Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Feast for the Senses

by Amy Rutledge

If you've been feeling lately that no matter what you do, your eating habits are wrong, you're right.

It's hard to watch the news these days without some report telling us that we are fatter, lazier, and unhealthier than we used to be. Advertising, on the other hand, continues to offer convenient but nutritionally questionable food choices for our increasingly busy lives - from microwavable macaroni and cheese to restaurants that provide an entire "home-cooked" take-out meal in minutes. In response to these mixed messages we watch our fat intake religiously yet supersize our meals, unsure of which way to go. Food confuses us and the marketplace thrives on our confusion - low-fat foods are now a $30 billion market, but food portion sizes have increased both at home and in restaurants.

Now the winter season of festivals and religious celebrations is upon us, from Thanksgiving to New Year's, which can only mean one thing - numerous articles, news reports, and experts telling us how to approach each party and family dinner with the military precision of a special forces team member, navigating the treacherous minefield of Aunt Millie's brownies and Mom's stuffing. Our goal: to eat as little as possible and gain no weight. Meanwhile, the stores fill up with holiday cakes, cookies, hams, breads, cheeses, and other traditional food of our childhood and culture.

In this war of strident attitudes toward obesity versus easy eats, we may have lost our authentic relationship with food - both at its basic level as fuel for our bodies and at its societal level as an art form, an outward manifestation of the events of our lives, and the center of our traditions. While advertisers and health care professionals alike may be carefully monitoring how much Americans eat - spreading feelings of temptation and guilt in the process - it's just as important to consider how we eat, individually, and as a culture.

Around the Table: Food and Human Connections

Eating may seem like a big hassle sometimes, but our relationship with food not only fuels our bodies, it can reinforce our need to belong, experience our world, and create things of benefit and beauty. The preparation of food is an art form that involves all five of our senses: the texture of food, the color, the smells, the sounds (like the crisp sound of biting into an apple or the crackle of French bread as it cools), not to mention the taste. Eating communally is seemingly the one thing that we haven't been able to master remotely and electronically. It means shared conversation, rituals, and foods that strengthen our common bonds as a family and as a community.

Anthropologists tell us that across all cultures eating together expresses belonging, tells us who we are and what our relationships are, and gives us our sense of societal order. Life-changing events are accompanied by symbolic offerings of food: birthday cakes, "welcome to the neighborhood" brownies, casseroles taken to a family in mourning, wedding feasts, Easter brunch, Passover Seder, or a special dinner for a child's good report card. Ritual foods and meals mean we are marking an occasion and it is special.

Even the military recognizes the significance of ritually sharing food. We've all seen Thanksgiving Day news stories of our troops in the field being served a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Sharing the same holiday food on the battlefield as family back home provides cultural identification, the comfort of familiarity, and a feeling of belonging. These are the intangible values that cannot be captured in a calorie count but that factor strongly in our physical and emotional health.

The Lifestyle of Eating

Today, our traditions of eating and sharing meals are eroding as we adapt to the increasing pressure to be constantly on the job. Our food habits become just another way our frantic work lives invade our personal routines. We can see the lines blurring every day: we answer work emails from our home computers, we take work calls on our cell phones at the grocery store, and we eat at our desks and in our cars. It's no surprise that when we work constantly and we have little separation between our work space and our home space, we eat more frequently and with less consideration.

A recent Harvard University study on the obesity problem in America came to the startling conclusion that the trouble is not our sedentary lifestyle or our larger portion sizes; it's our relatively new custom of "grazing". As rituals and rules surrounding how and when we eat are dismantled, we end up eating constantly.

It's not just that we're always walking around with a sandwich in one hand and a briefcase in the other. As our relationship with food and with mealtime rituals becomes increasingly fragmented, we have less time to think about the quality of what we're putting in our bodies. Schools and businesses have installed vending machines within an easy walk of our desks, and we raid them when we inevitably forget our lunches or have no time to buy a full meal. At home, foods that were previously labor-intensive (such as potatoes) are now instantly accessible in less healthy forms (such as French fries and potato chips). The popularity of microwavable meals further redefines our food preparation habits from a labor- intensive and parent- controlled process to one where food is suddenly a form of individual preference. Now anyone at any age can cook a meal with the push of a button.

Our cultural expectations reinforce the breakdown in our social eating customs. It's no longer considered bad form to eat between meals, to eat in public, to eat when others are not eating, or to eat with the television on. And now the marketing push to eat the right food is just as strong as the push to wear the right clothes.

