Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Know, Savor, Love: Food

Looking at this photograph, I can just taste the lemony goodness of this lemon sorbet on a picture perfect day in Capri, Italy, on a vacation in 2009.

More than any vocabulary I've learned, reading up on French culture has made me aware of the vast differences in attitudes toward food. In my description under "About me" is things like "voter," "reader" and "food lover." I love food. It is one of life's great pleasures.

So many Americans associate food with guilt. But for the wrong reason: for vanity, in particular what it's doing to their waistlines. Not to their health. Not to their environment with pesticides, GM-food, or animal waste (do you want to live near a pig farm?), or landfills that are cluttered with "to go" containers, utensils and bags. Not to animals and workers who suffer so we can have the cheapest food available in excessive amounts (but at the same time we waste 25 percent of our food).

I have a friend who when I dine with always eats chicken, but then obsesses about the carbs she ate that day. When I played devil's advocate once and asked about if she thinks how the chicken is raised and if it bothers her, she gave me the same response most do: she chooses not to think about it. I'll take the bread. Who put the carbs as enemy idea in everyone's head? Someone selling a diet book.

"Food invariably brings out the best in the French and the worst in Americans. We Anglo-Saxons starve ourselves counting calories but what we're really craving is pleasure and ritual," observes Debra Ollivier in Entre Nous - A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.

"The American meal reflects our Anglo-Saxon obsession with time (it's fast, functional, and all-on-one plate)." I agree with her observations. In our on the go, harried culture what do so many eat for lunch? Frozen meals: likely from animals raised in horrifying conditions and pesticide-laden vegetables microwaved in plastic. Question: what's seeping into your food from the plastic? I saw an ad for Oscar Mayer sandwich combos with the singer Jewel in a "what's in her purse" ad campaign (I'd like to see a "how it's made" video and see if it's still so appealing). I wouldn't want that in my purse, would you? I don't want food to be an afterthought, I want it to enrichen my day.

How about family meals: do you sit down to eat them? We always ate good home cooked meals as a family when I was a kid. Fast food was a rarity.

Food is so nourishing to the soul, and I believe because of the food we consume and the way we eat it, our souls are left unsatisfied, and we are wanderers, always looking for a new shiny toy (a pair of shoes, a new gadget, etc.) to fill a void left in our stomachs.

Ratatouille at New York City's Le Grainne Cafe.

Scene: the charming Pixar film Ratatouille, about a rat who dreams of being a great chef in Paris, emboldened by his hero's motto, "Anyone can cook!" Embittered food critic Anton Ego, who can destroy careers with a bad review, sits at the table, daring the chef (unknown to him a rat) to give him whatever he is brave enough to serve him. Ratatouille comes out. Upon the first bite, Ego drops his pen. Instantly he is transported back to a day in his childhood when he came home so depressed, to have his mother served him ratatouille and his spirits soar. He is immediately softened by the memory.

Reflect on foods that transport you in time. For me: it's my grandfather's mashed potatoes, plum tarts at my grandparents' house, cherries at their old farmhouse in Switzerland. Consider what you have eaten becomes part of your soul.

Georgeanne Brennan observes of culinary life in "A Pig in Provence," that in Provence they "Prepare not just good food, but food that lives on in memory, refueling the spirit each time it is eaten. In listening to people recount their food memories around a table, I've seen their eyes glow and their body language soften with the telling of the taste, smell, and texture of a beloved dish."

Brennan says, "Each season's food is anticipated: wild mushrooms in fall, wild asparagus in spring, melons and peaches in summer, and roots and truffles in winter," There's something to be said for not having access to something year-round. Americans seem to have too many choices, and everything at their disposal, leading to a complete lack of appreciation. Ollivier's French friend remarked visiting the states upon viewing a traditional U.S. supermarket, "How many brands of breakfast cereal and potato chips do Americans need to be happy?" In Provence, Brennan writes, the "growing of food is part of life still marked by the seasons, a life that keeps people connected to the land and to each other."

I think of the foods I look forward to each year: in Fall, butternut squash soups, pumpkin breads and raviolis, apple cider and a crisp apples; Brussels sprouts, vegetable based-soups and pot pies in winter; in spring, asparagus and strawberries; summer corn, peaches and watermelon.

In the film Babette's Feast, a love letter to the pleasure of eating, a guest at the feast talks about a chef that prepared a meal that made no distinction between the bodily appetite and the spiritual appetite. Shouldn't we feed both daily?

There's an ad for the Dunkin Donuts chain, "American runs on Dunkin." I don't want to run. I want to slow down. I want to quiet any body image issues. I want to savor.

Wine on a balcony in the outskirts of Bologna, Italy.


  1. I'm reading a wonderful book called "Health at Every Size" by Linda Bacon. It's alarmingly eye opening. So much of our size discrimination, weight obsession and crappy science around food is fueled by corporate interests. And those interests have nothing to do with our health, the welfare of animals or the well-being of our planet. All about the dollar. Ug.

    Sometimes I wonder: if folks knew the truth, would they be so afraid of a carb? Would they be so willing to jump on the latest food-fear or body-hating badwagon if they knew it was all just a farce to make some rich jerk richer? Would they be more willing to support a farmer and enjoy the food produced there if they knew that the crap out of a lab was intent on getting them hooked and on pharmecueticals? Or would they just continue to blather on, because they simply "don't want to know?" Is it just the animals folks don't respect? Or do we also lack a respect for ourselves, since we are so quick to allow jerks to dictate our choices?

  2. I believe it. Don't like your body? Buy our exercise equipment, frozen meal, cookbook. All will be better. What I cannot believe is our society's obsession with our own weight, the weight of loved ones, and people we don't even know (celebrities). I wish people were as obsessed with gaining knowledge as they are with weight gain!

    I did a food walking tour in New York City post Atkins craze and our guide said bakeries actually shut down because it. I miss bakeries and wish they were a fixture of small town life.

    Food issues are so complicated and change is hard. No one can make perfect choices always (I definitely don't). But it scares me food, clean water, air and soil - life's most basic needs - are an afterthought (or not thought of at all).