In America, we talk a lot about what we eat and how much we eat, how many calories and vitamins and fats we consume. We speak of food largely as a delivery system, an agglomeration of its different parts, about what we find when we pull it apart in a lab. Despite what we like to eat, we feel good or bad about what we actually eat depending on the value scientists have assigned to its constituent parts.
But food, like so many things in life, is so much more than the sum of its parts. In fact, if you really do pull it apart and deliver it in packets of pills and supplements, it is often less than the sum of its parts. The goodness of food, we are discovering, might only be found in the package as a whole.
The healthiest conversation about food might be less about what we eat than how we eat it.
In an interview about their work, “EATING: French, European, and American Attitudes Toward Food,” a study of 7,000 people in six countries, Claude Fischler and Estelle Masson note the following:
In France, Italy and Switzerland, [eating] mainly suggests shared pleasures, sociability, eating with family or friends. Eating means sitting at the table with others, taking one’s time and not doing other things at the same time… In the United States it is more a private, intimate, personal act that tends towards the almost impossible quest for an ideal diet that allows you to function better, stave off illness and live longer.
In the former countries, eating is a delight. In the later, it is a task. In the former, eating is measured in the experience of the moment. In the latter, in its outcome.
But even with food-as-task, we know that there is a gap between what people know they should do and what they actually do. “Nutrition education,” the authors unsurprisingly remark, “seems to have failed across the board, especially in those social classes who are the most ‘at risk’.” Food as chore doesn’t work.
Perhaps what we need is to reclaim the shared table and, in the words of the authors, “re-enchant” food.
“The problems of poor nutrition,” they conclude, “apparently are associated with less rather than more social value attributed to eating” (italics added). In other words, the more we build shared rituals around our food, the more warm memories and stories we associate with eating, the more we intentionally eat together, the healthier we are likely to be.
“Rather than a personalized diet,” they suggest, “... we would recommend cultivating the social practices of cooking and sharing a meal. Rather than training a population of diet experts, it would probably make more sense to have informed consumers, people sensitive to the qualities of a product, how it has been grown or produced and to a new food supply in which environment, health and pleasure would go hand in hand. In short, where food has become disenchanted, we should try to ‘re- enchant’ it.”
Of all the burdens we have in life, this seems like one we can enjoy. And of all the other gifts of Shabbat, re-enchanting the food of our lives is one of my all-time favorites.
This coming Thanksgiving may be a good time to start. It is the one American holiday when we all expect - or hope - to sit down to a home cooked meal.
And then, the next day, we can do it again for Shabbat.