Anxious Appetites

We generally think of eating healthy as being, well, healthy! We applaud our comrades who are so brave and  focused to take on the task of paying attention to their diets for the betterment of their personal well being. We congratulate friends on their self-control when we notice they have been losing weight, and we may even feel a twinge of guilt for not committing to treat our own bodies with more respect.

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Click to enlarge all your secret eating anxieties

But sometimes a desire to be healthy can transform into an obsession with counting calories and politely refusing even the occasional offer of candy or chips. In recent years, medical specialists have noticed a rise in a new eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa. Similar to the more well known struggle of Anorexia Nervosa, Orthexia stems from a desire to control one’s diet that is taken to the extreme, but is centered, ironically, around an obsession with eating healthy.

Like most eating disorders, the origins of Orthexia are foggy at best, but it seems likely that it is at least somehow connected to the rising condemnation of obesity in America, the unrealistic images of celebrities who claim to have the ‘new wonder diet’, or simply the trendiness of eating healthy in general.

If we think nailing down the causes is complicated, perhaps even more so is the task of offerring relief. Of course there is an element of counseling or therapy that is most likely required for severe cases, but health and food enthusiast Tori Gartner offers another interesting angle on how to combat Orthexia. She believes that fostering a deeper relationship with our food can in fact help us to better understand what it means to be healthy, while simultaneously helping us to appreciate eating in a healthy fashion.

So it seems that paying attention to our food can be more beneficial than simply offering spiritual insight. It can in fact help combat real medical and psychological issues. As Gartner observes,”When we are in tune with what pleases our palate, when we provide ourselves with the time to cook or chop or shop, when we respect food preparation as something that deserves some time (just like sleep) then perhaps it will be easier to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with food.”

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The Baker’s Daughter

I will always associate the smell of freshly baked bread with my dad. He would often come home from work, bread in hand and patches of flour dusted about his shirt. Call me biased, but I whole-wheat-heartedly believe his bread is really the best of the best–he didn’t just stop at plain old run of the mill varieties, he devised delicious concoctions like cheddar onion, olive and thyme, and asiago with roasted garlic and parmesan. Needless to say, with a master baker as a father, I developed a passion for carbs at a very early age, and I’ve never looked back.

Father and daughter in the café he owned and managed while I was in high school

Father and daughter in the café he owned and managed while I was in high school

Bread has been a huge part of my life. I’ve learned to shape dough, to watch as it rises, to wait impatiently as it bakes to just the right golden brown, and to eat it like a pro. It was always a special treat when my dad let me come in and bake with him, although I never really could have handled the true baker’s schedule; during the years when he was actually in the business of bread-selling he would go into bake, alone, at 10:30 pm…bake all night, then start the deliveries at about 8am (that’s usually when I would reluctantly roll out of bed to go on the delivery rounds). Admittedly, I never really understood how or why he would submit his body to such a grueling schedule, but I’ve realized over the years that he did it because he truly believes in the craftsmanship of baking.

Bread is a curious food. It’s certainly a staple of many American diets, and the quality and varieties available abound (I feel comfortable claiming that some are undeniably better/worse/not even really bread *cough*”Wonderbread”*cough*) but what I have learned to be the most fascinating is the stories it can tell. Most people don’t realize that all bread really is is salt, water, flour and yeast and that yeast–this most crucial ingredient–is in fact a living organism that needs feeding and nurturing and can carry a story in its existence.

The story of my dad’s bread starts in a small town in Wisconsin, where my grandfather grew up. His mother (my great grandmother) was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the early 20th century. When my dad went to visit the birthplace of his father, he found grapes growing along the side of the schoolhouse. Like several other fruits, grapes produce a thin layer of yeast around their outside (that’s what makes them so much fun to shine up).

don't you just wanna grab some and rub 'em on your shirt to make them sparkly?

don’t you just wanna grab some and rub ’em on your shirt to make them sparkly?

My dad gathered this yeast and used it in his first batch of sourdough starter. Every loaf of bread he’s made since sprang from this original batch, and therefore has a connection with his own roots.

