“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]
Shortly after September 11, 2001, I wrote my regular newspaper column. Then – like today – it seemed trivial to write about fat and sugar, or even nutrition standards in school meals. These issues are unrelated to the rhythms of life after an attack like 9/11, a tragedy like the Sandy Hook shootings – or while trying to make sense of a Syrian massacre. Today, as I listen and read our country’s remembrances, I – like you – try to put all of this into the context of my family’s life. So, as several times before, I have gone back to rewrite that 9/11 column and share it with you.
Back on September 9/11/01, I realized that food, and nutrition, have important roles in our lives as we move through personal grief and national tragedy. Then, 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.
Whenever I listen carefully to wise thoughts from religious leaders, poets, counselors, musicians and others, themes for healing, recovery and how to talk to your children begin to emerge. Some words are mentioned repeatedly – family, ritual and community among them. Naturally, from my professional perspective, 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.” [Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, Kelcy Press, 1999]
My thoughts on 9/11 were 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. Consider those words – and special meals come to mind. Meals like Iftar, Thanksgiving, Passover and Christmas, shared meals like church potlucks and office parties, celebratory meals like birthdays and anniversaries.
Sadly, 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 troubled times, there may be nothing more important than rediscovering the joy and security of good food eaten with others.
As we remember the losses of 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and un-civil wars around the world, cooking and eating together are among the simple things that can comfort us all. Nourishment, communication and stronger family bonds are as close as our kitchens and dining rooms.
- Cook together. Preparing food is a loving way to share time and bring generations together. Measuring, stirring, and chopping can be as comforting as any other routine, everyday task. 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 the school where children died – or any tragedy – can literally make us sick to our stomachs. A psychologist on NPR said that small children might actually believe that the event is happening over and over again. Even for adults, I fear that our inner child also feels like it is happening over and over and over again.
- Return to rituals. Families have many rituals for meals – prayers, a moment of silence, joining of hands, candles or other 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 a break from the news and focus on the tastes, smells and textures of food.
- Take time to share. Slow down and share – food, fellowship, memories, tears, laughter and the joy of time together. Even the smallest children can share in conversations around a table. Give everyone time to share what is important to them. By joining with others, you can begin to take comfort from the nourishing food and loving companionship.
“Food to a large extent is what holds a society together and eating is closely linked to deep spiritual experiences.” [Peter Farb, Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating, 1983]