Thoughts on My Relationship With Food
shades of gray in the kitchen
For the past month I’ve been working on another cookbook, and all that veggie-cutting and pot-stirring while proofing the recipes has naturally led to a lot of thinking about food beyond the recipe level.
In the year since writing the first cookbook I’ve made some changes in my diet. Currently, I’m avoiding wheat and eating way less of everything, especially meat and dairy products, in the interests of bringing down my blood pressure and correcting my cholesterol levels. I didn’t think too much about it until I started proofing, and realized that many of the recipes I’d created over the years use ingredients I’m now avoiding. Yet it is necessary to test and taste them, and, being frugal, to replace our usual meals with what I’ve made for the new cookbook. It’s really brought home how much my relationship with food and cooking has changed.
My English husband pointed out how very American it is to use a phrase like “my relationship with food.” It implies many levels of complexity–and by implication neurosis–in what should be a rather simple notion: eat food. But the neurosis is real, and not just in me: everywhere I turn there is another article or blog post about food and diet, even from writers who do not normally write about these topics. The starting point is usually wanting to feel better, although sometimes it is about environmental, economical, and ethical concerns.
The personal benefits of changing one’s diet are health/longevity and appearance. The appearance thing, that whole “you can’t be too rich or too thin” mentality, seems to be easing up a little from its horrible trail-of-anorexia days, and thank goodness for that. The health/longevity issue, though, suggests that Americans are either collectively afraid of dying young–or they are collectively just not feeling well. In my reading, I’m seeing more of the latter than the former, even in fairly young people.
Super-sedentary computer/video work and leisure will naturally lead to feeling like crap, yet even people who exercise regularly still aren’t feeling great; naturally, they take a serious look at their diet. Some go vegetarian, some vegan, some go grain-free or carb-free, some go organic, and on and on. When something seems to work, it’s a hallelujah moment. My assessment of all of this is that there is a different “right” diet for everyone, much of it depending on how an individual body absorbs nutrients.
But are our expectations too high? Could it be that we (Americans and those influenced by our culture) think that we ought to be feeling as alive and energetic at 45 as we did at 25? That we are actually entitled to feeling that way? And where did we get that idea?
There are plenty of “cougars” on television, those 40- and 50-year old women who look hot and have tons of energy and hollow legs (notice how much wine they seem to knock back regularly?) and of course bright eyes and other perky bits, and they go for morning runs, their thick highlighted ponytails swaying as they pace. Most of us, though, look in the bathroom mirror and see dark circles and bags under our eyes, thinning hair, and an expression that says Bite Me–looking as if we did, indeed, knock back an entire bottle of Chardonnay the night before when in actuality it was a cuppa chamomile tea or something equally innocuous.
There’s more irony in the commercials during such shows, especially the pharmaceutical ones showing a now-happy woman frolicking with her family on the beach, and in the chain-restaurant ads that have hyper-closeups of giant deep-fried food being dipped in buttery sauces, followed by the dulcet-toned voiceover ad with equally happy frolickers who have purchased adult diapers. If you don’t see what is wrong with this slide show, you have polished off the entire pitcher of Kool-Aid.
When adjusting what we eat doesn’t work, it’s natural to raise more questions. Could it be our food itself is screwed up? Is it the pesticides or genetic modification? Is it our air and water? Hell, are we stressed because our meat, dairy, and eggs come from stressed-out animals? Is it our air, our water, mold, climate change, the plastic packaging, our microwaves? Any and all of the above? Or do we need the hope of the latest drug on TV, regardless of the lengthy rapid monotone of potentially deadly side effects?
Sometimes I think the most toxic thing of all is the cognitive dissonance between being what we actually are and living in a culture that suggests we ought to be something else. If it is possible to poison a personal relationship with, say, gossip or a lie, wouldn’t it be possible to poison our “relationship with food?” Even if we are wise to the ways of the marketing world, and take everything with a (proverbial, of course) grain of salt, the seeds of doubt and concern are planted: we’re not what we ought to be; we’re not eating what we ought to eat.
