To say that we, as a society, are conflicted about food, is to understate the depth of our cultural neurosis regarding caloric consumption. We are a nation that openly fat-shames pregnant women while stuffing our faces with Oreos. And yet, our relationship to food wasn’t always so conflicted. For centuries, when lentils were daily fare and a lord’s feast was very much like a family dinner at Buca di Beppo, food was a glory in it’s basic goodness.
My grandmother was born in Spain and escaped during the Spanish Civil War. In the years leading up to Franco’s regime, she knew what it was to be hungry. Decades later, safe and successful in the United States, she still remembered the profound, human anxiety hunger produces, so when her grandchildren came along, she devoted herself to showing us that she loved us in the most critical way she knew. She fed us.
For my grandmother, food was love. If you loved someone, you fed them, because nothing is more basic than ensuring that someone you love has enough food to survive – it doesn’t matter if that survival is literal, as in “here are some berries to tide you over while you hunt that mammoth”, or figurative as in, “you get cranky mid-morning so have a cracker.” To her credit, my grandmother, though a complicated woman, never failed to make me feel loved, and she did so, in great part, through food.
In diametrical opposition to my very modern fears of getting fat, my grandmother felt that if you had so much food that gaining weight was a worry, then you were doing something right. It’s a viewpoint she shared with many people in her generation – a generation comprised of people who had survived World Wars, the Depression, drought, famine and civil unrest, depending on where they had come from. The nation, at that point, was united by the memory of a common experience – hunger, worry and need.
Today, in the wake of a recession that still, in many parts of the country, feels as if it’s going strong, when people have lost jobs and food stamp usage is high despite budget cuts, this type of hunger and worry are all too common. But it’s common on an individual level. There is a divide between the have and have-not’s in this country and that divide is partially responsible for our conflicted relationship, culturally speaking, with food. We are no longer united under the common experience of lean times, as our grandparents were. And so, while there are many (too many) people experiencing hunger on a daily basis in the States, as a country we’re still high on the hog.
So where are we left us as a culture when food is, generally speaking, abundant enough for us to waste, but healthy food the province of those who can afford it? I’m not entirely sure. Without a large-scale catastrophe uniting us in one common experience, our 21st century relationship to food remains complicated. We want to indulge and lose weight, and the stress of that dichotomy has imbued the topics of food and eating with a very different kind of stress than that our grandparents experienced.
The time may have come for us to change the terms by which we think of food. It is, after all, a necessity that crosses all ideologies and all biologies. While I appreciate my grandmother’s point of view, I cannot embrace the notion that food equates love. It is, however, a powerful way to communicate good will, affection, caring and kindness. It’s a way to build community and take care of others. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and a means by which to nourish our relationships, as well.
So, in this month of tortured indulgence, I propose this. That we do not indulge ourselves with despairing abandon, should we have the luxury of doing so, but rather that we share our food with each other freely; that we accept it with gratitude; that we enjoy it wholeheartedly; and that we eat it in a spirit of thankfulness, and yes, of love.