August 8, 2008

Preaching atop the Cracker Box

(Pardon the preachiness that follows!)

As a child, I wasn’t much interested food. I mean, sure—I loved to eat. I ate every day. I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I ate snacks before meals and in between meals. Sometimes I ate until I was sick, and other times I ate only to be left with the desire for more. When in the company of friends or strangers, I ate with a fork, a spoon. When alone, I ate with my hands. I ate ravenously. I ate quietly. I ate with precision. I ate with love. But if asked how I felt about food, my answer would have been indifferent at best: "Uh, well, I guess I like it."

Most of us, I think, can agree on one thing when it comes to the act of eating: we like it. Simple as that. We will always need food, and we usually view that daily responsibility not as a burden, but as a source of ritual happiness. The relationships we have created with food have just as much to say about our identities as they do with the biological imperative to survive. We are what we eat, and we eat to live.

Eating is something that all of us do on a daily basis. We need food. For our hearts, brains, and cells to continue beating, thinking and dividing, it is imperative that we put nutrients into our mouths. These careful acts of consumption, of course, fulfill a necessary process, and, as a result, our bodies live. This biological performance is nothing less than magic—real magic.

Unfortunately, when we begin to think about the process of eating as being equivalent to gassing up our Toyotas or charging our computers, we risk losing a part of ourselves. When we break food down into a scientific formula (vitamins + minerals + water = survival), we can’t help but view ourselves as the logical result of a boring equation. Where is pleasure in such an equation? Where does magic reside?

It is so easy to fall into this trap that the rhetoric of science and health has created. A simple trip to the grocery store offers proof of how deeply this rhetoric has altered our relationships to food. Shiny boxes speak loudly of what’s to gain by consuming 1 serving of the miracle they hold inside: Fiber! Antioxidants! Protein! Vitamin B6 AND B12! Omega-3s! Calcium! This list of fiery, Ginsbergian proclamations goes on and on. We are seduced by such promises. We can’t help but think that a little boost of flax seed protein or potassium is just what our bodies need to get back on track. But, what does it mean to get “back on track”? From what shady, disease-ridden alleyway do our bodies have to return? Why did we consider our bodies to have derailed into dangerous territory in the first place?

These questions demonstrate exactly why a language of science is so problematic when it comes to how we think about food. When a cereal product claims it is rich in fiber, for example, we stop looking at the food as a whole. We may not care so much if the cereal tastes good. We might not concern ourselves with such things as texture, aromas. We might not care so much about the healthiness of the ingredients—the long list of alien words on the side of the box that we are unable to pronounce. We see FIBER!, and we see it as The Word.

In sum, we are beginning to look at food as merely a means of mechanically transmitting energy to the vehicles of our bodies. We are seduced by the energy these food “products” have to offer. We may see our bodies as lacking what it needs and are compelled to purchase a product in order to satisfy that need: Am I not getting enough fiber? Will one bowl of this cereal in the morning be enough of a boost to reach the 30-gram-a-day recommended serving? After I eat these 8-grams in the morning, where the hell will the rest of my fiber come from? Oh God—am I not getting enough? Will I ever get enough?

While these questions may exaggerate our neuroses just a bit, the point I’m trying to make is that the food industry has a way of speaking about food that could potentially damage the emotional and cultural relationships we so desperately need with what we eat. A box of cereal, to me, should mean more than merely accomplishing 1/3 of my daily fiber intake. These fractions leave us in perpetual want—there is always more to achieve, more nutrients to consume, more regions of our bodies that could perish if we don’t fulfill the daily checklist. We need to resist the image of food that has been shaped by a purely scientific clay.

In his 2007 book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan analyzes what he sees as being a shift from viewing food as a product of nature to viewing food as a product of science. Such a shift causes us to view what we consume as “edible foodlike substances”: substance A, B, and C must be consumed in due proportion, and then—and ONLY then—can you expect to achieve optimal health. Are you up for this mathematical challenge?

Viewing food through this scientific lens takes food out of the field from which it grew, out of the Polaroids of our memories. It yanks food out of our fingers, our bodies, and our spirits. Through this new lens food becomes something that we can no longer touch, taste, and enjoy; instead, we are encouraged to download it with the systematic rhythm of a computer. Our gears buzz and our files multiply, but can we describe the delight experienced by slipping small squares of dark chocolate into our mouths? Do we have the language needed to narrate the drowsy way it melts on our tongue? Do we know what it tastes like to kiss the chocolate-infused mouth of another? I don’t know if these are questions that science can answer, but I know, for sure, that these are questions I never want to stop answering.

Our bodies know what we want, what we need. If we listen to our cravings and pay attention to the gentle rhythms of our own systems, we can gift our bodies with what they need to live. There is much joy to be had by loving food without a calculator dictating, to the decimal point, how much that love should weigh.

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