Thursday, July 16, 2015

Our strange relationship to food

On the Fourth of July Matt Stonie shocked the competitive eating world by downing 62 hotdogs and buns. He won $10,000 for this feat. “I trained hard for this,” he said.  The news article doesn’t say how he trained. Or what happened afterward. Or how overeating affects his body. 

Many decades ago my Soviet aunt Aganeta Janzen Block told her young son after she had come home from a long day’s work in the forest felling trees, “Today you can eat until you’re full.”   She had been able to earn a little more than usual, so she bought food for her children. She and thousands of others caught in the Soviet dragnet after World War II had  been shipped to the northern regions in cattle cars to work in the forest on near-starvation rations.  Years later she still remembered how his eyes had opened wide. He could eat until he was full?  How many times in his young life had he been able to fill his stomach?  To eat until he was full was unknown to him. 

To read the whole story of her experience as a forced laborer in the former Soviet Union go to A Strong Frailty by Katie Funk Wiebe.  To learn  how political powers have used hunger to control masses read books like The Hunger Angel, Man is Wolf to Man,  The Bloodlands, and more.   

 In today’s world of refugees, displaced persons, victims of war, and natural disasters, thousands upon thousands of people go to bed hungry. There’s no thought of “competitive eating.”  I’ve heard of children saying that some days it wasn’t their turn in the family to eat so they went to bed hungry. 

Hungry?  Matt Stonie knows what it feels like to be glutted, but does he know what he it feels like to be hungry, so hungry you can’t sleep? So hungry you can’t pay attention at school, or work?
In America we do strange things with food. I am glad I wasn’t there, rooting for the contestants in the hotdog competition as they gorged themselves, not just until they were full, but until they were overfull. Even pigs don’t binge to throw up later.  

In our world food is no longer the bread of life, important because it brings us closer together when we celebrate or mourn.  I enjoy having a cup of tea and a cookie with a friend or a feast when the family gets together. It cements relationships. Food is a gift from God.

For some, food preparation is now a spectator sport.  Shows on the Food Channel have to do with competitive cooking rather than an attempt to show viewers how to prepare food better.  Chefs dash around feverishly, grabbing ingredients, mixing, mashing.  They  flash knives and watch clocks to get something completed in the allotted time, wearily displaying the final product.

At the end of the cooking  frenzy the competitors  stand like a row of convicts in aprons and chef’s hats about to be sentenced to some distant penal colony. One of them becomes a celebrity. But has the spectacle given the viewer the urge to cook better? 

I used to watch TV travel shows to learn about new cultures. Nowadays they focus on food rather people.  The hosts looks for ever more exotic menus to keep the audience from changing the channel, not to gain a better understanding of the people. 

“The transformation of food and cooking into a spectacle means that it is much more difficult to experience food as a precious gift and as God’s delight,” writes Norman Wirzba in Food & Faith: A theology of eating. And when that happens a person’s relationship to food and the world undergoes a profound transformation.  Food is no longer the staff of life, a gift from God. People no longer pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

In today’s society we have a gross imbalance in food distribution – either too much or too little. How can we restore the awareness that food is sacred, to be cherished?  In France supermarkets are forbidden to throw away any food considered edible in an effort to curb food waste. This law will force grocers to either donate the food to charity or make sure it is used as animal feed. It’s  a beginning.  But what about the rest of us? How can we develop a better relationship to food? 

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