Feed the Beast

Today I am thinking about eating, the act of eating itself, that ritual we participate in every day in order to stay alive and stay connected socially.

On any given day, it’s difficult for me not to, since I’m either preparing meals or writing about meals I have prepared.  But this past week, everything I did outside of meal preparation, everything that I watched, heard, listened to or participated in had something to do with eating or its opposite (not eating).  Soon enough the food moments began to gather together, each one building on the experience that preceded with a stealthy deliberateness that became hard to ignore.

This all started – surprise, surprise – with my mother.

As my mother’s health declines, so does her ability to make her own health care decisions.  It now falls to me and my sister to decide for her, and so we find ourselves having frequent conversations about life extending treatments such as respirators, IVs, and feeding tubes, and what events would warrant use of any of these and what events would not.

Of everything we review, the proposition of a feeding tube is the most likely.  As with decision making, the ability to feed herself is also compromised by illness.  “They say I need to eat more,” my mother will tell anyone who comes to visit at lunch time, as she spoons a few bites to her mouth before pushing the plate aside in favor of her coffee cup.  The act of eating is physically exhausting.

But even before the physical limitations, eating never held my mother’s interest.  She was the first person outside of the cartoon world of The Jetsons who I ever heard advocate for a nutrition pill in lieu of three squares a day.  When she opined on the subject at the dinner table, I would sit and listen respectfully but continue to stuff my father’s delicious ravioli into my pie hole.  I believed to the very center of my bones – and still do – that no pill she could dream up would ever be as satisfying as my plate of pasta.

Soon after I found myself contemplating advance directives for do not hospitalize orders, I found myself engaged in something far happier and more optimistic – I drove my eighteen-year-old to Amherst for admitted students day at the University of Massachusetts.  (One life ending, another launching, me squarely in the middle; they don’t call mine the “sandwich generation” for nothing.)

If you have gone through the college application process with a teen, you know that selecting a college can come down to things as vague as “fit” or a “good feeling” about a place, just as easily as it can be about the more concrete criteria of costs or chosen major.

A selection can also be made by judging which university has the best dining commons.  If you happen to be my son, that is.

Unlike my mother, he loves to eat.  When he was two, we briefly turned our back on him seated at the table with a plate of Poulsbo Smokehouse heat-smoked Pacific salmon just within his reach.  Mistake.  But our loss of salmon that day was his palate’s gain, and now, all these years later, he will try just about anything.

By the time the admitted students program wrapped for the morning, he was dying to try the food in the Berkshire Dining Commons.  Back when I was in college “dying” and “dining hall” were words often used together to describe meal time in Bartol Hall, but not in a good way.  Fast forward thirty years, I find institutional dining has changed.  For the better.  Student after student on the question-and-answer panel praised the award-winning UMass dining program.

With choices from daily specials like Miso Grilled Cod with Cucumber Salad, to salad bars, taco bars, vegetarian and vegan preparations, all kinds of sushi and Asian foods, hot meals, cold meals, soft serve, real ice cream, the food – and the delivery of the food to the students – was praiseworthy.  Even the Jell-o, that sometimes tired old cafeteria standby, looked fresh.  You can ask my son.  He went back for food six times.  Yes, I said six.  This is a University that knows how to make itself a serious contender: through the stomachs of a hungry youth.

The next day, my husband and I had tickets to see Anthony Bourdain (author of Restaurant Confidential and Medium Raw) and Eric Ripert (chef and owner of Le Bernardin) at Symphony Hall in Boston.  Billed as Good vs. Evil, the night’s light and dark theme may have been more about what foods and food trends and food celebrities the pair either worshipped or reviled than it was about their warring bad boy-elegant Frenchman personas.

The first third of the evening, with each chef switching off to play both interrogator and subject, offered up biographical details wrought out of the subject of the moment  through zingers of questions.  During the second third, both chefs sat in large wing chairs on an otherwise stark stage and had a conversation about the subjects that captivate them.  Ripert, who runs what is considered to be the finest seafood restaurant in the country, discussed his passion for and adherence to the practice of eating fish in a sustainable way.

Bourdain wondered about the trend toward seasonal eating and the notion of farm-to-table restaurants.  “Farm to table?”  he asked aloud.  “Where else would food come from?”  He went on from there to praise Jamie Oliver’s intentions to spread the word of healthy eating habits but questioned his method.  He himself would prefer to use scare tactics – telling his young daughter that Ronald McDonald is evil and responsible for the disappearance of small children, for example; or planting the seed in Ted Nugent’s right-wing brain that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative is more about troop readiness than it is evidence of a nanny state.

The last part of the evening gave over to very enjoyable questions asked by the audience.

I tried to do a little passive television watching on the weekend, and managed to catch a few moments of the new Cooking Channel. Guess who popped up?  Jamie Oliver himself, in an episode of his new television series Jamie does…, filmed during his travels through the French Pyrenees.  The brief scene I saw featured Jamie with a group of hunters on the lookout for the region’s wild boar.

I’m not what you’d call an avid hunter, or any other kind of hunter, and I’m especially not an advocate of hunting for the fun of it, but if you can imagine that hunting to feed a family or a village might be a beautiful, ritualistic, respectful thing, then when I tell you that is exactly what this hunt in the Pyrenees was, you might believe me.

The hunters, together with Oliver, took down the animal.  They formed a semi-circle around the body and placed parsley in the dead animal’s mouth, a gift of a last meal to an animal who gave his life for theirs.  Then all the hunters removed their caps and placed these over their hearts while one member of the group blew a simple tune on his hunting horn in tribute.

For this community in the Pyrenees, knowing where the food came from and how it was treated in its last minutes means something.

I thought about this boar hunt during the rest of weekend, and my thoughts were tempered by the situation with my mother and her rejection of food, my son’s mind-blowing appetite, the conversation between Bourdain and Ripert, and Bourdain’s suggestion that perhaps paying such precious attention to where our food comes from is a fad, the current darling of the food fanatical.  I sat with the thoughts, let them shuffle around my mind as I made sense of it all.

And then, on Monday an article appeared in the New York Times.  Diet Plans With Pregnancy Hormones Has Fans and Skeptics. If you haven’t read it yet, please do.  Apparently, for weight loss purposes, women may now go to a doctor for human growth hormone injections and these (which purport to simulate pregnancy), coupled with a 500 calorie a day diet, may help them lose 10, 20, 30 extra pounds of body fat.  Evidence is only anecdotal thus far, and nothing has been clinically studied.

For me, the most unnerving part of the diet isn’t the hCG shot itself, but the 500 calorie diet.  That’s one really big, sugary muffin, if you’re into breakfast treats, or two slices of whole grain toast with peanut butter and a healthy side of yogurt and fruit if you look for a little more balance to your meal.  For the whole day.  500 calories into a body that deserves so much more and so much better than that.

If people are willing to eat 500 calories only, or take a pill instead of meals, or gorge on Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos instead of a balanced diet including things like Pacific salmon and in season tomatoes, maybe the farm-to-table concept isn’t the no brainer Bourdain questions it might be.  Many of us have lost sight of what it is to eat good wild or farm-raised food, can no longer see our way to enjoying what we are fortunate enough to have grown or hunted for us.  Maybe we all need to think of what meals really mean to us, the sustenance and community of dining; maybe we should take some time also to think of that farm or farmer, that hunter, that wild beast in the field.  Feed it its due parsley.  Play it a tribute.  Remove our caps in respect.

©2011  Jane A. Ward