Posted On: 10/01/1999
On a trip to London, with my boyfriend at the time, I was faced with a frightening dilemma. Where were we going to eat? There we were within the midst of one of the most enormous melting pots of cuisines, and we were floating without a soup spoon. Should we have Indian (some of the best in the world can be found in the London suburb of Clifton)? Or Thai? Or Moroccan? Perhaps we should go native and have bubble and squeak (hot dogs with mashed potatoes!) or kidney pie? I was drowning in a titillating indecision of taste-bud frenzy when my boyfriend ripped me out of my reverie with the words Let's just eat and get it over with. Not only did he illuminate our disparaging differences, but he summed up what I believe to be a cultural boo boo of Americans - food only as sustenance!
In a recent article in Salon Magazine I was once again reminded of this anthropological faux pas. The article debates the phenomenon known as the French Paradox, which points out that while the French ingest way more saturated animal fat than Americans, about a third as many die of heart attacks. While there is no scientific data (yet), the culture behind eating in France is very telling. The French (we're talking sweeping generalizations here - bear with me) eat a variety of foods, don't snack between meals, eat more slowly (no thirty minute lunch hours there) and turn meals into consistent gatherings of family and friends (not just on holidays). So, this got me thinking about how our culture views food (keep in mind the phrase sweeping generalization).
For Americans, food is synonymous with diet. The current New York Times Bestseller List (hardcover) contains six out of fifteen books related to diets, food crazes and unnatural cravings. There is only one normal cookbook and, you guessed it, it's number fifteen. No doubt about it, eating a healthy diet is important; bacon for breakfast, cheeseburgers for lunch and steak for dinner is not a healthy choice, unless you are Dr. Atkins and he only recommends such insanity for a limited time. However, lifestyle regarding food should be more important. I am not advocating fanatical food fundamentalism - that wouldn't be good either, just look at Japanese mothers and the obentos. Obentos are boxed lunches that Japanese mothers (sweeping generalizations, remember?) prepare for their nursery school children utilizing strict codes for food preparation that include multiple courses of delicious little foods that are not only aesthetically arranged but artistically original. It's become a subculture in which some mothers have had to quit their jobs to keep up with the latest obento crazes (lemon pieces made into butterflies, sausages cut into flowers, a carrot designed as a shoe...).
I don't advocate such over-the-topness with respect to food, but I would like to plead for two hour lunches, known in Europe and Latin America as the siesta. If their economy can handle it, why can't ours? The United States appears to have more fast food restaurants per square mile than George W. Bush has campaign dollars. Next time you visit the supermarket, check out the square footage relegated to frozen food entrees and Ramen noodles; our culture (sweeping generalization!) is practically devoted to drive-by dining. Stop the insanity!
Food is for much more than sustenance, it is synonymous with life. Just look at what Marcel Proust did with a tiny cookie in Remembrance of Things Past. He recollected his entire life (comprised of a novel in seven parts totaling about 3400 pages) from just a bite of that cookie dipped in tea. (The guy is French!) Just think about how eating the proverbial Thanksgiving Meal engenders wonderful memories of family, football and love (need I say it: sweeping generalization). The truth is, our culture needs to slow down and enjoy the Fruits (and Pecan Waffles and Flourless Chocolate Cakes and Barbecued Chicken) of our Labors. Having a meal should be more than just eating and getting it over with. It should be about the celebration of the experience of food and the magic involved in taking a few ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar, cream) and creating a dish (a soufflé) that transports you to another realm where eating is about the celebration of life.
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