“Man ist, was man isst.” — German proverb.
“You are what you eat” is a slogan that socialists around the world used to highlight the class differences in society: if you ate bad food, you were part of the lower classes; if you consumed the good stuff, you were obviously rich. The problem is that what Americans eat is no longer a great distinction of economic class: nutritionists remind us that we all don’t eat very well. The 99% and 1% at least have that much in common. The Thanksgiving Day feast at my house prompts two reflections:
· In regard to what to eat, we have an immense range of choices, some of them wonderful. The issue is this: are we making wise and informed choices?
· Too much of the debates about eating is focused on the what. Thanksgiving reminds us to focus as well on the how of eating—particularly the how of preparation.
Maybe the German proverb should read, “You are how you eat.” Or better yet, “you are how you prepare what you eat.” I think that the how of eating and preparing food is an overlooked and often misunderstood source of difference and lifestyle in the human experience.
What You Eat
If you have not connected with the critique of modern American eating, see Michael Pollan in his classic lecture about his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. America enjoys the highest per-capita income in the world and yet the highest rates of obesity and other eating-related threats to our health. We are a fast-food nation. Increasingly, we outsource our cooking to restaurants and producers of packaged goods. An alternative, advocated by the chef, Alice Waters, is the slow food movement that favors locally-produced and seasonal foods—as the founder of a leading restaurant, Chez Panisse, and writer of numerous cookbooks, she has popularized this new approach to cooking and eating. Even the Abbott Center Dining Room at the Darden School emphasizes environmentally sustainable food production and the sourcing of locally-grown foods.
Returning to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a pastoral society where each family grows (or barters for) what each eats is too big of a stretch. “Industrial food” produced by Big Agribusiness and consumer foods corporations brings a richer diet at lower cost to a broader population than ever in history. Corporations get it: I’ve had conversations with CEOs of firms as diverse as Pepsico, Whole Foods, and Cargill that persuaded me they are keenly concerned with nutrition and wellness for consumers. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that global food production will have to double by 2050 in order to feed a growing population and that mass production methods at distant farms will be indispensable to feed everyone. Still, low cost and convenience make it too easy for us to eat badly. The primary problem is with the choices we make.
How We Eat
So much of the nutrition of professional people is outsourced to restaurants, corporate cafeterias, TV dinners, processed foods, vending machine snacks, etc. Given the extent of my travels, I eat a lot of that kind of food. Preparing your own feast on Thanksgiving (or any other day) reconnects you with the process of creating the food you eat.
On Thanksgiving Day I’m grateful for the experience of preparing a feast. I feel connected to the ingredients of the meal. The house is filled with tantalizing aromas. Generally, I’m more present with the aims and enjoyment of the day. Then, too, there is the fellowship involved in preparing the meal: at our house, a big feast is inevitably a team-based exercise, lubricated with age-appropriate beverages. You work up an appetite across the day that is successfully slaked when the feast is consumed. This is literal slow food: it takes all day to prepare and a few hours to consume (with a walk outdoors to punctuate the meal.) In all, it is a great day.
This brings to mind the movie, Mostly Martha, about a compulsive and rigid chef at an expensive restaurant—for her, eating is all about “what.” She gets rave reviews about the dishes she prepares, but at a high cost of ruining personal relationships. Then she assumes responsibility for an eight-year old girl and hires an Italian sous-chef, both of whom teach her to lighten up and focus on the “how” of food preparation and eating. You are not simply what you eat; you are how you prepare and consume your food.
Nothing beats home cooking. I’m grateful that Thanksgiving gets me back to the good stuff. The folksinger, David Holt, says it best in his song, “Slowfood”:
Everybody’s busy, runnin’ like crazy
Workin’ two jobs, on the go.
Eatin’ fast food from little foam containers,
I need a big bowl of somethin’ cooked slow.
Spend my life out on the highway
Eatin’airport and hotel food.
Always lookin’ for some good home cookin’
Just make me something that tastes like it should.
Slow food, come and get it
Slow food, all you can hold
Slow food, feeds the body
I need slow food to feed my soul.