Feeding ourselves is one of the most basic and ancient activities. How do you feed yourself with grace? How do you conduct your relationship to food with grace? How do you live your values in the way that you eat? Thich Nhat Hahn writes in his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, ” Our anger, our frustration, our despair, have much to do with our body and the food we eat. We must work out a strategy of eating, of consuming to protect ourselves from anger and violence. Eating is an aspect of civilization. The way we grow our food, the kind of food we eat, and the way we eat it has much to do with civilization because the choices we make can bring about peace and relieve suffering.” Our minds and bodies are deeply connected, they do not act separately. Attitudes, thoughts, emotions and actions surrounding food effect our total health in a profound way. Examining how I’ve used and perceived food in my life has been very eye-opening. My earliest notions about food came from my mother; my kids would probably say the same thing. My mother took great care in how she fed the family. She made sure to master recipes that were handed down from my father’s nanny, Agnes, in order to please my father. She mastered French cooking techniques and experimented in cuisine from around the world. We went out to eat at the finest restaurants in the area. She bought her own yoghurt maker in the 70s, limited the sweets in the house, and never bought us the trendy cereals we saw advertised on TV. She didn’t grow her own food that I remember, except rhubarb, but she did buy from local produce stands when she could, especially in Michigan while we were staying at the beach cottage and in California. My mother never held a paying job after she married, although she was active in the community. Her schedule was flexible, though, and she never had the hurried, 30-minute window from work to carpool to dinner. At least, not that I remember. On choir rehearsal nights, she made soup because that was easier for her to throw together, and she could leave it to us to serve ourselves and clean up afterwards if need be. When my parents went out without us, the babysitter would make us TV dinners. The foil compartments were fascinating to me. I felt like an astronaut eating from them. We lived about 3 miles from the original McDonald’s restaurant in DesPlaines. When my mom was giving a fancy dinner party, she would have the house cleaners come in and then she’d take me to McDonald’s when I came home from school for lunch. I was allowed to order the fish sandwich, fries, and a milkshake. No soda. No burger. That’s another thing – we didn’t have a cafeteria in our elementary school. Everyone went home for lunch. No “Lunchables”, no greasy cafeteria food. We went home and had Campbell’s soup and a sandwich or leftovers.
Of course, this way of treating food was not the average in the 70s. In fact, mom would frequently comment, “I bet we’re the only family on the block having (fill in the blank, for example “steak and kidney pie”) for breakfast.” I was astonished that my best friend, Gregory, had glass jars of candy sitting right out on the kitchen counter. His mother would make a cake shaped like a lamb and decorated with jelly beans every Easter. Gregory snacked on potato chips. His house was just filled with forbidden food. My mother gave out boxes of raisins or nuts (still in the shell!) at Halloween. We were not normal.
When I married Jim, I went from college dormitory food, ready made and spread out for me to choose from, to my own neophyte cooking. I had no idea how much time anything took. I’d start a recipe when Jim came home from work, and we wouldn’t sit down to eat for 90 minutes. Then, four months in to this new arrangement, I got pregnant. Preparing food nauseated me, but I was always hungry. We ended up eating at the 25-cent hamburger stand down the street more and more often. By the time I had four kids under the age of 7, food was largely about what was cheap and convenient. This is what most urban Americans experience each day. This is why we have a childhood obesity problem. When Jim’s diabetes and heart disease was diagnosed, I tried to add healthy to the criteria. “Healthy, cheap, and convenient” is not easy to come by. Then there’s “tasty”. I felt like I failed all the time. Try pleasing 6 different palates with “healthy, cheap and convenient”. It’s not impossible, but it takes a lot of effort. I gave up all too often and grew to resent this area of never-ending failure. I felt like I was the only one trying to take on this responsibility, and I wasn’t getting much support. I had a No Fat, No Salt, No Sugar recipe book from the American Diabetes Association. Jim cringed whenever he saw it and called it the NO TASTE cookbook. By then, I was working full time and eating $1 microwaveable meals at lunch. Dinner was whatever you could scrounge between rehearsal/work schedules. It was pretty nuts. Jim was becoming increasingly ill, and two of my daughters became bulimic. Food was not a graceful part of our lifestyle.
So much has changed. I feel so relieved that even though I didn’t model a good food relationship as well as I wanted to, my kids did at least learn about healthy eating. My oldest enjoys food as a creative outlet, and has an Iron Chef dinner group and a food blog. My two younger daughters are vegetarians, and my son enjoys cooking healthy meals for himself. My youngest has adopted healthy habits for herself since moving out, and has lost 70 pounds. I have been enjoying cooking for Steve since our early dates. I go to the Farmer’s Market every Saturday it operates in Wisconsin. I’ve planted tomatoes, basil, rosemary, and oregano since moving here. I want to be more aware of where my food comes from, and grow my own as much as possible. Since my lifestyle is much slower than it was, I have time to spend and effort to give to this ancient and basic grace. It’s not cheap or easy, it requires responsibility. This is where I want to go deeper.
Recommended: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
http://www.urbanhomestead.org – “Surrounded by urban sprawl and just a short distance from a freeway, the Dervaes Family have steadily worked at transforming this ordinary city lot into an organic and sustainable micro-farm since 1986.” Right there in Pasadena, California. You’d be amazed at all they do.