16 January 2014

Food for Thought

cake, pizza shells, English muffins, bread
I was having an email conversation (yup, I'm that old-fashioned) with some friends about food, and diets, and food culture, and ways to think about food, and this morning, this is what spilled off my keyboard. Seeing as it was pretty much a completed blog post right there, I figured I might as well use it. So, if you'll pardon my dropping you into the middle of a conversation, here goes:

The thing is, you'll find it quite difficult to ditch the "food as a virtue/vice" thinking, because it is all-pervasive in North American society. You've grown up steeped in that mode of thinking; you won't even notice it's there because it's "normal" to you - part of the North American discourse. The fish can't tell the colour of the water it swims in.

I notice it more because I didn't grow up with it, not to the same extent, anyway - none of the women in my environment, mother, grandmother, older sister, aunts etc., ever "dieted", it's not even part of their vocabulary; in fact, there isn't a verb for "to diet" in German, the only word they have is the equivalent of "losing weight" ("abnehmen", lit. "to take off"). "DiƤt essen" (eating according to a diet) means being on a special medical diet such as a diabetic one, and it's quite rare.

It would be unthinkable to Germans for families to eat separate meals, to have one person cook something different for themselves than for the rest of the family. And that starts right when kids are little. "Was auf den Tisch kommt, wird gegessen!" - "What's put on the table gets eaten!" is the standard stern admonishment to picky eaters; there none of that "I don't like the vegetables!" "Okay, darling, you can have a peanut butter sandwich." You eat what's there, and if you don't, you go hungry, tough luck to you. I've seen that going around the internet as child-rearing advice recently, usually under the heading of "Why French Kids Eat Their Vegetables" or something like that - I grew up with it. Meals are at a set table during set times, with a beginning and an end (in our family, both those involved prayers, "saying grace" - one to start, the other to end), and you show up at the table for the beginning and don't leave until the end. And that was for three meals a day - breakfast, dinner, supper. Breakfast and supper are just bread (with jam or cheese and meat) and tea/coffee/cocoa, but still, the table is set, you have a real meal. It annoyed me as a teen to always have to show up for each meal, even if I was in the middle of something, which is why we don't do it around here except for dinner - but the attitudes that go with it are in my blood.

That's what I mean by "food culture" - it's as much about how you eat as about what, and it's always, by definition, shared (you can't run a culture on your own, as I found out the hard way). Going on a "diet" of whatever description, voluntarily or not, separates you from shared food culture, and as far as I'm concerned, that's not a thing to be undertaken lightly.

If you want to dig into that whole mode of thinking, check out Mireille Guiliano (French Women Don't Get Fat), Will Clower (The French Don't Diet), maybe even Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love - the "Eat" portion of it), and any number of "joyful food" movies or books (Julie and Julia, Ratatouille, Kim Severson's Spoon Fed, Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris etc, and any of the TV chefs, my favourites being Jamie Oliver, Julia Child and The Two Fat Ladies). You might find yourself quite surprised at how they think of food.

Think of it this way: what if our culture declared that sex was only good for reproduction, and enjoying sex was somewhat disreputable? (Umm, puritanism? We've been there before... But never mind that for the moment.) And then we declared that the physical problems we have are because of how we do sex, so this week's sex du jour is the missionary position, all others are declared "unhealthy". If you still have sex other ways, and you've got a backache, well, hey, you've been warned. You've gone down the list, and you've got all the symptoms of wrong-sex-position intolerance; if you still persist in your perverse behaviour, you can hardly blame anyone else for your problems.

Sounds ludicrous, I know, but it's really not all that different. Because even in this, there's a kernel of truth to it: of course some people have back problems because of their conjugal calisthenics; of course some people have sick sex behaviour and need to change it; of course some people can do some things and not others. But it's not because some sex behaviour is inherently bad. For most people, the whole gamut of it is good, and right, and healthy, and a pleasure, and it's meant to be.

And so is food.

And thus endeth today's sermon. LOL.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and Food for Thought. May it be a tasty morsel.

edible art, aka a fruit salad


  1. Well said. The concept of mom as short-order cook is ludicrous and modern.

  2. Huzzah! Hear me standing up and cheering for this post!

    (Says the person who DOES have to have a bizarrely restricted diet due to medical reasons - I have a tyramine intolerance, and any aged cheese, pickled food, or oranges give me migraines. BUT I have even sometimes accepted the migraine in order to be able to share in a communal meal. Not often, because migraines suck. But occasionally.)

    1. See, medical restrictions are different. I can't eat garlic (more's the pity), but that doesn't mean I'm cooking whole different meals for myself. It's those diets where you voluntarily restrict a whole food group, for weight loss or because someone decreed it's not "healthy", that get my goat. Avoiding a migraine or an upset stomach is a good reason not to eat certain things...