Growing up in rural Indiana, I was no stranger to farms. Farms and fields were part of the landscape that environed me. My parents kept a small garden from time to time. One of my favorite things to do was to pick a tomato or pull a green onion right from the ground. There is really no flavor quite like a freshly picked vegetable (washed, of course).
We live in a culture that worships food; or perhaps worships the glamorization of food. Being a “foodie” is hip. The most popular cooking shows are something considerably different than what they once were. From Julia Child forward, cooking shows were about, imagine this…cooking. People watched these shows in order to learn to make new dishes. To be sure, the personality of the star of the show had to draw viewers, but one could watch these shows and learn a little something about food and cooking.
In more recent years, cooking shows shifted from a focus on food to more outlandish themes. For example, in what I would describe as “The Apprentice” type shows, you might have a number of young aspiring chefs in a competition to see who had what it takes. The experienced chef and judge in such shows would tend to raise his voice in anger to belittle the young up and coming cooks. Viewers “consume” (pun intended) this sort of abuse with delight. Then like The Apprentice or maybe a show like The Bachelor, the aspiring cooks were lined up, judged, and viewers saw the winners and the losers.
This is not a post about cooking shows, so I won’t go on, but I should add that there are still many good cooking shows on. But the kind I am talking about that draw the big ratings have amazingly little to do about food when you step back and think about it.
My point is that while we live in a culture that does seem to idolize food, I wonder how much we really have any kind of a relationship with our food.
What?!?! A relationship with food! What are you talking about?!?!
I’ll be honest. I am not sure myself entirely what I am talking about. Like Socrates, I do not know, and I know that I do not know! I am still learning. But I think I am referring to having some sort of connection to the sources of your nourishment. I do not intend to moralize about what sort of connection everyone should have to their food. I would like to suggest, though, that having some kind is something good.
One of my personally favorite ways to connect to food is cooking and, in particular, food prep. The thing is, I know how easy it is to throw a bag in a microwave or have one kind or another of some boxed or frozen food. I am not without sin in this. I know in this world where we move so fast and have so much to do, taking time to prepare a meal is something for which there is little time for most of us. But I find it therapeutically soothing to slice vegetables, prepare spices, marinate something, choose my cooking utensils, and so on.
I find food prep most enjoyable when listening to music. I have diverse musical tastes from classical to metal, but as I have told Grace Rowland, the front woman of the Austin based folk group The Deer, their song Hawkmoth has a perfect tempo for vegetable chopping and slicing.
You can also watch the news or a favorite television program. Best of all, I would say, is engaging in conversation. We tend to think of the communal nature of food in terms of gathering around the table to eat together and this is very true. But for me sharing conversation or some laughs with family and friends around preparing for a meal that we will likewise share together, is a rich experience that connects me both to my food as well as being connected to others by food.
There is also deep satisfaction in growing food. The process of planting, nurturing, harvesting, preparing, and eating has many rewards. I would also add sharing the food you grow with others to that list. I find the sensory benefits of growing food very satisfying. It is intoxicating for me to run my hands through my rosemary or basil plants and then breathe it in. The combined tactile and olfactory sensations remind me what is important in life. Picking some fresh herbs and then immediately using them in a dish is a simple joy.
What am I supposed to do?
But, you say, what if I am not really much of a cook or I cannot garden? Not to worry, there are other ways to have a thoughtful relationship with food. Here are a few suggestions:
Go to the grocery store and take your time. Going to the grocery is not usually considered a leisure activity. We want to get in and get out! Who wants to waste precious time grocery shopping! To be a more thoughtful shopper, however, you must take some time. Author Michael Pollan and others have pointed out that, as a rule, the outer perimeter of a grocery store tends to have healthier (or even “real”) food. The more you work your way into the center, the more you have processed and boxed “foods,” many with labels touting how good it is for you. So spend some time in the grocery store and learn what is really there and seek to become a more thoughtful eater.
Educate yourself about food. There are plenty of good books you can read. Marion Nestle is a highly respected author I recommend. Books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan or The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason are a couple that I have found very helpful. If you prefer shorter books, Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Food Rules are easy reads and chock full of good information.
If you wish to dive into some more heady literature, go take a look at The Philosophy of Food Project housed in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas headed up by Professor David M. Kaplan. Take a look at the bibliography section for a “smorgasbord” of literature to explore.
Eat more slowly and with others. I mean “eat more slowly” in two ways. The first is simply wean yourself from fast food and eat it infrequently. But mostly I mean to literally eat slowly! We hurry through a meal too quickly all too often. We eat to not be hungry and to get the nourishment we need, but that is not all eating is for. Eat for pleasure. Savor good flavor. Look at eating as an experience and an event, and get all five senses involved. We have been conditioned to think that leisure is for the lazy and a reward for which one is worthy only after a lifetime of toil. Something does not have to produce something else to be good. Some things are just good because they are good. Eating slowly and intentionally is one of them.
Have a relationship with food? Connect to food? I don’t know what to call it. I do know that being more thoughtful about food and engaging it (whether by growing it or becoming a thoughtful, educated shopper) opens up new worlds of understanding.
If nothing else, learning to appreciate the goodness of life and respecting that goodness is enough.