It has been, by most objective measures, a lousy week. It announced itself with a dog bite on my Monday morning run, developed with Eli’s fever, peaked the night Tony and I spent at Eli’s bedside, putting cold washcloths on his head and wondering whether to take him into Urgent Care, and has now moved into the quiet dull rhythm of boredom and cabin fever that settles on a house when a family member has been sick a while. I did finally make the ultimately ill-advised decision to leave the house, only to back our garage-parked car into our driveway-parked car (another reason I want to sell one of our cars; it might be a bit harder now, though). But I have to say that if my child was going to choose any week to be sick and keep me anchored on the couch, stroking his head while he watched endless episodes of Oswald and Peep in the Big World, at least he chose the week that the New York Times Magazine published the food issue.
There is so much to like here. There’s the fascinating article about the calorie-restriction diet, and whether it leads to longer life (for the record, there is no way I could undertake such a diet). There’s the piece about Jamie Oliver’s drive to remake the eating habits of “one of the unhealthiest towns in America” (though for an opposing view, directly from Huntington, WV, check out Literary Mama editorial assistant Jenny Hobson’s blog).
The piece about Cress Spring Bakery makes me want to get on a plane to Madison, now, to taste some of that bread, though maybe instead I’ll stay put and learn how to gather my own wild yeast to bake bread. I loved reading about California food pantries and the folks working to make sure that they are well-stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables (Learning to Eat has been promised an essay from Sara Miles, who founded the incredibly successful food pantry at St. Gregory’s church in San Francisco). And Michael Pollan’s Rules to Eat By are going to make an interesting book, indeed. I have used “If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry” with my kids, and my husband certainly lives by “Don’t eat anything you aren’t willing to kill yourself.” The political animal in me likes “Eat foods in inverse proportion to how much its lobby spends to push it,” but my favorite is probably the simplest: “When drinking tea, just drink tea” (though I tend more toward its corollary, “When you are drinking tea and reading the newspaper, just drink tea and read the newspaper.”)
But my favorite piece in the issue is Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay, Against Meat, which starts with this wonderful anecdote:
“When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. On my way in, Friday night, she would lift me from the ground in one of her fire-smothering hugs. And on the way out, Sunday afternoon, I was again taken into the air. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was weighing me.”
The piece goes on to talk about his grandmother, who survived World War ll by scavenging whatever she could and whom he and his siblings grew up thinking of as “the greatest chef who ever lived,” even though she only cooked one dish (which had just two ingredients).
Don’t let the title put you off; it doesn’t matter if you eat a vegetarian diet or not. I happen to; Foer does now, too, although as he describes his first foray into rejecting meat: “My vegetarianism, so bombastic and unyielding in the beginning, lasted a few years, sputtered and quietly died.” It gains purchase when he marries, and finally sticks when he and his wife start a family: “My children not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but also shamed me into reconsideration.” But he knows, as I know, that food choices are less about what we put in our mouths than about becoming aware of all the choices open to us, and the history (family, religious, cultural) behind those choices as well as the contemporary issues (political, social, and economic) affecting those choices. Foer puts it, “I’m not as worried about what [my children] will choose as much as my ability to make them conscious of the choices before them. I won’t measure my success as a parent by whether my children share my values, but by whether they act according to their own.”
That might start to feel complicated, but in fact it is quite simple. As Foer writes of his son, as Lisa and I have been writing all year in various ways, food is stories. “Increasingly the food [my son] eats is digested together with stories we tell. Feeding my children is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (their physical health matters, the pleasure they take in eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter.”
And so back to his grandmother, whose simple chicken and carrots “was delicious,” he realizes, “because we believed it was delicious. The story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joy, humiliation, religion, history and, of course, love. It was as if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.”
” It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood my grandmother’s cooking. The greatest chef who ever lived wasn’t preparing food, but humans.”
Food is stories. It is stories about past and present; it is stories about family. Keep visiting here, and we’ll keep sharing ours.