Judaism considers food a visible manifestation of the covenant between man and God. ~ Rachel Naomi Remen
As soon as I opened Andrew Weil’s Eating Well for Optimum Health, I knew I had a lot to change in my relationship with food.
I thought I’d been cultivating a better relationship with food. In the last two weeks, through my new diet, I was learning to eat new things and wean myself off carbs. That much was true…but I hadn’t yet paid attention to how I ate.
I’d been utilitarian with my meals. Still in Phase I of the diet, I added foods one at a time and watched how my gut reacted. By now I could eat the following: broiled beef or fish, jello, peeled and cooked and pureed carrots, eggs, ripe bananas, applesauce, dry curd cottage cheese, homemade (probiotic) yogurt, and cooked spinach, my latest addition. I hadn’t yet bothered to make any actual meals out of these ingredients. Fatigue was ever-present. Most often, I simply filled a bowl with one item, zapped it in the microwave, ate the item, then return to the microwave for the next item. I got up and down six or seven times per meal. I usually ate alone, while Ron was at work, and often in front of the computer.
Dr. Weil writes, “How we eat reflects and defines our personal and cultural identity.” Reading this sentence made me cringe. These days I ate like a depressed, cultureless, workaholic robot!
And that wasn’t just because of my diet, or my illness. For a year and a half, since beginning to work at home, I’d gotten lazy with my meals. I was a writer and a stream ecologist, and at lunch time I would drift reluctantly from the computer to the kitchen, whip up a quick meal–boxed mac n’ cheese with tofu and salad was a favorite–then hurry back to my desk and gobble my food while continuing to work.
Compare my eating habits to Weil’s description of food as an ancient ritual:
Ritual meals featuring special foods help renew bonds between friends, family members, and communities on both sacred and secular feast days. Consider the Jewish Passover seder, where those in attendance ask and answer questions about the special items on the menu. “Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread [matzoh], when on all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread?” The answer reminds the diners of their distant ancestors who labored as slaves in Egypt and had to flee so quickly that they could not allow the dough for their bread to rise. A delicious spread, charoset, made of finely chopped walnuts and apples, moistened with sweet wine, and often flavored with cinnamon, appears only at the seder. It symbolizes the mortar used by the enslaved Israelites to construct the Pharaoh’s buildings. Participants eat some of it spread on matzoh with a topping of pungent horseradish–sometimes so pungent that it brings tears to the eyes. This combination, said to be the invention of Rabbi Hillel, a great Jewish sage who lived around the time of Jesus, is supposed to remind those who eat it of the inseparability of sweetness and bitterness, of joy and sorrow, in human life. Passover and Easter both evolved from older pagan festivals celebrating the return of light and life at the spring equinox. Hard-boiled eggs appear on tables at both holidays because eggs are symbols of fertility and renewal, as do spring greens as symbols of new growth.
I felt such peace when I read this passage. And how much was lacking, still, in my own habits! I often ate hardboiled eggs, but never with any intentionality, usually stuffing them down my throat to assuage my ravenous hunger. When I wasn’t at the computer, I ate hunched over a magazine or a book, or sat back watching TV with my bowl on my lap, always ignoring the food I ate.
Truth be told, I had been this way for years. And even now, when my life suddenly revolved around food, my food was still invisible to me.
I could forgive myself. In the last couple weeks, especially, I’d been exhausted and somewhat out of my mind, fuzzy-headed. But I loved this book for reminding me of a lesson I still wanted to learn. It was another way that colitis, I hoped, would become my teacher.
It doesn’t take a holiday to have a sacred, grateful relationship with your food. Some of my friends blessed their daily food as one might at a sacred festival. They expressed gratitude to the farmers who harvested the grain, or processed the veggies, or raised the beef. Some friends knew farmers personally; a few had been farmers themselves.
So on Day 13, as I added squash to my diet, I tried to be more present with my food.
I’d be trying butternut squash, since we had one in the kitchen already. An SCD recipe said to strip the squash of peel and seeds, bake it with butter for 30-40 minutes, then sautée it with olive oil, butter, garlic and mustard and mash it all up together. It would be my latest pulpy, mushy concoction, like the puréed carrots and homemade applesauce and yogurt I’d already been eating.
This morning I felt energetic, not stretched-thin and woozy like I often felt lately. That helped. I picked up the squash and tried to appreciate its beauty, the artful smoothness of its uncut skin. As I sliced it open my eyes drank in the orange-yellow center, not just for the color but for the nutrients I knew it contained–my body longed for more color in my food, more varied vitamins and minerals. I’d been excited yesterday to add spinach, the first green thing I’d eaten in twelve days. I felt similar about the squash.
Opening the garlic powder and the mustard, I inhaled their scents with true satisfaction. I’d been so careful, these last couple weeks, to strictly follow my diet that I hadn’t allowed myself any spices except salt and cinnamon. Adding not only squash, but also garlic and mustard, was utter luxury. The cooking scents filled the kitchen–oil, garlic, mustard, squash–and enveloped me in comfort.
As I mashed up the baked mixture, I mused about the wonderful intentionality of adding new foods one at a time like this. I truly appreciated each one to the fullest. We live in an era of such abundance, when people in many modern cities can get almost any ingredient they might want, and can readily sample cuisine from across the globe. But lately I’d been a little island of sparsity. It brought me back to the Peace Corps, when in my small Tanzanian village I could only get salt, tomatoes, onions, and (if I was lucky) garlic to season my food. Many people in the world don’t even have those. Billions of people eat virtually the same things every day, for lack of money or other ingredients.
I ate my delicious squash and tried to savor each bite. Once again I appreciated how this illness, and especially this new diet, forced me to pause and reflect on each new thing I ate. I hoped that, when I worked my way up to abundance again, I would carry this appreciation with me.