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Food is nourishment.  Food is connection.  

Good days, bad days, celebrations, mourning.  Food is there.  It can be a burden, an obligation met by busybody, overstressed workers, parents, caregivers.  It can be a relief, a comfort, a joy; a refuge to hide away, to spend all the time one’s heart desires to craft the shapes, and flavours, and undertones of a remembered but distant dish–of remembered people, places, experiences.  

And of new ones.

Food can be the poverty of an empty table.  It can be the extravagance of waste and excess.

Food can be dreaded.  It can be hoped for.

~~~~~

I attended a [food-]storytelling workshop yesterday.  Parts of the words above came from my scribbled thoughts to the free-write prompt: What does food mean to you?

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Food is fundamental and vital for life.  We need it (and we need to grow/gather/cultivate it) to survive, to live, to thrive.  Food can be a source of nourishment not only physically or biologically, but also for the soul.  Traditional foodways and meals can bring back good memories and warm fuzzy feelings.  We like to eat.

These things we know.  And often we hold them as universally applicable to all.  After all, everyone eats, right?

Enjoying a potluck lunch with the crew

Enjoying a potluck picnic lunch with the crew

Talking with a friend at the storytelling workshop about our personal stories of food and “food stories” in general, the topic emerged of Hey, wait a minute.  Not everyone has a positive relationship or association with food.  

This can be true on many scales and in many contexts.  Global issues like hunger and malnutrition are complex and multifaceted issues, but are examples of how in many cases scarcity, lack, and uncertainty are the association that entire communities of people have with food.

Our conversation yesterday got me thinking.  Though we often don’t talk about the two in conjunction, food and mental health (or, as I like to call it heart health–the soul, not the organ) are in many ways tightly intertwined.  Eating disorders stem from a belief that I am not good enough, I am not worthy of acceptance and love the way that I am.  In some cases, overeating is connected with the belief that I can’t solve my problems, But no one would understand, Food will make me feel better, I am alone.  

Both undernourishment and overnourishment are “food stories” that can often carry negative associations.

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I had a friend in high school who liked to call me “Virtuous Jenny”.  Meaning–unblemished, well-behaved, perfect.  But in recent months I could not have felt farther from that.  Since losing my mom, painful emotions and false beliefs about myself (lies, really) that I had suppressed for almost two years began to surface. I tend to be an independent person, but something planted thoughts in my mind that told me I needed to be completely self-reliant, in need of no one’s help.  Your mom’s gone now, you need to take care of yourself.  No one can provide you with the love and care that she did, so don’t have any expectations.  I began to build a wall of self-defence.  Brick, by brick, by brick.

In times of deep sadness and longing, I would turn to food for comfort.  Eating as a solitary act begs the help or participation of no one, it is the easiest and most instant way of self-nourishment.  Being someone who identifies and is known to identify herself with food–in academia, in recreation, in cultural learning–it was almost as if I turned to this “identity” for help in keeping me sane.  But it also felt like a violation of the value and sacredness that I believe food has.

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Turning to food and eating as a source of numbing comfort has to some degree been naturalized in our culture (I can only speak for North America and Asia, places in which I have experience).  I remember chatting with some friends once about craving sweets when I feel stressed or sad, and hearing the response that “it’s normal”.  We often joke about or speak of terms such as “binge eating” or even “comfort food” (though I think this one can be used in a positive context too) as if they are a regular part of our lives–perhaps, as people privileged to live in a culture of overabundance.

My recent relationship with food has been up and down, in emotional ebbs and flows.  At times, I’d be wandering around the kitchen late at night, in search of something satisfying (but not too “organic” or “healthy” or “homemade”) to put in my mouth (the peanut butter and cookies would do–but oh! not the almond-walnut butter my housemate just made, that would be too indulgently wasteful).  Other times, I’d be rinsing a freshly-pulled turnip from the fields at Van Tech, feeling a rush of glee about the delicious salad I was able to make.  Farm life has truly played a significant role in the “up” parts.

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And then I come downstairs for breakfast on Wednesday morning.

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As usual, I am in a hurry to get out the door and catch the bus to get to class.  But today…

There is no one else in the kitchen that morning, just me.  The table has been set–stir fried cabbage, sweet potato-wood ear porridge, freshly made soy milk, toast, and a jar of auntie Deborah’s homemade sesame-walnut butter, knife lain poised and ready to spread.  A set of mahogany chopsticks lie stoic and patient across the rim of a clean bowl, waiting.  (We have East-West fusion for breakfast at our house.  It’s pretty awesome.)

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Early-rising auntie Deborah makes breakfast often.  But the quietness and sun-softened solitude of this particular moment cut into something deep inside of me.  I can’t solve my problems, But no one would there are people who want to understand and help, Food will make will not make me feel better, but it can be a medium of connection, I am alone not alone.  

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The simple gift of having a meal prepared and waiting for me reminded me of my identity has someone who is loved, cared for, and belonging to a home.  Re-minded.  My mind renewed.  False beliefs that I must expect love from no one broken.  Broken free.

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It is a process, no doubt.

Food can numb unpleasant emotions–deadening.  But food, too, can be a medium for the exchange of love and compassion–Life-giving.  A way to say, “I care, and I am here for you.”  Being on the receiving end of this is humbling, but I am learning that we must first receive if we are to give.  And so food perhaps is not the subject of our desire for comfort, but the vehicular object by which we can offer that comfort to one another.  I reflect on how the original process of cultivating, harvesting, and preparing food with our hands (not with machines) is meant to be communal and shared.  Food, a medium and language by which love can flow from one person to another.

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Vanessa and Cass twining by the mustard plot

Perhaps our relationship with food is embedded in our relationships with other people, and how we relate.  When negative relationships with food are acknowledged as real and genuine parts of our lives, and not hidden for fear of being judged, we have the freedom to be a little truer, a little more human.  Let’s admit it: we really, really need each other.

How can we cultivate ourselves as safe spaces where negative food stories can be shared, and turned into opportunities for connection and relationship?

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