April 28, 2009
I love food. Not just for consuming, though. I love everything about food. I love to read about food, shop for food, study food, grow food, talk about food, cook food, even give food as gifts. Some people might even call me a "foodie."
Most Saturdays year round I find myself at a farmers' market, shopping for the perfect tomato or discussing the benefits of sprouting wheat berries. I know many of the farmers by name, and can even make recommendations back to them on their products.
Food also is the basis of many of my discussions with friends and family. We share recipes, discuss gardening tips, cook for each other and then plan our next meal together. We don't just talk about nutritional content or taste, though those items often are part of the discussion. Food has become a way of life, a cultural phenomenon. We're all just a bunch of foodies, really.
Because food is so central to who I am, however, altering my food habits actually becomes a change in lifestyle. Both for me and those I love. This has been true over the past several years as I have moved toward organic, locally grown, and seasonal food. Making a change like this has taken food out of the primarily social realm and transformed it into a political statement. (If I buy local, am I anti-global?) It's also raised questions about the non-food areas of my life. (If I don't want chemicals on my food, what about my lawn, my clothing, or my hair?)
Then came cancer. In the past year and a half, I have received all kinds of recommendations about what I should and shouldn't eat. As a foodie, I believe in the power of food even in regards to my health. But cancer already has changed so much of my life, does it have to change my food identity too?
I have never believed that what I eat is "just food." There are some obvious reasons to believe that our dietary intake affects our health -- just eat lots of cookies and cake for a few weeks straight, and the scales will confirm that. But I believe there is much more to the effects and benefits of food than that. Not only for our physical health, either. Food is cultural and spiritual and political and social. What we have available and choose to eat defines us and connects us and empowers us and helps us to know Jesus better.
And at the same time, food can become a source of guilt and turned into a commodity and used as a weapon to divide us from those we love because it is so personal and necessary. If I choose local and organic does that mean I think less of you for buying a conventionally grown banana? Or do I need to feel guilty when I occasionally buy bananas for myself? How can I still spend time with friends but choose not to eat at fast food restaurants?
Because food is more than "just food," I want my decisions about food to mean something, not just reflect my passing appetites. So over the past few months, I have been developing my food-losophy. These are the driving values that shape my food choices.
I believe that food is spiritual. Not only did Paul say that I must do all things, even eating and drinking, to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), Jesus taught us to ask for the food we would eat each day -- "daily bread" -- and instituted a simple meal of bread and wine as a memorial ritual, to be practiced as we wait for His return. God used the manna and fowl in the wilderness to reveal the stubbornness and ingratitude of the Israelites, and Paul tells us in several of his letters that food is a way we can love one another through abstaining, sharing, and giving. If "what" I eat doesn't matter to God, then at the very least "how" I eat does.
I believe that food is social. As a single adult, I often eat alone. And really I don't mind. But even if I spend a few meals by myself at the table, more often than not food connects me with others. Not only do I go to the farmers' market most Saturdays, but it's an errand I share with friends. We have at times even gone to the grocery store together, and it's definitely more fun that way. But the choices I make about my food aren't made in a vacuum. I care what others think about my food choices, and I try to listen to their opinions. Thankfully, I usually don't have to choose between my food preferences and time with others, but when I am faced with the choice, I weigh the consequences carefully. I want food to connect me to others; not isolate me. There are enough things in the world that separate me from others. I certainly don't want food to. I love others, and food, too much.
I believe food is simple. Recently, I heard an NPR commentator turn the phrase, "You are what you eat," into, "You are what you eat eats." The phrase was used in a story about free-range, grass-fed chickens, but really, since most of our food starts out as a living thing, we ultimately are eating the product of what our food ate. If it's a free-range chicken, then we are eating the product of the grass and bugs. If it's a conventionally-grown vegetable, then very likely we are eating at least some chemical residue from fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides that were taken in through the roots, stems, or leaves. But it's more than just how the food is grown. I also would rather not buy pre-processed food. As often as I can, I buy ingredients in their most natural state and go from there. Instead of pasta sauce, I'd rather buy tomatoes and garlic. Instead of bread, I'd rather buy flour and yeast. Instead of buying from a retailer who bought from the wholesaler, who bought from the farmer, I'd rather buy straight from the farmer. This way, I control my food from start to finish. Because I am what I eat, too.
I believe food is sustainable. By sustainable, I simply mean that my food habits must be reasonable over time and a variety of circumstances. This value stems primarily from my belief in God's sovereignty over my life. Because the Lord has planned that I would live in the Midwest, and work at a job with a modest salary, and have a love of gardening and cooking, I don't eat a diet primarily of seaweed and oily fish, like salmon. For one thing, seaweed and salmon aren't raised around here, and for another, I can't afford to have it shipped daily. Since I believe that God has me here at this time in this place, I believe that there is a healthful, affordable diet for me right here and now. It may require work and sacrifice. It's not cheap to eat a locally grown, seasonal, organic diet. And at times, I may have to bend on some of my food choices. But this is because my food choices have to be sustainable.
Finally, I believe food is a matter of stewardship. Oh, how easy it is to overspend on the beautiful, fresh food at the farmers market on Saturday, and then throw half of it away the following Thursday because I didn't plan my week or my menus well. Because our individual food purchases are relatively cheap, this is an area that can be full of waste. It's also easy to overlook the potential for growing our own food, or preserving excess through freezing and canning because of the time investment. I recently heard a chef describing his grandmother's habit of using her finger to wipe out every last bit of an egg white when she was baking. That image of an aproned woman gently caressing the inside of an egg shell has become a symbol for me of what it means to be frugal and careful in my food choices.
Sometimes, these values are at odds with each other. Sometimes I am at odds with them all. (It's not always easy to live up to our own beliefs, afterall.) But this is my food-losophy, why I eat the way I do.