Food is not just food. I'm surprised by inane justifications of eating that reduce it down to just nutrition. We can and should talk about the nutritional quality of food, but food is never just food. It is not just about ingesting something that sustains us then we poop it out. If food were just nutrition we would all take pills that fulfill our requirements for the day then that would be it. But we don't do that. Instead we decide to prepare meals; those preparations are cultural acts. What is in our meal, how we prepare it, the history behind that meal, the history behind its preparation, what are the symbols involved in it? These are all questions and qualities of the food that need to be and should be considered. Food is a symbol, a political act, a dating ritual, a protest, and an affirmation. Food is never 'just' food.
I love my sister, but when she said food was just food I felt that holly righteous rage inside of me and the need to smote her from every mountain top from here to Middle Earth. How could food just be food? Didn't she realize that the simple act of making breakfast for dinner was more than about just food? Didn't she realize that she was reinacting something our parents had done with us since we were really young? There's a history behind that meal, there are memories, emotions with that meal. The fact she chose to share a portion with me was HUGE... she almost never does that. So there are elements of social bonding behind it as well. This was not some TV dinner plopped in a microwave, this was my sister reaching out, attempting something she rarely does and doesn't feel comfortable doing. The meanings behind all it were so important, so meaningful. To proclaim that food is just food, well that takes away a lot of that, strips it away and lays it bare to the hot sun to rot. It was like completely discrediting all that meaning, making it so that the social bond she was trying to forge was trivial. How could she do that? How could she trample on how touched I was at her offering to cook something for me?
To me it reflects something very disturbing about how Americans increasingly view food. We talk too much in deconstructionist terms, breaking down food into components, nutrients, instead of viewing the food in whole terms. A lot of the nutrition debate is phrased like that too. We talk about optimal macronutrient ratios and calories instead of the deliciousness of the apple, or using whole foods. In numerous studies on diets it has been shown that people who consume whole, fresh foods eat healthier and better and sustain weight loss longer than those who focus on ratios of protein, fat, and carbs. People who cook their own food from scratch show the same.
Why though is hard to pin down. A lot of people assume that when you focus on fresh whole foods you're guaranteed to ween yourself off the processed food high in carbs, sodium, and Frankenfats, and that is why those people are healthier. Or all that preparation with the food means we eat less because we value it more. All that is probably true, but even then we are still thinking about breaking down the food into valuable parts instead of seeing the value in the whole. I'm going to throw out another theory though. I think consuming whole food, preparing it yourself is healthier because you apply more of the cultural and social into it. There's love there. There are bonds shared and broken. It's healthier not simply because the nutrients are better, its healthier because there is more of the non-physical wrapped up into it.
I'm fond of the Papuan example. I think they have the way to think about food right. For them food is wrapped up in everything they do. It's common among them to not think with their heart (which is an industrialist/ mechanical viewpoint, something to share at another point) nor with their head, but rather with their stomachs. When you eat food prepared and grown by someone else in their culture, you consume a part of that person. That work that goes into the meal is an actual, physical (to them) part of them that you then consume in the act of eating. In essence everyone is a cannibal, and no-one really has a problem with that. (In point of fact, this is where some of the mistaken cannibalism reported to westerners comes from, an example of misunderstanding a worldview.) It's beautiful. When people are married and have "arranged" marriages, those marriages are consummated in lavish feasts and pigs/ livestock are exchanged between the participants. You give me this wife here for those 200 pigs I loaned you three generations ago. The consumption of those pigs cements that bond between the two families, villages, tribes. When people die their spirits live on in the trees, crops that the villagers eat, further extending their memory and giving back to the continued health of the village. How could food just be about food to them? Try explaining a carbohydrate to these people. They'd probably nod politely and go "uncivilized foreigners, don't they realize this food contains the spirit of my ancestor and provides for our continued good health? They keep consuming bad spirits, maybe that's why they're so fat and unfit? They need to consume more of their ancestors."
Perhaps that's an extreme example, but it's also an illustrative one. My sister though not fond of religion (she hates it, though I make the argument her atheism and liberalism are also religions, she's probably not fond of that either) would be hard pressed to deny though the symbolism in a passover feast or thanksgiving meal. How about Christmas day dinner? We don't consume ham at Easter just because its ham, we consume it because in a way it embodies and resembles the flesh of Christ. These meals bring people closer together, they're symbolic in terms of what we eat and how we eat them and consummate social bonds. You typically don't invite strangers to dinner (though if you did, that's an example of your charity) you invite loved ones, or potential loved ones who you want to create closer social ties with. We even get uncomfortable when invited to dinners, celebrations that involve social bonds we're not quite ready for. The 3 week boyfriend invited to a passover meal with the girlfriends parents. Why we are uncomfortable isn't simply nervousness, it also reflects our apprehension of closer ties when we're not quite ready for them.
People who cook their own food from scratch intuitively I think understand a lot of that. They understand that the love that goes into a meal and the journey of that meal means as much as the end product - a blob of nutritious gobble gook. We even say that "our love went into this meal, you will eat it!" I think that makes the meal more real, more nutritious in ways that go beyond calorie counts and macronutrient ratios. That's why people are healthier.
I don't think my sister quite understands that. I don't think she quite understands love that way. In her worldview where food is just food, people are therefore just people, who should be used and abused to suit her own whims. In a world where food is just food you can reduce people, de-humanize them, strip them of social and cultural meaning. What is the point of life then? Its very nihilistic, bleak, and unimaginative. Where are the shades of color and meaning that define life like I see it? How do you respect people as people in that world? Maybe then that phrase she employed "food is just food" reflects a lack of that deeper something within her, that eye, that heart, that stomach that understands and feels the social bonds created. Those single golden threads that unite all of us, that tie us all together into this great beautiful world.
Food is not just food, its life.