I started out to write a post about today’s myths around food and eating. Food has been symbolic in a very powerful way from the time that meals were shared, and I wanted to explore this in terms of the modern time. So I contacted my friend Leigh Melander, who has her PhD in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology. I wanted her take on what the modern day food mythology was.
I figured that we would talk about how the food myths had changed over time, and touch on food as a symbol for fertility, prosperity and longevity. But the discussion took a more pertinent and relevant turn.
First, lets review the history of our shared experiences around food. Societies were tribal, and based in either agrarian or hunter/gatherer societies. The consuming of food was tied directly to the cycles of the natural world. Food and water were essential to survival, and the act of consuming became a sacred experience. When you consume a plant or an animal, you are consuming energy. The process is transformative, as energy goes from the plant or animal to the human body. Ancient communities recognized and held sacred this act of consuming and “communion”. There was a focus on shared resources as a means of survival, and this helped develop the society within a tribe. If the tribe was well fed and healthy, the population grew, and the strength of the community expanded. Civilizations were able to prosper and grow in size and in power.
Meals continued to be a vital part of society. People would stop their work and take time to eat together. Whether it was a meal shared in a field of farm laborers, or on a boat, or at home, people held the meal time as sacred. Communities still gathered to “break bread” and the shared experience of a community meal was still valued. It brought people together, and created a bond in the community. This reinforced the strength of the community as a whole. You can see this tradition continue today in the form of a fund-raising pancake breakfast for the local fire department, the church potluck supper, or the farm-to-table fundraiser for the local food cooperative. Eating together brings people together. It is the great equalizer.
So what happened? According to Michael Pollan, people are watching more television shows about food, but cooking less than ever. Companies like Blue Apron are selling meal kits delivered to your door (at a ridiculous price I might add) to capitalize on this trend. While there is an interest in food, the shared experience happens all too infrequently.
Here is where the discussion that Leigh and I were having got really interesting.
Basically, today’s society has lost the narrative of food and the meal as a sacred ritual.
Think about it. Parents are running their children from pillar to post, from soccer to music lessons. We work more that ever during the week. We have become a society that eats Cheetos in the car. We don’t eat together. We don’t prepare a meal together. We don’t stop.
We have become completely disconnected from the sacred experience.
Ok, so what’s the big deal? We are busy, we want our kids to go to Yale, blah blah blah.
Here is the problem. We now have a generation of young people who do not know how vital it is to have a shared meal experience. If you need an example of this, take a look at the current wedding reception. Many receptions, instead of becoming a major part of the shared celebration, have taken on the look of a frat party. There is very little recognition of the guests who attended, but there is always a photo booth. I personally saw a maid of honor who was too drunk to give the toast to the bride and groom.
There is a primal need for the narrative around community and food. I belive it is in our collective psyche and in our DNA. And this drive is in all of us. The community meal narrative has been lost, but the desire and need for it hasn’t. So what has it been replaced with?
Negative food rituals. Take a look at the diet industry. Pills, programs, pre-made meals, none of which work in the long term. Obsessions with ingredients. There has been recent research that gluten intolerance is not as widespread as people think. It is been noted that these people may be suffering more from a vitamin deficiency rather than a reaction to gluten. I am not discounting those with true celiac disease, but there has been no real concrete evidence to support the gluten-free issue.
The communities around food are now being built on a negative connotation. The shared experience is one of calorie counting, carbohydrate consumption, plant based, meat based, free range,you name it.
And all of these trends have a negative connotation. It’s all about what you CANNOT eat, should not eat.
And this trend is riddled with guilt. How many times have you said to yourself, while enjoying an ice cream cone “I shouldn’t be eating this. I’m being bad”. We have gone from a society that used to savor and celebrate meals to one of punishment and guilt.
This is our shared experience today. And it’s not good. And we wonder why there is a problem with eating disorders and obesity.
So, how to fix it?
Easy. Start making meals together. Now. No excuses.
“I don’t have time”.–Yes you do. You do if you choose to make it a priority. Create a new habit of eating with your family or friends. Our family always had dinner together. Our one son made dinner a priority with his roommates at college. All six of them ate together one night a week, no exceptions. They created community around their meal. If busy college kids can make it a priority, then so can you.
” I don’t know how to cook”.–Nonsense. If you can read, you can cook. Just get going. Get “The Joy of Cooking” or any cookbook. It doesn’t have to be Duck a la Orange, just learn to make a meatloaf.
“I’m trying to lose weight”– yeah, well join the club. It’s simple. If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie. And don’t beat yourself up because you had a piece of pie over the weekend. Obsessing increases cortisol, which WILL impede your weight loss. Lighten up your attitude towards food and you will literally get lighter.
I hope that those who read this will go out there and make positive changes. We need our narrative back. And in these crazy, turbulent times, we need the strength of community, now more than ever.
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”