It is interesting to ponder the ways in which the food that ends up in our mouths connects us to a broader meaning. Anna Tsing’s fascinating work with mushrooms has illuminated whole new ways in which people can be seen to relate to their surroundings. She argues that “human nature is an interspecies relationship” and that the interdependence that exists in this world is often overlooked in the name of human exceptionalism. We are unwilling to acknowledge that our dependency on plants, animals, minerals, etc. extends beyond a biological need that we can in fact conquer through control and domestication. The cyclical nature of dependency should be recognized: grapes need yeast to protect their nutrients, yeast needs grapes to thrive; man needs yeast to produce delicious and sustaining bread, yeast needs man to continue to thrive in an artificial yet mutually beneficial environment. In any of these situations individual actors (grape, yeast, man) could be seen to be taking advantage or exerting control over the other for selfish gain, yet it seems more productive to acknowledge the interdependence and learn from the unique symbioticism.

My dad’s bread connects me to grapes in Wisconsin, and to ancestors I never met. It gave me my first job (as a bread sales girl at my local Farmers Market) thus guiding me into the world of adult socialization and commerce. I’ve learned that in order to produce something that people will enjoy eating, you have to enjoy making it. Being connected to our food reminds us not just where it comes from, but what it took to get from there to here and how that journey is but a thread in a never ending web of interdependence.

Eating Blindly

While perusing some articles this week, I came across Dining in the Dark–an avant garde form of dining now offered in the Boston area. This restaurant introduces eager diners to a sensational (literally) meal experience…minus one major sense: the gift of sight.

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Guests are blindfolded and guided through their meal accompanied by a plethora of sounds, smells, and otherwise intriguing stimulations.

The concept behind such a seemingly absurd restaurant indeed relates to the theme of this blog. Namely, the creators believe that people are too disconnected from their food, and that dining sans sight helps rebuild that connection. If you can’t see what you’re eating, you have to rely on the rest of your senses to inform you about the experience, and you end up with a more intimate relationship to what you are consuming.

Personally, I know I would only end up making a fool of myself and would probably end up with a much more intimate relationship than intended–namely, food and drink intimately introduced to the fabric of my fancy clothing that I splurged on for such a trendy night out.

It is important to note that the audience this type of experience is likely to attract is probably a very specific one. Dining in the Dark is not cheap (75 bucks a plate)  and it’s certainly not something people intend on indulging in on a regular basis. However, this company is capitalizing on the growing demand for more connection to food–whether that be achieved through eating local, buying organic, or dining blind.

 

A Thanksgiving to Remember

On Thanksgiving morning, 2011, I spent about 30 minutes making sure our dinner didn’t run away. I was studying abroad in northern Uganda at the time, and one of my housemates had just returned from a trip to the market with our prize turkey in hand–alive and well. Now I was charged with keeping tabs on it as it spent its final hours wondering around the floor of our house.

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This was, to say the least, the most intimate relationship I had ever cultivated with my Thanksgiving dinner.

Having been in Uganda for almost three months already, the episode probably didn’t faze me as much of it would have at the beginning of September, but it nonetheless set some thoughts in motion. I tried to imagine how my Grandmother would have reacted if my Aunt ever had a turkey strutting around her kitchen during our family Thanksgiving celebrations. It’s strange how people are so reluctant to face the realities of what they’re eating–and I am absolutely one of the guilty in this respect. But why should seeing our food alive make us feel more uncomfortable consuming it once we have killed it? Morbid, perhaps….but true.

Uganda taught me countless new ways to relate to my food (some of which I’m sure I will be sharing at a later time in this blog) but this relationship with the turkey was probably the most glaring. I mean, it seems counterintuitive or even borderline sadistic to welcome a turkey into your home and watch it explore for a while, knowing that it would meet its fate in just a few short hours (and that fate was definitely not a pleasant one–Uganda could do with a few more knife sharpeners lying around). But I take solace in the fact that this experience at least forced me to come face to face (literally) with the realities of such a proud American tradition. Even though we had very few of the quintessential Thanksgiving foods at our feast, it was definitely the most memorable celebration I have had so far in my life. And the turkey was delicious.