I just read a blog entry discussing the author’s plan for Christmas dinner. Her family traditionally makes prime rib and rich side dishes for that special meal, but because she has lost weight and doesn’t want to regain, she is bringing her own food instead of partaking in the family meal. She expects resistance, and is dreading the ordeal.
She then goes on to describe a meal that would be considered deprivation by any standards: steamed turkey breast (!) steamed vegetables, and half an apple with cinnamon and 6 raisins for dessert. Her planned Christmas dinner has fewer than 400 calories.
And sounds like bad hospital food.
Now, I have more than a few pounds of extra padding. I have struggled with weight my entire life, and weight has pretty much won the battle. But I really wanted to respond that I’d rather be fat than to have to eat like that.
Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. It’s an integral part of our social structure, and sharing meals is a bonding experience that carries tradition into our times together and memories out of those times. A good meal, particularly a festive meal shared with family or friends (or both), feeds more than just our stomachs: it is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the sense of smell, tactile, and even pleasing to the sense of hearing as conversation and laughter fill the room. A shared meal should fulfill all five senses.
We have gotten out of the habit of lingering at table, and food tends to be bolted down in front of the TV or the computer–I’m just as guilty as anyone else about this most of the time. It’s partially because of this that the disconnect between fueling our systems and the true nourishment of dining has occurred. Even though dining out used to be considered a lingering experience, some fine restaurants are now making reservations for three separate seatings per table per evening, because they know that they can hustle diners in and out without the customers feeling rushed; they are so used to eating on a fast food schedule now that they don’t even notice. Much of the time, they barely notice what they are eating.
There is some pushback going on in response to this speed-eating insanity. Restaurants like San Francisco’s Saison are decreasing the number of tables and taking reservations for only one seating in an evening, with the expectation that diners will linger, talking and eating small portions of numerous courses over several hours. It’s the kind of dining experience that was once common, and now is a sort of novelty.
How sad for us all. Where we used to spend time with family and friends, we now rush off to watch TV or play on the internet. Where we used to make memories of shared times – some good, some bad, some funny, some tragic – we zap something in the microwave and stuff forgettable food into our mouths. And wonder why we feel unfulfilled.
The holidays are often all we have left of those shared traditions. A group of people coming together to prepare and share a meal has a certain sacred, ritual nature to it. That nature doesn’t belong to any one faith or creed; it doesn’t depend on believing in anything – except the value of each other as human beings.
Yeah, lots of us suffer from difficult relationships with our families. Yeah, there can be division of labor issues with who does the cooking and cleaning up. But these issues don’t detract from the bedrock nature of sharing both food and ourselves. Nurture is not just about providing the proper number of kcals and nutrients to ensure our internal combustion engines run at optimal efficiency. It’s about feeding our minds and our souls as well, if not with the family of your birth, then with the family of your choosing: friends and loved ones.
And I come back to the idea of that blogger surrounded by lovingly-made food, eating her plain, white dinner while regarding the dishes around her as a sort of enemy, rejecting the love and caring that went into them in favor of food she’s prepared only for herself, and brought only for her own benefit. Will she feel smug and superior as she eats her spartan meal? Will she feel resentment? Will her family look at her plate with ridicule, guilt, hurt feelings that she has rejected their traditions in favor of something so meager? What will or won’t be said because of her choices? What opportunities will be lost?
I’m not saying that the notions of healthy eating should be tossed to the winds and people should stuff themselves sick just because it’s Christmas. But imagine that instead of setting herself apart from family ritual, she’d brought a big green salad and some roasted brussel sprouts to share? That instead of turning her nose up at the prime rib, she’d asked to a sliver of a slice? That instead of closing herself inward to the food-is-fuel mentality, she’d embraced the idea of dining-is-sharing? For her, Christmas dinner is an ordeal to be overcome, instead of a communion of family. And it doesn’t have to be.