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What is food for?

Stop, before you read on, think about this question for yourself. Jot it down, or make a mental note. What is the purpose of food? For you? For the world?

We took a lot of photos of food in the month of September, as we did a lot of cooking of Costa Rican dishes for Independence Month. From left to right: Vigorón (fried pork with cassava and coleslaw), sopa negra (black bean soup), and arroz con pollo y ensalada rusa (rice with chicken and "russian salad"- beets and hard-boiled eggs).

My husband, Anthony, and I recently underwent a transformation in our relationship with food. When the pandemic started, we, like many people, found some comfort in food. To be fair, we had been finding comfort in food for years. But we could look in the mirror or at the scale and see that we were finding particular comfort in food during March and April of 2020.

In May, we both decided to do something to try to lose weight. I was participating in a group fitness effort through my local branch of Fit4Mom (new moms out there – see if there is one near you!). Part of what we were doing was logging our food intake. I had actually done this last year with Fit4Mom, and writing down my food in a journal did teach me a few things. For example, it taught me that despite all of my previous protestations to the contrary, I did/do eat out of anxiety. When the kids were being especially whiny or annoying, my tendency was to grab the nearest bagel or candy bar or scone. I learned that back in 2019, but my logging did not lead to me losing any weight.

It wasn’t until this time around that I started tracking my food intake according the number of calories I was eating. I have asked around, and I know that this strategy doesn’t work for everyone. But what it did for Anthony and me was show us that we were simply eating a lot more than our bodies required to function. I was finishing the kids’ meals and snacks, anxiety eating, serving myself very large portions, and having snacks that could qualify as entire meals. And our meals themselves were full of ingredients (ahem, cheese) and quantities that were just... too much.

As we started to cut down on food quantities through using our calorie logs (we used the free app called LoseIt), we were launched into something of an emotional and intellectual journey of change. For example, if before we made food that we liked and learned how to cook food that tasted good and was enjoyable to us, would we now ever be able to enjoy food again in the same way, given our newfound habits? Or if I couldn’t deal with my anxiety by eating an Oreo, how would I deal with it? Would I be able to sustain this change, or would I revert to my old ways as soon as I reached my ideal weight? We were trying to eat less, so we had to grapple with why we were eating so much before. What does it mean to feel full? To be satisfied?

Before this reckoning, we had been eating to enjoy food, and we were happy with that. Both of us grew up eating food that was objectively good - tasty, healthy, home-cooked. I remember my Grandma Jarratt telling how when she was first married, her new husband, my grandfather, had pretty high standards for the quality of his food, and she wasn’t measuring up. He often suggested they just go out to eat. I never would have guessed this 40 and 50 years later, because she practiced and learned, and my Grandma’s cooking ended up being delicious and 100% grandpa- and grandkid-pleasing.

Anthony (my husband), too. He grew up with some of the only home-baked cakes on his block, and his mom focused a lot of her time and energy on making delicious food. She did this, impressively, without a refrigerator for many years of her life, and using only simple, locally available and seasonal ingredients. She was (and is) also an expert in frugality, without sacrificing flavor. One of the best lessons she has given me is when she pointed out that the fried rice she had just made, which was delicious, was pulled together using the leftovers from several previous meals.

But we also knew that this kind of cooking takes time. We built time into our lives to cook a full meal every evening. We searched for recipes, created our own collections, acquired cooking utensils and learned some skills, as I’m sure all adults do as they go about “settling down” and establishing household routines. But suddenly our routines were being upended by this search for a new relationship with food.

What better fusion of the Midwest and the tropic than banana bread (with chocolate, no less)? Too bad bananas don't belong in the Midwest... (more on this in future posts)

As we look back on our return from Costa Rica to the US, we can chart in our photos the weight gain that came along with that. I remember the first time that I went to a grocery store in St. Louis in 2017, after living in Costa Rica for nearly 9 years. It’s not that I hadn’t been to a grocery store on my visits back over that near-decade, but I hadn’t been doing shopping for a weekly grocery list. So when I first took my 7-month old with me that spring, we spent nearly 2 hours at the grocery store, just roaming the aisles, slack-jawed at all of the options and food available.

For example, I like to make a red curry chicken dish, and in Costa Rica there was one store with one brand of red curry paste, which wasn’t necessarily always in stock. At the store in St. Louis, I found at least ten different kinds of red curry paste, which were found in an aisle over half-full of all kinds of Indian-originated and inspired ingredients. And that was just part of one aisle – the entire grocery store was brimming with specialty foods that I didn’t even know existed, and in quantities and diversity that boggled the mind. The meat, the seafood, the milk, the cheese, the kinds of sugars, the prepared foods, the baby stuff, and on and on and on and on.

I was so thrilled to have bagels again that I ate one for breakfast every day for, I kid you not, two years (my excuse: what mom of babies and toddlers has time or energy to be creative with breakfast?).

