What do you do while you eat? I read. Some people watch TV. Some sit at the computer. Take meetings. Stand. Walk. And talk on a hands-free phone. A stat from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: 20% of calories in America are consumed while driving. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan points out that “virtually the only information that travels along the food chain linking producer and consumer is price. Just look at the typical newspaper ad for a supermarket. The sole quality on display here is actually a quantity: tomatoes $0.69 a pound; ground chuck $1.09 a pound; eggs $0.99 a dozen - special this week. Is there any other category of product sold on such a reductive basis?” What’s on special? What do I have to pay the least for? That’s what I’ll put in my body! The implication: food is, in and of itself, unimportant. Spend as little as possible, eat as quickly as possible. Fuel up and get to the important stuff in life.
A seemingly different trend described in In Defense of Food is health consciousness that breaks foods down into nutrients: carbs, protein, fiber, antioxidants, trans fats. These elements are added or reduced or eliminated or enriched according to the trends suggested by the latest studies that have caught the media’s (and therefore, the public’s) attention. What’s this got in it! Which is the one the scientists made better! I’ll eat that and live to be two hundred! The implication: food is, in and of itself, unimportant. It’s a delivery system for nutrients. Fuel up and that’ll make you healthy. In Integral terms, this is the upper right quadrant (the physical, measurable world) claiming itself as the only relevant aspect of life (for an explanation of “the four quadrants,” see the end note). Pollan points out a number of flaws in this way of thinking. Our scientific knowledge is far from complete. There are micro-nutrients scientists haven’t figured out yet. Some nutrients behave differently in different foods. Nutritionists sometimes get things wrong and change their minds, en masse. Not everyone metabolizes nutrients the same way. And most importantly, as an NYU nutrition scientist he quotes points out, studying nutrients individually takes them out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.
Enter the French Paradox. A diet heavy on meat, cheese, wine, rich desserts, and a nation of skinnier, healthier people than in the US. If nutrients were all that mattered, this would make no sense at all. But consider the context in which the French eat. Smaller portions. More time to eat. Meals are almost never eaten alone, or while doing something else. But we have family dinners here, don’t we? Of course we do. Pollan describes how major food companies installed cameras in the dining rooms of American families (with permission) to study how people eat. Mom makes a meal and eats her portion by herself, and each family member, including the eight year old child, makes (nukes) what he wants, and eats it when he wants. Multiple people might be at the table at the same time, but it’s by coincidence, not design. People who eat like this answer “yes” when pollsters ask if they have family dinners, making them part of the 47% of Americans who claim to still eat this way.
The French regard for communal meals isn’t restricted to family dinners. Portland based indie musician Laura Veirs described why she likes touring France to an NPR interviewer: “at the venue, you’ll come in and do sound check, and then they’ll clear the room and bring in these big, wooden tables. And the whole staff, including the ticket sellers and the merch sellers and the lighting people and the band, and everybody who’s involved in the show will eat dinner together in the room. It’s a very bonding thing; it makes it feel like a special show. And here [the US] you’ll walk into the bar, and they’ll give you your $10 buyout and then you’ll go find a place to eat, and then you’ll come back.
So apparently eating can be for more than just fueling up. In Hold on to Your Kids, psychologist Gordon Neufeld (co-writing with Gabor Mate) writes about the need to cultivate attachment with one’s children, and how a family vacation in Provence helped him understand the significance of the family meal - what he describes as a cornerstone of Provencal culture. It’s not only an opportunity for members of a family to connect with one another, but to ground everyone in the bigger picture of the community and the culture:
“The family meal can be a potent collecting ritual. What other activity can provide such an opportunity to get in our children’s faces in a friendly way, provide something for our children to hold on to, and invite our children to depend on us? What other activity provides us the opportunity to collect the eyes, coax the smiles, and get them nodding? ...Tables are carefully set, courses are served one at a time, traditions are observed, meals are designed to take time, no interruptions are allowed. The sit-down family meal has a huge supporting cast, including the baker, the butcher, and the vendors at the village market. During the noon and evening meals, business ceases and stores lock their doors. Fast-food restaurants are rare, as are the habits of eating alone or standing up. Provence has been called a culture of food. It seems to me, however, that the consumption of food is only the most visible aspect. A more fundamental purpose is attachment. The family sit-down meal was certainly the centerpiece of our own family life while we stayed in Provence. It was what our children missed the most when we returned”.
For more on the subject of putting into practice the wisdom of old world cultures, see Br. Juma’s post Why Talking About the Weather Matters.
