I spend a lot of time making food these days. Pretty much, I divide my time between making food, and writing about food… and if there’s any time leftover I do trivial stuff like pay bills, shower, brush teeth. At times it feels like I’m emerging from being under the surface of a lake full of cultural assumptions about food. My head just above the surface of that water, I am only now opening my eyes and looking around- it’s amazing to me to begin to realize how very much time real food can take, and how good and satisfying that can feel.
For example, last night I was making spaghetti and meatballs, which sounds like a pretty simple thing. Once upon a time, I would’ve bought meatballs and sauce at the supermarket, and such a dinner would’ve taken about half-an-hour. Yesterday, however, it took up a not-insignificant portion of my day: in the morning I made bread- not only for our toast and sandwiches, but also as a meatball ingredient. I poured boiling water over oatmeal and let it sit an hour, then added more ingredients before kneading the dough and setting it in a bowl to rise. An hour later I came back to it, divided it into two loaf pans and let it rise some more. Half an hour after that I put them in the oven, and half an hour after that the bread emerged from the oven smelling like God.
Later in the day, after picking the kids up from school it was time to make the sauce. After putting cans of diced and crushed tomatoes to stew in a pot with oil and garlic, I got out meatball ingredients- defrosted beef, grated Parmesan, measured spices… then mixed all together with a paste made from the cut-up bread slices and water. After the sauce was finished reducing it was time to form the mixture into meatballs and gently place them into the hot oil for frying. Each batch cooks about ten minutes and I fuss over them like a mother hen, trying to ensure they don’t burn on one side or undercook on another- and most of all that they stay in one piece. Meanwhile I put the water on to heat up for the spaghetti.
All this time my six year old Ilsa was “helping” by making a fruit concoction composed of cut-up Clementine and bananas. She had a name for it- I can’t recall it exactly, but something like “Super-happy-loveliness”- and after an extremely long process of peeling and squeezing and sampling and mixing, was inordinately proud of the end result that she put on the dinner table. I knew exactly how she felt.
Is it crazy to feel this way about food? Having a Year of No Sugar is a tremendous part of it- it’s the reason for making my own bread and sauce after all- but that isn’t all of it. It’s more than that.
Recently I read “Into the Wild,” the true story of Chris (Alex) McCandless’ journey to Alaska to attempt to be free from the trappings of society and live off the land, and his eventual death by starvation. Why was I reading this, I wondered, when I still have a stack of “homework” books left dealing with sugar and nutrition? What did this have to do with A Year of No Sugar?
The answer came on page 167. Author – Krakauer relates that Alex had underlined passages in Thoreau’s Walden concerning “the morality of eating.”
“It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as will not offend the imagination; but this, I think, is to be fed when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table. Yet perhaps this may be done. The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites, nor interrupt the worthiest pursuits. But put an extra condiment on your dish, and it will poison you.”
Whoa. I stopped cold when I got to the “extra condiment” part. It jumped off the page at me as if it were printed in neon ink. Sure, he may be speaking metaphorically about that extra condiment being “poison”… but still. Didn’t that sound like he was talking about sugar? I was fascinated by this passage just as Alex was- Alex had written in the margins of his copy: “YES. Consciousness of food. Eat and cook with concentration… Holy Food.”
Fast forward to this morning: I was reading a magazine interview with spiritual philosopher Jacob Needleman, who talks about the practice of “self-remembering” and “Conscious, willful attention to oneself…” So much of what we concern ourselves with in life is meaningless, he argues, whereas what most cultures describe as “God” has to do with what he calls “deep feeling.” I wondered, was Alex looking for that “deep feeling” in the Alaskan wilderness? Is it possible- or am I just crazy here- to relate our search for God or “deep feeling” or whatever you want to call it, to the practice of meaningful sustenance… what Alex called “Holy Food”?
Maybe I’m way out on a limb here, but we’re within spitting distance of meeting our goal of a Year of No Sugar, and I’m feeling philosophical. It somehow makes sense to me to draw big, sweeping analogies between our modern avoidance of real social contact in favor of reasonable facsimiles thereof -Facebook, Twitter, interactive video games- and our modern avoidance of real, fulfilling nourishment in favor of reasonable facsimiles thereof- fast food, processed food, convenience food.
Is modern society based on our collective desire to run away from consciousness/deep feeling/God? Is it possible that a practice of what Alex called “Holy Food” could represent the fledgling beginnings of a way back to… what? Spirituality?
“…the imagination… I think, is to be fed when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table.”
Yes, folks, it’s been nearly a year into this journey and perhaps I’ve finally cracked: I’ve discovered the meaning of life in a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.