If asked, I would wager a guess that the vastest of all vast majorities of you all, reading this today, would immediately be able to tell me at least 5 foods you immediately associate with the Thanksgiving holiday, and probably another 3 or 4 that you associate with Christmas, and another few for the 4th of July. I’d be willing to bet, that these associations are so strong, imagining said holiday without those foods would be damn near sacrilege, unthinkable, a complete farce. Plain and simple, no matter what the foods you choose to eat, we’re a culture built around food. Not just “we” as in those living in the same country I do, but “we” a species spread across a planet. Food is the centerpiece for so much of our gatherings, so much of how we relate to one another, care for one another, and it got me wondering about it more and more, especially considering the extremely limited diet that I am forced to eat in my own life.
We’ve just come through another Thanksgiving holiday here in the USofA, and so many of us are probably still filling our stomachs with leftovers of the turkey persuasion, the cranberry, the tater kind. First, before I dive into the deeply ingrained reasons behind our society being so food based, I want to say the following: So much of my confusion about the societal focus on food, and the fact that all our gatherings are centered around food or drink, comes from that fact that I have a lot of food allergies, and I’ve lived my entire life dealing with a very sensitive stomach to the things I may not be allergic to, but am intolerant to, and as such, I literally hate food. I hate eating, it brings me no joy if I’m totally honest, and with very few exceptions, food has always just been fuel, a necessary thing I have to do a couple of times a day because if I don’t, I don’t operate. So, consider that a bit of an explanation as to why I may be skeptical and confused by our collective obsession with all things eats. Onward.
Human beings are basically the only creatures on earth that cook our food before consumption, and we’ve always been. This preparation, this care, changes not only the nutrients we receive from the food we’re consuming, but it also creates the environment where food transforms from just those nutrients, into something more. Anthropologists have studied food and its role in society for years, one scientist named Margaret Mead even believed that food extended beyond the boundaries of nutrition, and into the realm of gifting, being important to share with friends, with family, and with those that had value in your life. Even phrases like “to break bread,” are about precisely this. The cooking of the food on fires began all of this, and fire was quite possibly the single most important sociological invention, as it not only enabled survival, but community as those gathered around it to stay alive, to prepare the meals, and to create and preserve culture. This benefit exists to this day, with new studies even showing that young people that eat at least one dinner a week with family “have less obesity, lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure,” and all of those benefits extend even further if that 1, moves to 6 or 7.
For all of us in this modern society where heat can be instant, meals fast fooded, and community virtual, why does food still hold the power it does? Simply put, because it always will, because we must always eat, and we must always stay part of communities. Some studies are even showing that longevity and resistance to chronic disease are even byproducts of this shared meal culture, and as long as the benefits keep piling up, as long as we keep needing to eat, we’ll always be finding reasons, excuses, and motivations to do so together.
But what about people like me? What about people with allergies to so many different ingredients, so many intolerances that make the prospect of eating at all, let alone in the company of many others, a daunting one? All my life I’ve dreaded eating because so often I am either not able to find food I can eat, or forced to eat food that I know will make me sick, or most often, have to choose to not eat at all in order to not go through the usual repercussions.
As sad as it sounds, I’d rather take a pill 3 times a day, if one were to be invented that could provide all the nutrients I need. I say this, and those I know and love are horrified by the idea, but for someone like me, it’d be such soothing relief. Strange thing is, when you can’t do the eating, the culture around the gatherings begins to wither for you, and instead of looking forward to the holidays, the get-togethers, the parties, you’re left wishing you could opt out, wishing you could eat the few safe things you can eat, and move on. Which makes me realize something, and ponder a different way: What if, in addition to all the reasons we gather around eating and drinking already, whether it’s coffee dates, BBQs, office or school pot-lucks, etc, can we add in more reasons to get together that have nothing at all to do with food or drink? Maybe, but I have a feeling most people would feel just as uncomfortable at them, as I do at theirs.
No matter, I know I am in the minority here, and that is ok. I will keep going to the dinners, keep showing up to the BBQs, keep doing the dance. We’re a culture built around food, and that ain’t going away. For now I’ll wait, until that pill arrives.
For all you who DO love food, love to eat, love to share it with one another, perhaps this is a perfect place to illuminate me as to what it is about the food and eating itself, that makes it mean so much more to you? I truly would love to know and hear the other side of the coin. Sound off, educate me. I’m all ears (as my stomach sucks).
Gather round tables,
pass the plates pass the dishes,
hold each others hands.