The holiday season is in full swing, and eating all kinds of food (and in some instances not eating other kinds) is very much a part of the festivities. At my family’s annual Thanksgiving gathering (yes, at grandmother’s house) favorite foods and wished-for last meals somehow became a relatively serious topic of conversation. As various members of the assemblage of family and friends offered their choices (of the meals they’d request if they knew the meal was to be their last or of their favorite “guilty pleasures” in any event), it occurred to me that the foods we eat (and don’t eat) say a lot about who we are individually and societally.
My eating habits are fairly simple and my tastes in foods are pretty pedestrian. As a child, I was required (by my mother, who went a tad overboard in this area) to sample everything that was offered for dinner that evening. Since my mother primarily cooked for my dad, who had a great appetite for more exotic dishes than my undeveloped taste buds could handle, I often found myself staring at what seemed like the most unappetizing of dishes (usually things with heavy tomato sauces or the Armenian equivalents of goulash and succotash).
I still haven’t outgrown some of the food biases I developed in those formative years, although my wife, a wonderfully creative cook, has introduced me to many foods I would have rejected before I met her.
But what we eat says more about us than how we were treated at the dinner table as children. What people eat very much depends on how the process itself is envisioned. Is eating purely a biological function that addresses the basic survival instinct in all of us? Or is it something to take pleasure in, perhaps even to the point of appreciating it artistically? Or, perhaps, is what we eat and how we eat it more a social occasion, one that allows us to engage with our fellow travelers in all manner of discourse while we partake of the nourishment we all require?
My son Keith, who, I should mention, is an artist with an artist’s sensibilities and a decidedly liberal political bent, expresses the variety of views on food thusly: “Some of us enjoy the sensorial and experiential aspects of eating: flavoring our meals for particular sensations, appreciating life and feeling love through food. Others of us might prioritize health and maximize our chances for longevity and fitness, even if we do so at the cost of utmost pleasure. We all employ a cost-benefit analysis on our food decisions: Does the experience of this ice cream sundae outweigh the potential impact it has on my body? Is this occasion worth it?
“Still, there are other factors: Where does my food come from? Do I care? If not, what will it cost me to allow market forces to decide my diet? If the food comes from the mass suffering of life, is that relevant to me? Regarding life, is animal life less valuable than human life? Is a duck’s life more valuable than the life of a fish? Also, does eating even matter? Must we consume food for energy? Perhaps the cost-benefit of eating at all leans more toward skipping meals for some people, eating a pill in place of a meal for others. And then, of course, there is the monetary cost, and how our decisions are made within the economic paradigm that largely controls us.
“Food is very much personal, and yet we build communities around it. In the dining hall at college, around the big table for holiday meals with family, it is supposed to bind us, to bring us together in celebration of eating.”
Keith’s last point seems especially apt at this time of the year. The holidays are loaded with food-eating events. Oh, we don’t call them that, but that’s largely what they are. Can you imagine an office Christmas party without lots of food? Or a Thanksgiving gathering that isn’t centered around a dining room table loaded down with caloric-laden dishes? Or a holiday celebration of any kind that doesn’t at least include nibbles of one sort or another?
Simply stated, some of us eat just to be sociable, and in being sociable, we consume far more than we probably would if health were a concern or if we were left to our own devices. Sometimes we eat because the food is good (or at least those who prepare it hope it will be so appreciated), and sometimes just because it’s there, and it’s what’s expected of us.
On that last point, I recall what my father used to tell us (perhaps in support of my mother’s edict that we “sample everything on our dinner plates”). “There shall be no garbage,” he would say, which meant, “eat everything on your plates.” (It was, he once explained, the directive he learned during his service in World War II, when troops were so instructed, partly because they needed to be fully nourished for the battles they would soon wage, and partly to make cleanup while on the march that much easier.)
At our Thanksgiving dinner, between the twelve of us, we had a vegetarian, a vegan, a decidedly picky eater, a glutton (actually there were several of those), a fitness nut, and a food professional (my niece, who is the buyer for the Eataly Restaurant in downtown Manhattan). Everyone ate well, but the vegetarian missed out on the perfectly prepared turkey, and the vegan couldn’t eat the mashed potatoes that had been made with real butter. They both scarfed down the bevy of root vegetables that I chose to pass on (a holdover from the resistance I developed to such succulents in my youth).
The conversation was lively, reflective of the fascinating personalities that comprise the extended family of which I am a part. In the end, we all agreed it was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners we’d ever had, even if most of us hadn’t sampled everything or cleaned our plates.