Note: This blog is part of our new series called "From the Pantry" which will take a historical look at the food we eat and the culture around food.
By: Liz Williams, Southern Food and Beverage Museum Date: 11/30/11
In my last blog I talked about some of the cultural habits that we have developed that contribute to overeating, mindless eating, and eating from boredom. The most important cultural habit that we should embrace before it vanishes with our busy lives is the family meal. It is good for the person who prepares the meals and good for the person who eats it.
On the most basic level, preparing food for others is an act of love. It is a form of hospitality, a form of sharing and a form of giving life. Somehow it became a chore to cook for our families. There is always a degree of drudgery in even the most pleasant tasks. But at sometime in the twentieth century the feelings of resentment at the drudgery overtook the love. We began to try to save time, not because we were being efficient, but to make the time dedicated to drudgery shorter.
When time saving mixes were first introduced, they were not embraced because people felt that they had eliminated cooking. The mixes were reworked so that the cook had to add oil and eggs and other liquid. Today a just add water mix is totally acceptable. Today we buy it already cooked. Despite our interest in watching other people cook as entertainment on television, we have given up cooking at home.
Animals feed their young - mammals with their bodies and then by teaching them to collect or hunt their own food. Other animals hunt and feed their hungry young. For us as parents, as nurturers, the act of driving up to a window, ordering and buying food, and distributing it to our children to eat in the car as we drive to some other location or activity, is unsatisfying. We may think that we do not have time to do anything else, but we are depriving ourselves of an important act of love.
The corresponding loss is that the people who are fed only received calories. They do not receive love. By that I mean that they do not have the experience of consuming the meal with attention and with an awareness of being satisfied. Thus in some sense their hunger is not fed leaving them still wanting to eat.
We have converted our culture from one centered around the table to one that considers family eating to be a waste of time. We have too many other things to do. And it is true that we have jobs, we have commitments, we have many competing interests. But the failure to maintain the culture of the table has horrible consequences for our society. We do not eat meals that are as healthy as family meals. We eat too much in an attempt to feed an unmet hunger. We become obese. We do not nurture ourselves or our children. And we deprive ourselves of the simple pleasures of the table.
We cannot roll back the clock and become leisurely about the table overnight. We cannot always make time to eat and cook. But for the sake of our children, we can make small cultural adjustments that will return us to the table. (Too many studies show that children who eat family meals get better nutrition, are less obese, and are better adjusted.) The single most important aspect of eating – aside from the fueling aspect – is knowing that you are doing it. Let’s not eat in the car. Even if we are eating take-out on the way to somewhere, let us either sit down and eat it at the restaurant or as a picnic. Let us make a ritual of actually being aware of eating. This will make us aware of each other. We can share our food. We can have a conversation. We can look at each other. We can take pleasure from eating, and we can trigger those parts of our brain that are there to make eating pleasurable and satisfying. We can rediscover the lost art of eating.