FROM A CERTAIN point of view, there is no such thing as food. Not objectively. Not for human beings who cook and eat. The food we grow, prepare and consume is full of fantasy, teeming with imagination and meaning. Our imagination of food is inseparable from the food itself.
At the personal level, food is closely connected to that central power of the human soul, memory. In my practice of psychotherapy I have witnessed several people recover their vitality and connect to their families by returning to foods and recipes they enjoyed as children. One man told me that he was deeply depressed after moving from the area where he grew up. His new home was known for its dairy. “All they eat is cheese here,” he told me with distaste. Eventually, he sent back home for familiar food and recipes, and soon his depression lifted.
The mere smell of food can send you back in time to an earlier part of your life and give you a bittersweet feeling for the past and wishes for the present. Specific recipes and their aromas connect with specific places and times. Food serves memory, which deepens experience.
Food also brings people together, mysteriously serving the emotional life. Say you have trouble in your marriage. You call a friend for help. Do you say, “I know a solitary place with no distractions where we can have a serious talk”? Or do you say, “Let’s have lunch”? On such occasions do you need the calories or the chemicals? Do you need to deal with your hunger? Or do you know deep down that eating together will intensify your conversation?
If you want to know the most deep-seated truths of human life, look to the religions. They all know that food makes community and that at a profound spiritual level eating together is communion, a commingling of souls.
Religions say that, when you eat certain foods, God dwells within you. The ancient Greeks called it omophagia, eating the god. Christians eat bread and drink wine, knowing that mysteriously, sacramentally, this special food will fill their souls with the divine. The Jewish Seder, the Sikh gurdwara, and Islam’s celebration of the Prophet’s birthday involve food and feasting. By connecting food and ritual so closely, religions show that food has a profound capacity for meaning and for fostering community.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in this time of rapid technological advance and the shrinking of the globe is to create a world community. But that important task can’t be done in the abstract. Food can play a role. Food as community, not as a commodity. Whatever power allows lunch to foster friendship, wedding cake a marriage, and bread and wine a religion could make a community of the world’s population. But we need first to restore soul to food.
Ways to re-animate food, like food itself, are quite simple. We could grow food in a humane setting: a garden or a real farm. We could learn to prepare it, each of us, with care and pleasure. And we could return to dining: eating with manners and style with the family, friends and community. There is always a place for a quick meal, but everyone also needs communion, the intimate experience of conviviality that only food can provide.
COOKING IS A good soul art. It offers immediate contact with the food we eat. It’s contemplative, as well, when you cut and slice vegetables or watch a pot simmer or keep an eye on the oven. Cooking can teach you how to live: observantly, patiently, creatively, artistically and lovingly. It can be communal and familial. Everyone can have a part.
The culinary arts civilise us. For proof of this rule, notice what happens when the modern philosophy of speed runs up against food. We eat and drink on the run from plastic plates and Styrofoam cups off flat surfaces created by chemists. The food courts in airports and shopping malls usually demonstrate how food can be separated from all the details of selection, preparation and presentation that make it food for the soul and not just the body.
We eat food that is grown by impersonal agribusiness and sold just as impersonally as a sheer commodity. It isn’t food that is giving us cancer and heart disease: it is our limited and pragmatic imagination of food, from which flow our values and practices.
To be more precise, the kind of imagination we bring to food makes all the difference. The puritanism that may be part of any spiritual philosophy may give us a food phobia, a distrust and wariness, sometimes even anger, that affects the way we eat. It should be possible to eat moderately with pleasure, instead of suffering the ascetic self-punishment of a diet. There is a big difference between denying ourselves certain foods and choosing foods carefully.
Pleasure is natural to food and should always be present. Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance magus who wrote about soul and food and friendship, was a moderate Epicurean. He understood well that deep and solid pleasures are a sign of soul. What he said about thinking could apply to food: “Thinking should always walk with pleasure, and maybe a little behind.” Give up the pleasures of food, and you stand a chance of losing its soul.
If you are tempted to give up certain foods, such as chocolate and coffee, look closely for any signs of moralism in your thinking that might spoil your judgement. At a buffet you may look around to see if anyone is watching you stealthily sneaking a piece of cake or an attractive sauce. No-one seems concerned about publicly placing an extra piece of raw vegetable or yogurt on a plate. Guilt is a sign that some spiritual puritanism has crept into your diet. Puritanism is anti-soul.
