Saturday, September 02, 2006

Food is More than Chemistry



A few weeks ago I was stranded in an airport with a pal of mine on the way to a conference. We sat in a little coffee shop, having juice and tea, and talking about various interesting ways in which people relate to their bodies. She said: "Have you noticed how Americans always refer to eating and drinking in scientific terms?" She was right, of course. How many times have you heard someone say "I need my caffeine" rather than "I want to drink coffee"? How many times has someone ordered a smoothie not because they wanted one, but because they "need their vitamins"?

There are so many ways to relate to food. Some people numb their senses to health, binge on alcohol, sodas, sweets and fats, and contribute to the high rates of heart disease and obesity (both of which also have genetic componenets). Others become gourmet fanatics and impose highly-refined and expensive standards of wining and dining on themselves and on others. And some become body chemists rather than living, eating people; food loses its joys, smells, shapes and aromas, and becomes a set of particles required for maintaining the organism.

Why do people do that? Why would anyone eschew the pleasures of eating to regard it as merely good practical science? I have no idea; it could be, to some extent, related to the medicalization of diets. In a society obsessed with thinness, interest in calories, carbs, fats and proteins increases. We are bombarded daily with good and bad science about how what we eat contributes to how we function and to what we look like. I think the health obsession, maligned by the ones who are trying to label "orthorexia" an eating disorder, is a close sister to thinness obsession and often tries to mask it. We say "we're eating healthy" to mask the fact that we want to lose weight or maintain our diet achievements. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that our constant concerns with what we eat have turned into meta-science.

We are, of course, right to be concerned. Supermarkets and chains feed us sprayed, chemical-treated food devoid of nutrition. American food prices create strong incentives for purchasing boxes of mac 'n' cheese over a nice bag of tomatoes. I've seen it often at Safeway or Albertson's: a tired mother, standing in line in front of me, short on cash, and on a budget, trying to figure out how to feed her children for the week, and opting for the cheaper option - a humongous set of cardboard boxes of instant food ("just add water"). The dry and chemical-ridden food was, itself, exciting science at some point; isn't it ironic how now we regard other foods as such? It *is* upsetting that the machinations of food corporations has weakened us so much that health considerations have become a luxury. Here, in Israel, things are somewhat better, as vegetables and fruit are very affordable; and yet, whole grains and organic produce is still not easily available.

So, yes, there is cause for concern. And there's all the more reason to encourage healthy, organic, local food production, and to mind what we are putting into our bodies. But while we're at it, can we perhaps enjoy the food? Consider a nice fruit plate for breakfast. Yes, it offers sugar and vitamins and available energy. But that is not the (only) reason we eat fruit.

It begins with how they look. Their amazing array of colors, shapes and textures. It continues with their tropical intoxicating aroma. And it ends in their sweetness and tartness, and set of complex flavors. First and foremost - eating fruit is an enjoyable experience. The vitamins are important, but they are only part of the experience.

I'll be heading off now to eat a load of passion fruit and figs for breakfast; it'll likely make me smile, and give me an uplifting sensation that all is well. At the same time, yes, it'll introduce some vitamins and energy into the "system". Such is the magic of living things: we - and what we eat - are a web of complex science, and at the same time, so much more than that.

5 comments:

Diane said...

Yes, here in the US people are strangely puritanical about food. It bugs me, and you have articulated the issue well.

I bought some lovely small purple eggplants at the Indian store yesterday - largely because they were purple. And I couldn't resisit them. Tonight I cooked them with tomatoes from the garden. Mmmmmmmm....I have no idea how many calories or what nutrients they had, but they were a lovely summer meal.

Hadar said...

Hi, Diane!
Yes, the tiny eggplants are very, very yummy - and so good with tomatoes! A good friend who comes from a traditional Safed family bakes them whole, until they open up in the oven (they expand until there's a small explosion and there's room in them) and then fills them with a mixture of feta cheese, tchina and - of all things - grated green apples. It's delicious!

Shunra said...

I don't think it is the food PRICES as such that make the tired mom pushing two kids in her supermarket cart but rather, the twin difficulties of DECIDING what to make and the MAKING it.

The effort involved in turning ingredients into food rather than nuking a ready-made seems a much greater persuasion than enjoyment of said food.

Especially with the two children, whose demands on the caretaking parental unit are extreme, and involve such tortures as interrupted sleep and interrupted thinking - try figuring out a menu for the evening if some small child interrupts your thinking every twenty-five seconds with a demand that must be met RIGHT NOW, such as climbing on the bookcases, reaching out for a food item on the grocery shelves, or needing a diaper change or an accompanied trip to the toilet. Therein lies madness!

And after enough of these nuked-on-demand meals, how can kids know what a meal is? Sustaining daily cooking-from-ingredients with children involved (I do) takes a huge and heroic effort, which is generally unappreciated. I don't think that blaming the pricing sees it in sufficient breadth - it is far more the incredible demands on every member of the society which overwhelm us, as a whole.

Hadar said...

That's a good point, Shunra. It requires a lot of effort to plan real, from-scratch meals, in addition to everything else involved in parenting. And of course, the "new momism" - the media messages that all mothers must constantly be superhuman and provide the very best for their children at all times, otherwise they are horrible monsters - isn't helping (to read more about new momism, see http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-02-24-motherhood-usat_x.htm).

Making a big salad, however, is not very time consuming - it can actually happen within the same time frame as reheating a TV dinner in a microwave. And in Israel, where vegetables are so affordable, it's a great option. Salad, some fresh bread, a couple of cheeses or hummus and voila! dinner.

One can even share some simple cooking duties with the kids, when they are open to that - though I realize doing it is not always an option and can be as nerve-wrecking as it is fun.

Shunra said...

I don't think that making a salad is a big problem. Getting children to eat it could be, though - even if you serve salad at every dinner of their lives. Trial and much error has led to a SINGLE salad my daughter will eat (and three my son will) - despite much exposure. And this from a very committed mother... ...had I succumbed to the "no struggle" options, my dinner would have consisted of prepared food, if only because the heartbreak of having food rejected is smaller when it is just taken out of a box and nuked, rather than lovingly prepared.

New mommism is indeed a scourge. It seems to be a response to the notion that anything that happens to a kid is mom's fault - as though moms have collectively said: "oh yeah? so we'll do EVERYTHING right, now let's see how they turn out."

And of course kids don't turn out perfect, not even if mothers put 100% of our time and energy into them. It is an unreasonable expectation that one can change outcomes to the point of perfecting humans. There will always be kids who are slow, mean, have no inclination towards whatever it is that they are expected to be inclined to, and just plain evil. There has GOT to be some better balance that does not require the servitude of the mothers.

However, courts in custody cases still seem to expect mothers to give up their lives or be considered not-quite-fit. As long as that is true, how can a woman maintain her individuality if she knows that could endanger her custody over her children in the all-too-likely case of divorce?