According to Dr Bradd Shore, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory University {1}, we have to ask ourselves, "What do we mean by eating together? ... Symbolically, eating 'family style' is very important. Having food shared 'family style' from a common bowl is a very different sense of sharing than eating as a group but having each family member following his or her own individuated eating preference."

Unsurprisingly, food companies would prefer that we view eating as a "lifestyle choice" or matter of personal preference rather than a family function. Shore points out that food companies have a strong financial incentive to promote convenience foods over "family style" eating because bulk foods are cheaper than individually packaged meals. With so many more heat-and-eat meal choices on the market, people are learning to be picky eaters and to say, "I won't eat this" when presented with shared meal options.

Today we see ourselves as vegetarians, vegans, or meat-eaters, we follow the Atkins or the South Beach diet, or we can't eat wheat or refined sugar. While food allergies and other restrictions play an important role in food choice, formerly sacred times, like family dinners and festive meals, are now peppered with special menu requests. "Nobody", says Shore, "is just eating anymore".

Reclaiming a Place at the Table

New interest in reclaiming our relationship with food and mealtime rituals has emerged. The Slow Food Movement {2}, which began in Italy in 1986 and has grown in acceptance and membership, is on the vanguard of a growing movement to reclaim our connection with what we eat and why. Its manifesto is simple: to protect the right of taste.

The Slow Food Movement goes much deeper than just protecting one's right to eat really, really good ice cream. It also embraces and shelters regional cuisine, advocates eating with the harvest, and encourages producing food in a humane and environmentally friendly way. Slow Food seeks to teach children to be at home in a kitchen and to learn the nuances and flavors of their regional foods, to continue the centuries old tradition of treating food and its preparation with respect and care, and to taste deeply and slowly. Advocates insist food should be savored and shared, not gulped guiltily while alone in a darkened room.

Others, such as writer Meg Cox, are also trying to remind Americans of the value of ritual and tradition. Her book, The Book of New Family Traditions {3}, gives families a roadmap for starting or maintaining traditions and rituals. (For a few ideas, see the sidebar below.)

"Parents can take control", says Dr Shore. "Family meal time [is] when traditionally family history has been transmitted, and family rituals are things families control. You don't need a law to change the way your family operates."

Don't despair that television ads market snazzy food to children at the rate of 1,500 calories an hour. Young children, ever curious and tactile, would rather help create a meal or snack instead of just tearing the plastic off a fruit roll-up. According to a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, preteens teenagers who eat at home with their families have healthier eating habits. And an American Psychological Association study finds that teenagers among all socio-economic groups who eat five or more dinners a week with parents (with the TV off) have higher rates of academic success, are better adjusted, and have lower rates of drug and alcohol use. Even Popeye's spinach couldn't do all that!

Few would suggest that Americans return to the days of subsistence farming and plucking our own chickens. But by taking the time to linger over meals, gathering around the table in the evenings, and sharing our stories and histories, we are creating healthier food habits and food consciousness. For centuries, humans have experimented and refined food preparation and constructed intricate and delicate eating customs that remind us to remember our past, celebrate our future, and live in the present.

The upcoming months of holidays and celebrations are a good time to slow down and reclaim our place at the table. From a festive Thanksgiving using grandmother's china to an average weeknight dinner with favorite comfort foods, we should remember the old Italian saying, "At the table you don't grow old".


Amy Rutledge is Executive Assistant for the Center for a New American Dream.

Want to Eat Better?

Make Meals More Special.

Good mealtime conversation won't reverse the effects of cake and ice cream, but health studies do draw a connection between poor nutrition and a breakdown of traditional eating habits. Instead of having dinner at your desk or in front of the television, make a habit of gathering family and friends together and savoring your food.

* Return to a more natural eating cycle.

* Get in the habit of going to local farmers' markets. You'll learn what's in season when and get to know the people who are producing your food. From beekeepers to herb specialists, farmers' markets are a great source of local knowledge and just-picked freshness. Find one near you at or call the Farmers' Market Hotline at 1-800-384-8704.

* Get everyone involved. Just like in the olden days, all family members should have a stake in creating a meal - from helping with the cooking, to setting and decorating the table, to clearing and washing up. Despite the grumbling, making mealtimes a cooperative effort builds a sense of belonging.

* Use the good stuff. My grandmother had three sets of dishes - everyday dishes, company dishes, and fancy fine china. While that may be a little extreme today, setting the table with the good china and having everyone on company manners adds importance to a meal, highlighting special occasions.





For a interesting look at food worldwide, read Food and Culture: A Reader, a collection of essays edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. M F K Fisher, Roland Barthes, and Margaret Mead are among the contributors.

Also see Come to the Table: A Celebration of Family Life by Doris Christopher

Bill Totten


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