more we change the more we forget. The more we are removed from our food: what it is, where it comes from and how it is prepared the less nourishment we become.
Of course I do mean literally that the foods shipped large distances, grown out of season, picked before they are ripe and sold to you resembling the food you want contain less of the vital minerals and vitamins that we need. But also a more subtle and insidious and essential nutritional depletion is also occurring. The spiritual and emotional nutrition of eating a healthy meal with family or friends, celebrating the gift of good.
There are many ways that we are nourished by food. I have narrowed it down to these two key components: Fuel and Feast.
The quality of food is directly proportional to the nutritional content or how much it fuels us. Many factors influence the quality of food including: growing process, quality of process, distance from origin and time since harvest. Fuel addresses the biological, physiological and environmental dependence all humans have on food. But there is another equally important component to human nutrition. It is not as easily quantified, but none the less important.
Feast refers to the process of eating which, as I define it, has completely dissolved in mainstream America. Feast includes the preparation of a meal (or acknowledging that someone did)[which means all prepackaged food that can be defrosted or reheated or rehydrated are not meals- nor are they food]; the ceremony of eating(sitting alone, or ideally with someone (eating should be communal) to enjoy the rest from work and the bounty of the effort); Gratitude is the culmination of all the effort that went into growing, transporting and preparing the meal so that it arrived on your plate. In the modern era this complex system has come to involve many more people and phases and the more complex it gets the less gratitude we practice- because we are becoming disconnected and less aware of the process.
In the old days people grew their own food in front of their house. So to practice gratitude meant you thanked yourself for the work you put cultivating the land and raising the food, you thanked yourself for the harvest and the preparation of the meal. Transportation was practically negligible… But gratitude makes a meal taste different. Now that food travels across continents, Machines and hundreds of anonymous illegal hangs pick our food, nameless people transport it to processing plants, packaging plants, more nameless people drive it across the country or globe until it arrives and waits for you as if it were born on that shelf and not placed there by some high school kid trying to save enough money for college. Most of our vegetables and produce have seen more of the U.S.A. that we have. These days, many products should have passport stamps and do. Have you been to all the countries that your food arrives from? Aren’t you a little jealous of your jet-set wine and cheese? Those exotic fruits in winter really are living the life. Why did they ever leave their native Banana Republic geographically identifiable only by the cute little sticker? Do you think about the people and the process that goes into our current food system? I know I never did. Even at the roadside stands in California when I saw the hunched people picking strawberries just for me, my main concern was getting a good price for them, and getting them home into some cream (from a cow from who knows where). Paying a livable wage to a migrant worker or a Nicaraguan banana farmer did not even enter my mind. Does that make me a terrible person or just a normally socialized person disconnected from my food system? Gratitude was not part of my vocabulary and gratitude for food or the system that got it to me was beyond comprehension.
Mealtime prayers were offered up when I was a child, but to my ears they had a religious nature that had nothing to do with the food. Many times I resented them, because they delayed the eating. I may have said the words, but was often thinking of something else.
Now I think what we don’t know about food is killing us. And It is time to really start thinking about food.