Unlike breathing air and REM sleep, eating is one of our basic human needs that we invest emotional meanings in (another of such primordial needs would be sex, but that’s for my senior thesis and not for our article today). The collocation of food and feelings would usually lead to the topic of emotional eating—that is, eating to fill your heart and not your stomach—and there is much online about that. But we’re going to explore other aspects of our emotional relationship with food, like how what we mindlessly do everyday in front of TV screens or newspaper spreads has the potential to be more deeply fulfilling…and therapeutic even. This is not a bad place to begin our investigation into the power of food.
Before we even take out our plates or turn up the stove, we need to stock the pantry.
We don’t always get to control how much disposable time we have to go grocery shopping—maybe you have children to tend to, or night shifts after day shifts. But what we can control is how we approach grocery shopping when we make it an excursion and not a chore.
Look around at the couples getting popcorn, the student choosing hummus brands, the men staring at meat, the women eyeing wine. Observe the inventiveness of man (resealable packets of mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto!), and marvel at the bounty of nature. You can be attentive to your surroundings instead of taking it for granted, regardless of which grocery store you’re in, no matter your budget. On these trips into the liminal space that is the supermarket, more than discount cereals and bulk purchase potatoes, perhaps you will also find a site to encounter yourself or escape the outside world.
Later, in the kitchen: there is something empowering about making something with your own two hands instead of outsourcing that activity, whether to McDonald’s or Morton’s Steakhouse. This fulfillment applies to anything that brings you into a direct relationship with your environment, be it gardening, fixing your own bicycle, or hugging a good friend. Cook your food and do exactly what you want with it: more salt, less salt; paprika on caramelized bananas; bacon strips with cream cheese. Exercise your autonomy and create something true to your taste, whatever it may be. You don’t necessarily need “restaurant-quality” dishes to feed yourself whole-heartedly, sincerely, and lovingly.
Beyond this direct and elemental relationship with food that cooking brings, intellectual satisfaction can also be found. Some find the art of cooking or the science of baking to be a fulfilling puzzle, where timing is key and proportions are carefully matched. Each tasty achievement can be very gratifying, especially if one’s life is in need of a little affirmation. Even when things go wrong, experiencing non-success in the kitchen is a non-traumatic way of experiencing the ups and downs of life. The lessons are transferrable: if you can calmly pick up the broken glass of a smashed honey jar bleeding its nectar, you can peacefully face frustrations and strife. ‘It’s okay to make mistakes; I am always learning; I set goals for myself and pursue them with kindness, without pressure.’
If cooking and cleaning do not grant your busied mind some reprieve, perhaps the act of eating will. Bringing mindfulness to one’s meal can be as simple as focusing on one’s eating experience, or as radical as that of Bruce’s from the movie ‘Finding Nemo’. Bruce is a big cartoon shark trying for mind over matter, vegetarianism over pescetarianism: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.” We don’t have to go as far as Bruce does, but he nevertheless teaches us about bringing a consciousness to our eating practices. Notice the texture and the flavors on your plate; allow observations to ebb and flow; engage all your senses: taste the grilled asparagus, hear its crunch, watch it arch when you spear it, smell it, feel it brush past your lips.… Feeding oneself should involve the mind and the tummy: being aware of your meal as you eat and being grateful for the food upon which you feed are practices that are beneficial, uplifting, and fulfilling. Respecting your food is also a form of self-respect — you are not a mindless eating machine.
Finally, to survey intimate relationships with food, I asked fellow students the following question: “What do you like to eat to feel happiness, and/or to feel comforted?”
Their answers were all different (see if any of your favorites are here), and we might deduce common denominators like “childhood memories”, “inherently mouth-watering”, “simple yet satisfactory”.
Two mentioned the food from their hometowns in Japan and South Korea, and three others mentioned dessert: coconut macaroons, cotton candy, chocolate chip cookies. Another cited the “intrinsic happiness” found in milk tea, fried dough fritters, and soya milk (a Singaporean favorite…granted, Singapore has many food favorites). Fried chicken and apple pie; soup (whether kimchi jjigae or carrot potato onion); peanuts and other nuts. One friend analyzed his own choice of ‘mi goreng’, whose delicious availability was reassuring and whose relative level of “unhealthiness” signaled a glorious “do not give a ****” defiance. Another noted that it depends on why the comfort was sought: was the body tired from a blistering day? was the soul bruised from heartache?
So, what can food do for us when we let it?
Independently of the brain chemistry underpinning anything we ingest (including food), the way we relate to our food can shape the way we enjoy life and living.
~ Min Yi Tan