(Just so you know where I’m coming from personally, I’m in favor of sustainable agricultural practices, acknowledge climate change, skeptical about the degree of enforcement of food and environmental regulations, have avoided food with additives and excess sugar, salt, and processing since 1980, and am horrified by factory farms. I’m dealing with Sjogren’s syndrome and another autoimmune connective tissue problem, and they’re having fun with my insides, making diet a directly relevant issue for me. In my attempt to see if this or that diet makes a difference, I’m putting feeling a little better ahead of any other food-related issue, as well I should at the age of 56. If any of this is the neurosis of a frustrated cougar wannabe, I really couldn’t say. Might have to get my husband’s observations on that!)
The mind-body connection is crucial to our well-being; it’s been covered, researched and preached so thoroughly in so many ways that we can take it to the bank. What we allow into our heads can have physical consequences, particularly if we haven’t learned to develop a healthy sense of skepticism, to not believe everything we hear, to stop taking advertisements disguised as public service announcements as unquestioningly as a small child accepts the dictum of the parent. But consider what this means: if our parents raised us with the kind of manipulating information and lies that our advertisers drone out day after day, we’d be pretty thoroughly screwed up, likely manifesting physical illness from the psychological abuse, and our therapists would spend hours and hours helping us to understand it’s because Mommy and Daddy were sociopaths with their own agenda.
So here we are, a populace within a dominating consumerist culture (mommy and daddy replacement) that we have not questioned–we give corporations the status of individuals, which means they have, in essence, First Amendment rights to say whatever the hell they want. They get to say whatever they want, just like any authority figure, because there is no authority figure over them, no one to hold them accountable. Normally, the government would have this authority, but the government has been turning into a brainless ninny, too, giving up its authority to any corporation that promises to say “We Care.” In turn, generation after generation of parents, teachers, and government officials have become less questioning, less skeptical, of any corporation’s claims about its products and policies.
In this environment our minds are monocropped with marketing, the seeds of doubt, fear, desire, insecurity planted in our brains, by osmosis if not consciously. It’s a crop as noxious as any nutrient-deficient GMO, yet we don’t collectively identify it as such–there’s nobody testifying before Congress about our sociopathic commercials as being detrimental to our health and well-being. While there are plenty of testators against specific products and policies, the more subtle one of neurosis as a result of emotional and psychological manipulation via corporate marketing hasn’t yet come into its own as a cause du jour. Maybe we need to pay closer attention to those televisions inside many kindergartens that are not only playing “educational” programs, but kid-targeted commercials, too: might it be possible to not brainwash another generation? Maybe if we ourselves grow up and stop believing every shill that says “We Care.”
At the same time the news is chock full of nasty but true stories, like people dying from eating contaminated cantaloupes. That gets into our heads, too, along with other health-related stories, such as the discovery of new suspected carcinogens. If that isn’t bad enough, we find out that pharmaceutical companies have been legally squelching the publication of any research that puts their products in a negative light. Actual research by actual independent scientists can be kept from publication. This then begs the question: what was the provenance of that report on (fill in the blank)?
Unless we’ve been living under a rock, we know that the food and health world isn’t being regulated very well, and it takes quite a bit of reading and research to determine what is true, what is not true, or at least what is likely or not to be true, then some more reading and research to determine just what, if anything, we ought do about it. Yet once we open that can of beans we discover still more disturbing issues, such as environmental devastation and slave labor. We turn to experts to learn more facts, only to learn that all too often the “experts” are paid shills for the corporations.
Surely there is something better in this world than looking at one’s salad and wondering if we’ve got the immune system chops to deal with whatever’s lurking in our leafy greens, or fearing cross-contamination in the whole kitchen if a bit of raw egg white got on the towel. Surely there is something better than being forced into having a love/hate “relationship with food,” because not doing so when so much is wrong with the system could make matters even worse.
I’d feel a lot better about my food and my medical care if I had confidence in my government to enforce regulations and accountability, and if everybody else around me would cast a jaundiced eye on any bill of goods sold without that accountability, too. I’d like to see us cut the apron strings from the parental force of corporate marketing and establish our own culture of accountability, in our homes, schools, workplaces, and government entities. Maybe then we could lose some of the need to have a relationship with our food, and just sit down to eat.