Food for thought

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Food is history. Food is culture. But food is also political, sociological, psychological, philosophical and probably many other things as well. And with the Ramadan season upon us, it seems like now is a good time to revisit our relationship with food, which is one of the oldest relationships in the history of humankind.

There is no doubt that food brings people together and facilitates conversation. After all, its value is not only nutritious but extents to building a community, or any bond for that matter, because it is what people have in common. To eat is to be open to the other person and the blessings of the world. That is why food constitutes an important element in any travel experience because to experience a culture, it is important that one experiences its food as well, to be open to receiving something different, made by someone “different”. Moreover, food builds connection not only across space but across time as well. Aren’t the recipes of our mothers and grandmothers an important part of our history, a treasure to be passed down across generations and certainly a loss if forgotten? Each of these meals has its own story and point of origin, some of which are remembered until today and some that are forgotten, but all as equally valuable, providing a sense of continuity into the future and lineage with the past.

However, it is unfortunate that our relationship with food has taken a turn for the worse, something that is a key marker of the modern era. The consumption of food has become pathological, sometimes, even literally so. With the emphasis on the value of “thinness” as propagated by fashion, media and diet industries, as well as the prevalence of the culture of mass consumption, eating disorders have risen in prevalence since the middle of the twentieth century, first in developed countries, and recently, in developing countries as well. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and obesity. More importantly, they signify a changed relationship with our food, mainly, a sick one. Interestingly enough, being plump signified health and high socio-economic status in the past. As some point out, however, the age-old dynamic of rich-as-overweight and poor-as-underweight has been reversed in the modern era, where high-caloric, fast-food chains have made food cheaper and more available for those with a lower-socio economic status, while those with higher economic status are the ones who can “afford” to be thin, joining gyms and consuming expensive “organic” food, or else, undergoing weight-loss surgery.

Indeed, the prevalence of diets speaks of a greater underlying problem in which the relationship with food is characterized as a “struggle”, with numerous “relapses”. Or for those who overeat, it is about instant gratification or venting one’s frustrations on food. But why has food become like this? Why is it no longer enough as a source of pleasure or nourishment? The root of this is our own interaction with food as well as the wider social factors that have changed the context of food consumption and the way we perceive food. After all, that is why diets never have a lasting impact, and people find themselves changing from one to another, year after year. It is simply a trend that changes behavior on the superficial level without targeting any of the deeper beliefs held about food and which are the source of long-lasting shifts in behavior. By definition, there is nothing substantial about “trends”.

In a sense, the major contributing factor to our altered relationship to food is simply its abundance, facilitated by international trade and capitalist economy. When all kinds of food are available all year long, we can easily (but not necessarily) lose our appreciation for food.

Eating food seasonally becomes an “inconvenience” and an annoyance. Of course, it is a wonder and a happy phenomenon that we can eat winter-products during summertime and vice versa, but consuming food in its right season is also an experience of wonder that inspires tremendous joy and celebrates a given product. Eating seasonally also serves the needs of the body better for that particular season. Yet, we feel entitled to having everything available all the time, and this increase in availability and abundance has, in some ways, led to an increase in maladaptive ways of relating to food.

Many times, it can simply deaden the soul, as evidenced on many personal occasions. For example, I was recently at a café requesting a small portion of something for my youngest brother. The waitress informed me that she would still charge me the same price as for the full portion. I reassured her that that was fine and that my younger brother could not eat the full portion. Yet, a few minutes later, she arrived with a full portion, and when I inquired as to why, especially since I said that I would pay the full price, she said, “It’s okay! It’s not a problem!” But it is a problem. Half that portion was thrown away. It was unnecessary waste which is harmful to our environment, but which is unproblematic for the food industry.

After all, who pays for the consequences of dumping food into landfills? The local and the global population. It is simply part of the trend by which developed countries export their waste to less developed countries under the guise of the international waste trade. As a result, less developed countries bear the brunt of health hazards emerging from the toxins that are released from what is dumped into their landfills. Nevertheless, the root of the problem starts from production rather than disposal methods. We do not need to be producing so much food that only ends up being dumped, unused, into oceans and landfills, food that could be used to feed the entire planet. Yet, money comes from the grinding gears of production, and when that becomes the priority, quality becomes the least of concerns. Hence, factory farming becomes the norm, in which animals live in horrific conditions and are injected with many hormones that end up in our bodies. Despite all that, we want more, and we want to pay less for it. But that equation is not so simple. Someone must bear the cost, and that someone is both us and animals. As poor quality food becomes less expensive, animals are treated more and more as only commodities. Buying neatly packaged meat in supermarkets further contributes to our deliberate ignorance of, and distance from, what we are putting in our bodies. Essentially, this is not a call for abstinence, but simply for promoting ethical farming or at least decreasing our intake of meat.

To conclude, Ramadan seems like the perfect opportunity to reflect on our food-consumption. In fact, most religions stipulate one form of fasting or another as if they have prophesized the need for a healthy relationship with our food, gained through reflection. More than ever, we need that reflection for we have lost our understanding of food. At the end of the day, food should not be a site of struggle because food is about love. It is about loving oneself, loving others, loving animals and loving our planet.

Khadija Hisham Alem,

Jeddah

(The author can be reached at: Khadija.alem@gmail.com)



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