Language sometimes betrays our moralism. Some gourmet restaurants offer desserts with names that include words like ‘decadence’, ‘devil’ and ‘sinful’ or, on the other side, ‘heavenly’ and even ‘nirvana’. You’re supposed to be tempted to sin by eating the delicious concoction, but the temptation is based on feelings of guilt. A doctor once suggested to me that I lose some weight and gave me a list of ‘forbidden’ foods. I threw the list away because I have had enough moralism in my life. Had he given me some positive, delectable choices, today I’d probably be slim and muscular.
ANOTHER IMAGINATION OF food that threatens its soul comes from the chemistry lab. I have in front of me a box of rice, one of the basic food staples of the world. It tells me I should think of the rice as having 200 calories, 3 grams of total fat, 0% cholesterol, 640 milligrams of sodium, 40 grams of carbohydrates, and 1 gram of sugar. This information can be useful, but it dominates our fantasy of food, making it abstract, materialistic and health-obsessed. The packaging is anxious and neurotic – not a good way to begin cooking and eating.
Alternatively, the box could offer us a beautiful photograph of a rice field, an old wisdom tale about rice, a remarkable ethnic recipe, a rice poem, or information about rice and culture. It could acknowledge that food is not just for the body, but for the mind and spirit as well.
If growers, packagers and sellers would treat food as having great potential for meaning, we might think more about eating moderately and healthfully. We might discover the power of food to cultivate friendships and family. We might appreciate its capacity to foster the all-important virtue of conviviality. Possessed of that virtue, the joy in being cohabitants of the planet, we might understand our role in making sure that the children of the world never go hungry.
ANOTHER WAY FOOD contributes to conviviality is in its extraordinary power to make the pleasures of ethnic diversity concrete and sensual. Is it the physical organism or the soul that craves an Italian dinner one night and Indian the next? The taste and colour and texture of food evoke a people and a style of life, and everyone, at any place on the globe, can be enriched as a person by tasting foreign food.
Most people appreciate great cities like London and New York because they can find a broad range of well-prepared ethnic food there. But your own kitchen can be New York or London. You can learn to cook exotic, imaginative dishes that make you a citizen of the world. Once again, food becomes an instrument for conviviality.
But unfortunately imagination is not high among our priorities. When we turn food into a mere object, we tend to abuse it and abuse ourselves with it. We substitute quantity for quality. We don’t have a sensual experience of food, and therefore we eat too much. Our imagination is ‘out to lunch’, and so we stuff our bodies. We don’t value the role of food in our friendships and families, and therefore we tolerate the fast, unconscious, ungraceful ingestion of solids and liquids that today passes for dining.
As a psychotherapist, I sometimes ask people how they eat. One man, whose family was in considerable emotional turmoil, told me that he always got a take-away meal at a fast-food restaurant on the way home from work. His wife ate a packaged dinner at her desk in her home office. The babysitter fed the two children the same meal of cheese and pasta every weekday night. He didn’t see what the question had to do with his family troubles.
There is an old saying, “A person is what they eat.” I would say, “How a person eats reveals who he or she is.” Food can acquire soul through manners, style and ritual. It’s the difference between surviving and living, eating and dining, getting the essentials and living in a world of beauty and society. To the survivalist, getting any kind of food inside you is sufficient. To the person of soul, developing manners, cultivating style in cooking and preparing, and invoking the spiritual dimension through modest ritual make life worth living.
Ritual around food need not be too formal or fancy. You can set a beautiful table, simple or complex, depending on the occasion. Care taken to surround food with beauty invites a deeper experience. You can eat certain food on the same day every year to celebrate or just remember. You can bless your food or light a candle. Simple, graceful acts can deepen an ordinary meal into a feast or communion.
We are living in a time when manners and style are largely out of fashion. They may seem superficial and unnecessary. Just get to the food, put it in your body, and forego all the pomp. But food without ceremony goes into the belly, bypassing the heart, the imagination and the spirit. It is empty, not just of physical nutrient, but of soul nutrients as well.
WHEN WE LOSE sight of the soul of food, its dark side, its shadow and its demons appear. Our way with food leads to starvation, inequality, cruelty to animals, the loss of family farms, obesity and food-related illness. Bulimia and anorexia appear, especially among the young, not only causing them much suffering but also indicating that society has lost its positive connection to food. Fasting and feasting are two creative ways to deal with food, but when society loses its natural religious appreciation for the mystery and sacredness of ordinary things, such devastating pathologies arise as signs of our confusion.
Although the commodification of food is a global problem, its solution is local and personal. We can eat thoughtfully and moderately, with occasional and appropriate fasting and feasting. We can select our food to be consonant with our values, prepare it ourselves with pleasure and attention, and present it with an eye to beauty, natural religion and sensual delight. Then we might know the power of food to magically create intimacy, conviviality and community.