Laura Veirs’ dinner with a music venue’s staff connects her with them. They’re happier running her lights and selling her merch. She performs with more focus and enjoyment. The audience sees a better show. On this side of the Atlantic we rush from one activity to the next. We shovel down our food, eating things that are supposed to make us healthier, but without taking the time to enjoy them, or each other’s company. We check our email while talking on the phone and send text messages while watching a movie and cram down big portions of ready-made food prepared by people we’ve never met and don’t think about. And we pack on the pounds.
In the modern world we’re driven by a need to accomplish. This even enters our spiritual lives. In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts says:
“Sitting meditation is not, as is often supposed, a spiritual ‘exercise,’ a practice followed for some ulterior object. From a Buddhist standpoint, it is simply the proper way to sit, and it seems perfectly natural to remain sitting so long as there is nothing else to be done, and so long as one is not consumed with nervous agitation. To the restless temperament of the West, sitting meditation may seem to be an unpleasant discipline, because we do not seem to be able to sit ‘just to sit’ without qualms of conscience, without feeling that we ought to be doing something more important to justify our existence. To propitiate this restless conscience, sitting meditation must therefore be regarded as an exercise, a discipline with an ulterior motive. Yet at that very point is ceases to be meditation (dhyana) in the Buddhist sense, for where there is purpose, where there is seeking and grasping for results, there is not dhyana.”
In Peace is Every Step, Zen monk Thich Naht Hanh describes a time he asked two children why we eat breakfast. One of them said it’s to get energy for the day. The other said we eat breakfast in order to eat breakfast. He could have asked them why we meditate, why we go to a concert, or why we do anything. Which of those children are you?
What function does our penchant for maximum efficiency and accomplishment serve? Well, if we work hard enough, we can sock away enough money and resources and abilities to, eventually... enjoy ourselves. And live in the moment. How much is that mythic day worth, if we get there obese, cancerous, alienated and with a lifetime’s conditioning to be anywhere but where we are? And why wait till then when you take ten minutes today and pay attention to every bite of a bowl of strawberries?
Integral Philosopher Ken Wilber devised a map that allows you to look at anything from four perspectives. Let’s look at the act of preparing and eating a meal through the lens of each quadrant.
The upper left quadrant is the Individual Subjective: feelings, thoughts, memories - the non-physical interior of the individual. In terms of having a meal, this would detail how eating and/or preparing the food makes you feel emotionally and mentally. What kinds of memories and associations does it bring up? How much do you enjoy the taste, the company, the experience? How does it feel to have someone cook for you, or to cook for someone else, or to cook for yourself? How do those feelings affect your enjoyment of the food and the preparation? What’s your emotional state after the meal? Happy, satisfied, loved, disappointed, lonely, ashamed, proud, neutral?
The upper right quadrant is the Individual Objective: biology, chemistry, the atoms, molecules, cells, fluids and whatnot that you can measure, touch, extract, dissect, amputate, transplant, etc. So with having a meal this quadrant is useful for looking at nutrients, the invidual’s metabolism, digestion, allergies, physical needs for nutrition and hydration that are (or aren’t) being satisfied. Also, how does a person feel physiologically after the meal? Sleepy, sluggish, full, satiated, gassy, still hungry? It could also include the physical act of preparation. Is it labour intensive and exhausting? How many calories are burned in the various activities?
The lower right quadrant is the Collective Objective: (laws, institutions, systems of organization - the various elements of society we can quantify). Where did the meal come from? What kinds of mechanisms in society connect whoever grew, gathered, slaughtered, butchered, mixed, engineered, packaged or otherwise prepared the components to whoever cooked and ate them? Which food safety laws were followed? Which regulations allowed for certain amounts of pesticides, hormones, additives and preservatives, and not others? What kinds of retail networks exist that allow the consumer to buy the food as well as the cookware used in preparing it?
The lower left quadrant is the Collective Subjective: (the feelings, opinions and attitudes of a population, everything usually summed up in the word “culture”). How do we feel as a society about food and eating? Do we care? Is a given meal a big deal, or something to crammed down while driving? Is a woman considered feminine if she cooks for others? Is that a good thing, or is it a sign of submission and oppression? Is a man considered liberated if he cooks for others, or gay, or does no one bat an eye? Is there a social stigma to eating by oneself? How does a given community feel about ingredients being organic, or free-range, or grass-fed, or wild, or local, or vegan or kosher? If a meal is eaten together, what’s the effect of that? Does it bring people together or foster resentment or make no difference at all?
All of these aspects can be considered when analyzing something as simple as a meal. They all play a part. None of them is the only factor. And elements in any quadrant affect or can be affected by elements in other quadrants.