Our food choices are certainly a big part of how we identify as humans. Food can reflect our culture, our religion, and even our political leanings. Food can prove elusive when it’s not affordable or accessible. Food, or lack thereof, can cause disease. In extreme cases of food allergies, food can cause death. Beliefs about food can divide households. But food is also the backdrop for celebrations. And food can bring comfort. Preparing food can be a creative outlet. And food can be love.
Our relationship with food begins with the choices of our parents. One of the best examples I can think of is the debate about sweet tea or unsweet tea. If you are raised in the south in the US, you know tea is typically so sweet, it might as well be syrup. Well, my parents are both from the deep south, and my brother and I were raised drinking unsweet tea! What a scandal. We were certainly outliers among our friends in Virginia. But I’m grateful that my parents made this choice for me. My tastebuds were trained for less sugar.
A choice that wasn’t decided by my parents is my journey toward going vegan. It began as an 18 year old when I decided to go pescatarian. In 1993, this wasn’t as easy as you would think, especially when you relied on your college’s dining hall for sustenance. I haven’t had red meat or pork since. Later on in life, I went full vegetarian, finally transitioning to vegan when I discovered that dairy was a source of inflammation for me, contributing to my asthma symptoms. I haven’t had bronchitis since going vegan, and I used to get it 2-3 times a year.
But having the distinction of “vegan” conjures different emotions for people. I used to work in an office where half of my colleagues were keto. We would have breakfast team meetings where our boss would buy huge platters of eggs, bacon, and sausage to share. If you’ve never been in close proximity to someone who is in ketosis, consider yourself blessed. The perfume of exuding ketones is less than pleasant. In this office, I was Anne, the vegan. It was definitely more of an eyeroll, almost a slur, with the inflection of the comment. I was definitely the weirdo of the office, and as you may have guessed, I didn’t stay long. Thus, the name of my blog was born. I flipped the derogatory comment into something positive.
I view fundamental food choices like I do religion. I choose to live vegan, which encompasses so much more than just food, but I try not to preach. I will certainly share my journey, why I choose to live this way, and the benefits this lifestyle has given me, but I respect the choices of others, even if they don’t respect mine. Life as a woman has trained me well to walk that fine line of trying to educate, but not offend. No one else in my house is vegan, but I’m pleased that my kids and my husband will taste many of the vegan meals I make, and I’ve even converted my husband to almond milk, which I never thought would happen! He needs to keep his paws off my Hippeas, though!
Eating the “right” food can mean different things to different people, and opinions are so varied. Discussions can become quite contentious and divisive. What’s even more confusing is that there doesn’t seem to be any clear research asserting what these “right” foods are. When reading research, don’t overlook the fine print: who funded the study? This often guides the take on good vs. bad.
Depending on our relationship with food, we can also feel guilty because of our “bad” food choices. Too many sweets? Gluttony. Too many fried foods? Fattening. And we can feel ashamed because we dared to indulge. I operate under the assumption that we all deserve a treat every now and then. However, we can sometimes develop unhealthy relationships with food, leading to habits that develop into eating disorders. “Bad” food choices are often also dictated by convenience. Why bother cooking at home when you can simply go through a drive-thru? But sometimes, we are forced to make “bad” food choices simply because, if you can’t afford “good” food, you choose what you have the means for, since cheap calories equals full bellies.
Early last year, pre-pandemic, I was in line to buy groceries at Wal-Mart. There was a woman in front of me with two small children. She had carefully calculated her purchases, and she pulled out her EBT card to pay. The system rejected her choice of a small rotisserie chicken, something she had apparently been able to purchase before. New rules, apparently, deemed this choice a “luxury.” I bought it for her. It was a $5 chicken. I can’t imagine what she was feeling. Who in the government declared a pre-cooked chicken a luxury? She was grateful. For me, it was the cost of a fancy coffee. For this young mom? It was multiple meals.
As much as food, or lack thereof, can divide us or make us feel shame, it can also unite us. It is the glue of celebrations. There’s always a party after a major life event, right? Cake for birthdays. Receptions for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and even funerals. We can learn about different cultures just by tasting the food associated with it. And for me, spotting another person in the grocery with vegan things? Always a quiet celebration.
Does your family have a celebratory dinner or dessert that’s a favorite? Growing up, that dish was chicken and dumplings. My mom makes the best. And although I don’t eat these anymore, I still remember my mom boiling the chicken all day, mixing and rolling out the dough, and putting the dish together. It was a long process that she did with much love. This became our holiday meal instead of turkey and trimmings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mom also makes the best potato soup. It was comfort in a bowl when we were sick. A favorite from my husband’s family? My mother in law makes a pound cake that my husband loves. There are pictures of him as a toddler, sitting on the kitchen floor with a giant bowl of batter, eating it happily.
So, getting back to another point: food is love. It is, quite simply, one of my love languages. Is it one of yours, too? I’ve always enjoyed cooking and baking. As a teenager, if I didn’t have somewhere to go on a weekend night, I baked. Now as a married adult, I am the cook. We typically only eat in a restaurant once or twice a week. I also tend to be the cook on big family vacations. I love to make cakes from scratch, my mom’s potato soup, and parts of celebratory meals. I enjoy that role so much, especially since there’s always someone else to clean the dishes! I also enjoy gardening, and that is its own special labor of love in growing your own food, something that I became reacquainted with during the pandemic.
Clearly, food choices, at its most fundamental level, define us spiritually. Even if we can’t eat certain foods because of allergies, that still defines who we are in some way. Our relationship with food is a part of who we are as humans. Our choices can be beneficial or harmful. They can divide or unite us. They can reflect our culture. They can reflect our beliefs. They can bring us health or illness. They can be love. That’s the power of food.
How does food help define you as a person? Does your family have special celebratory meals that bring everyone together? Do you passionately follow a unique diet? Do you grow your own food? I’d love to hear about it! As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.