This caused me to think that one of the biggest food related challenges in the US (in cities and regions that are not food deserts, where inequitable access to healthy food is causing people to go hungry in this country every day) is not to find healthy food, or get the best nutrients in our food, or to get the best-tasting or prettiest food (marketing efforts would lead us to believe these are our biggest challenges). There is much more food available than any person or family needs to survive, and food waste is a huge problem. While many in our own country don’t have access to nutritious food, for those of us who do, nutrition is not a problem – we get more than enough calories, and more than enough nutrition, especially as compared to the majority of humans on this planet. I think the real challenge is to say “no” to (too much, unhealthy, unnecessary) food, every day.

So Anthony and I started to consider, and grapple with the question I posed, above: what is food for, anyway? If we were coming from Costa Rica or South Dakota where our frugal mothers and grandmothers were making delicious dishes out of fresh and/or healthy ingredients, why were we struggling to find a healthy (or sane, or emotionally and physically tenable) relationship with food?

That question stayed with me over the summer as I participated in several different events. One was a weekend retreat having to do with food and faith. There we watched a thought-provoking video with a talk by Duke University theology and ecology scholar Norman Wirzba about why food matters, including a beautiful ode to soil (where geology meets biology to absorb death and transform it into new life through plants and food). It was part of a program that also referenced the book Just Eating? Practicing our Faith at the Table.

During that retreat we all thought of a number of things that food might be for, both positive and negative. I’ve added some more to our list, and I’m sure you can think of more.

· Sustaining life – eating the right number of calories to stay alive and do the things that life requires

· Sustaining economies – through agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, restaurants, fast food chains, etc.

· Entertainment – going out to eat, eating “fun” or “funny food,” eating while enjoying other entertainment

· Pleasure – combining flavors, textures, colors, ingredients to have a truly enjoyable experience

· Intellectual and creative outlet – my husband has been reading and reading and reading about beer, which he makes at home from scratch. He says he feels he’s channeling his engineering skills into his hobby, and he enjoys it and makes great beer!

· Nurturing a connection with nature – through gardening, foraging, and farming, hunting and animal husbandry

· Shame – from eating too much, too little, the “wrong” things, etc etc etc.

· Anxiety – either eating out of anxiety, or having extreme anxiety about eating

· Power relationships – food aid often makes poor countries dependent on rich countries and dismantles their own agricultural sectors, which has long-term political consequences

· Hospitality – receiving a visitor with a cup of tea and a cookie, roll, or sweet bread

· Sharing and preserving culture – passing down recipes, learning new recipes from around the world or around the corner

· Community (eating together) – at church, for public festivals, around the dinner table

· Family traditions – subscribers to this blog get recipes of foods traditional in my Costa Rican and Midwest fusion family

· Comfort – the classic idea of “soul food”

It occurs to me that my personal relationship with food is not just about me, but about all of the things that I have alluded to so far in this post (marketing, culture, environment, economy, etc.). Just like everything: the personal is political and the political is personal. In a country and economy that so dominates the world, the privileged in the US (I include myself, lest you think I’m finger-pointing) demand access to food that is delicious, beautiful, fun, nutrient- and protein-rich, and obtained cheaply. And yet most of us have no idea how this actually happens. We live with the personal, day-to-day food-related matters: where to get it, how to cook it, how does it taste, and how happy do I feel after eating it?

I wonder what might happen if we start making connections between all of these potential uses for food: economics and pleasure matched up to hospitality and culture, or anxiety and global power relationships matched up with comfort and family tradition. What happens when we see food as a whole? Might we see ourselves as more whole, as well?

In the Development Dictionary, a book I reference elsewhere on this blog, Gustavo Esteva paints a picture of a better future, something he calls the New Commons, and imagines what food would be like there, as opposed to the system we have now: “After equating eating with the technical activities of production and consumption, linked to the mediation of the market or the state, they [the poor] lacked income and suffered scarcity of food. Now, they are regenerating and enriching their relationships with themselves and with the environment, nourishing again both their lives and their lands.” (p. 18).

Eric Holt-Gómez, writing for Food First in the book A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, argues that given the level of alienation between consumers and the producers of their food (as well as the natural processes that create the food), it is “no wonder so many people try to reconnect themselves, and with others, through food.”

At this point in my journey, I have reached my weight goal. But I know this will be an ongoing journey of wholeness, to connect myself to my past and to my future, to connect my little family with the far-flung reaches of the world, and to connect my interior life with the realities of our imperfect world. Maybe that’s what food is for, an avenue for this journey of wholeness.

More soul food from Costa Rica: Caribbean chicken and coconut rice and beans, picadillo de carne (beef hash), and arroz con palmito (rice with hearts of palm).

In the future I will continue this series and talk about a few more topics related to food that I have been able to learn about while living in a place (Costa Rica) that produces some of our favorite foods as US citizens (sugar, bananas, coffee, pineapple, etc.):

What’s with sugar?

Where does food come from?

How are some common foods grown?

How do other cultures think about food?

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