Food Musings: Memorial Day, New Friendships

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve been working with my friend Ann, sending her a photo of food every week, so that she can write a poem about it that celebrates peace and send it off to her subscribers. I’ve decided to write a companion piece to the photos I send, musing about the way that food plays into our lives.

Standard party spread. Extraordinary party company.

Standard party spread. Extraordinary party company.

Last week, George and I were invited to a backyard party thrown by one of the regular attendees in a Zumba class I’ve started teaching. I knew that some of the other regulars from the class would be there, so I would have a cushion of people to talk to, but the only person George would know there was…me. Which can be daunting, both for the don’t-know-anyone partygoer and for the invitee. Should he stick by my side the entire time? Will the other kids play nice with him? Could I leave him to his own devices after a few minutes? Since I’m fairly confident that George is a likable kind of guy and that the people at the party weren’t going to hit him with sticks, we took a deep breath and went to a party full of new people.

It was wonderful.

These people, who I only knew in a limited capacity (sweaty, shaking their moneymakers in my Zumba class) until the party, were warm and welcoming and funny. It took George and I thirty seconds–maybe less–to feel settled. And the ritual was the same. There was the greeting, the acclimation to the surroundings, waving hello and party-wide, informal introductions, and the piling high of plates filled with familiar picnic food. We broke bread and got to know each other. We made our way through heaps of beans and macaroni and chips and dips and crudites and fruit salad, all straightforward and comforting, like the people at the party.

And I’ve seen the same layout in New Jersey, in Texas, in Boston. Maybe some of the regional specialties were different, but the overall gist is the same. And it’s good. It’s a way to connect, to build community, to take part in something that is greater than the sum of its parts. For that day, in those few gentle, funny, happy, warm hours, we were all connected in a way that made the world a slightly better place than if we had eaten the same food separately, in our own houses. And that is the point of our being social creatures, isn’t it? To be greater together than we are apart?

Read Ann’s original poem here!

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About Food and Habits and Being Present

And now, for some food-and-health-philosophy-related brain sputterings.

I like to write about food.  A lot.  I like to talk about it, read about it.  Cook it.  Eat it.  I read cookbooks like they’re book-books.  Sometimes I wake up talking about what I want to cook for dinner, like it all came to me in a dream.  Did I mention that I like to eat it?  Because I like to eat it.

Generally I think I eat pretty healthily.  I limit my fried food, I make a lot of things from scratch, I control a lot of my intake of things like sodium and empty calories.

Or so I thought.

A few things came together in my life recently.  First, I read an article about a TED talk that fascinated me.  Economist Keith Chen explored different linguistic characteristics and whether the structure of language impacts a population’s behavior.  He found a strong correlation between speakers of languages with a strong, separate future tense and a tendency to not save money (39% less savings), not exercise (29% lower incidence of exercise), not eat well (13% higher incidence of obesity).  Think of the philosophical shift between, “I will start my new workout program tomorrow” vs “I work out,” where “tomorrow” is implied by context.  Or “tomorrow’ could even be stated, but the verb “work out” is still present tense.

Don't worry! I'll post more about this book!  Soon... ;)

Don’t worry! I’ll post more about this book! Soon… 😉

Second, because I am a foodie with an interest not just in eating but also in the philosophy and mechanics of food, and a growing interest in general health, I enrolled in a “Massive Open Online Course” (a MOOC) called “Nutrition, Health and Lifestyle“.  It’s purely for personal development and maybe a dose of perspective.  By the end of Week One, it already worked.  The first assignment for this course asked that we track our food intake for three days, one of them a weekend.  So I did.

The third thing that happened was that I was clearly open to examining this information instead of deflecting it behind excuses.  Because HOLY SHIT, I am an eating machine.  I eat how much processed food?  How much sodium?  How much sugar HOLY CRAP!  What the hell?

I used to smoke.  When I (finally) quit (for real, seven years ago, after quitting but not sticking to it once every six months for years and making the joke that quitting was easy because I’d already done it a hundred times), the secret was being present in my quitting.  Yes, I felt like shit.  Yes, I was craving cigarettes like crazy.  And no, I didn’t chew nicotine gum or use the patch because it may keep you from smoking but it doesn’t break your addiction, and why prolong the agony?  But I also knew that giving in to the cravings and thinking, “I’ll do better tomorrow” wasn’t going to help one little bit.  I am better than that, I thought.  I am not the cigarettes, and they don’t dictate me any more.  It was hard to see past the cravings because they were always in front of me.  But you ride it out.  Eventually, they subsided.

Having had that experience, I started thinking about why tracking your food is an effective tool for health maintenance.  Essentially, it keeps you in the present tense.  And with the breaking of any bad habit, the present is all you have.  You can’t guarantee that you’ll get more money tomorrow (look at the problems caused by payday loans) or lose extra weight tomorrow or work out doubly-hard tomorrow or reverse the effects of a sodium overload, tomorrow.  You’ve only got today to take care of business.  And when tomorrow gets here, it will be today all over again.  That’s what tracking does for me.  It keeps my food consciousness active.  Mindful, not mindless.  It’s hard to concentrate on what you’re having for breakfast when you’re already dreaming about lunch.

It’s not about austerity.  I’m not about austerity–trust me, I was out enjoying some delicious adult beverages with my peeps on Saturday night.  It’s more about developing an overall schematic for how you approach food every day, and making the necessary adjustments.  At least, that’s what it’s about for me.  Four weeks and minus six pounds later, I feel like I’m on to something.

Funny how a confluence of events can cause a major gear shift, isn’t it?

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