Comfort Food: Please pass the peas – and the love

This column was originally published in the Billings Gazette, seven days after 9-11-01. This gorgeous photo is from 9-11-12 at Timpanogos Elementary Lunch Line, Provo, Utah. 

“Food to a large extent is what holds a society together and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.”[Peter Farb in Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating, 1983]

When I wrote my Nutrition News column last week, the world was a different place. The events of September 11, 2001, have left our lives more complicated, intensely painful, and very uncertain.

At this point, to continue writing about sugar and health seems trivial and unrelated to the rhythms of life after such a disaster. As I move back and forth through shock, anger, fear, sorrow and hope, I – like all of you – am trying to put this tragedy into the context of my work and my family’s life.

I believe that food, and nutrition, have important roles in our lives as we move through personal grief, national tragedy, and global insecurity. I began to realize what these roles might be on Friday, the National Day of Remembrance and Prayer.

Through what seemed like a river of tears, I invited friends to dinner and began to make bread – to make bread by hand, not by machine. In kneading dough, baking bread, preparing dinner and setting the table, I began to feel calmer and more settled – the solace of simple things in troubled times.

Since then, I have listened carefully to wise thoughts from religious leaders, poets, counselors, musicians and others. Many themes for healing, recovery and “getting back to normal” begin to emerge. Some words are mentioned repeatedly – family, ritual and community among them.

Many people have also spoken of reordered priorities, of reminders of that which is truly important, of refocusing our lives on those things that really matter. Naturally, from my nutrition perspective, all these themes keep bringing me back to food.

In terms of food, the important things are the simple things: meals prepared for loved ones; nurturing food given generously; homegrown produce eaten in the garden; and bread, the staff of life, broken together. In the words of the wisest dietitian I know, Ellyn Satter: “Eating is about regard for ourselves, our connection with our bodies, and our commitment to life itself.” [Secret of Feeding a Healthy Family, Kelcy Press, 1999]

My nutrition thoughts today are not about what to eat, but about how to eat. Since the beginning of human culture, eating together has been important to families and communities – and the rituals that bind us together.

Think about those words – and special meals come to mind. Holiday meals like Thanksgiving and Passover, shared meals like church potlucks and office parties, celebratory meals like birthdays and anniversaries.

Unfortunately, in our fast food culture, everyday meals have too often been seen as something to get through quickly – so that we can get on to something more important. In this troubled time, as we search for a sense of safety, there may be nothing more important than rediscovering the joy and security of good food eaten with others.

As we face the uncertainty of the future, cooking and eating together are among the simple things that can comfort us. The strength we seek, as well as nourishment, health, communication, and stronger family bonds, are as close as our kitchens and dining rooms. Here are a few ways to make food and nutrition even better than “normal” in the weeks ahead.

  • Cook together. Preparing food is a loving way to share time and bring generations together. Measuring, stirring, and chopping can be as comforting as other routine, everyday tasks. Kneading bread can be downright therapeutic.
  • Eat together. Make family meals a real priority as often as you can. If you live alone, reach out to family, friends, or co-workers – and break bread together. Eat together at home, eat together at restaurants, eat together at work, eat together at a picnic.
  • Turn off the television. Even in normal times, television makes it hard to eat well. The repetitive images of recent destruction can literally make us sick to our stomachs. Take a break from the news and focus on the tastes, smells and textures of food.
  • Return to rituals. Families have many rituals for meals – prayers, a moment of silence, joining of hands, candles, or festive touches, like flowers and special dishes. Making rituals part of everyday meals ties us to the past and to hope for the future.
  • Take time to share. Slow down and share – food, fellowship, memories, tears, laughter, and the joy of time together. Even small children can learn to share in conversations at the table. Give everyone time to share what is important to them.
  • Invite others to join you for a meal. A sense of community is one of the strongest ways to fight fear and move forward. By joining with others around the table, you can begin to take comfort from the nourishing food and loving companionship.

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.” [Elsa Schiaparelli, Shocking Life, 1954]

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