What I should be doing right now is reviewing the rules for radicals and exponents as part of my preparation for the GRE (and as part of my many homework assignments from my Kaplan course). What I’m doing instead is writing another blog post in my head – and this one is a long time coming.

One of the reasons I started this blog a year and a half ago was to give myself a public place to ruminate, to write openly about the curiosities blooming and taking root inside my head, to wonder out loud. I’ve done a lot of wondering in this space since I created it – from espousing my opinions on trivial things to doing some serious soul-searching – and today, I want to write about something near and dear to my heart: Food.

It’s Food with a capital ‘F’, friends, because I have learned – and I’m sure many of you have, too – that food is so much more than what Webster says it is: “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink in order to maintain life and growth.” For a long time, I’ve been wondering and learning about who deems food ‘nutritious’ (and how even that word has lost meaning in our current food culture) and about how food can be and needs to be so much more than just the means to maintain life and growth. Those who have spent time with me over the past couple of years know that I have some strong opinions about many things related to food. And I’ll ramble about some of that here today. But first, I need to talk about Italy.

I had the lucky fortune of falling in love with food in Tuscany. Mom, Dad, Katrina, and I enjoyed a vacation/cooking school course deep in Italy’s heartland two summers in a row, and they were weeks of sun, olive oil, joy, and mascarpone that I’ll never forget. I remember waking up in the middle of a hot summer night, pushing open green, wooden shutters, sticking my head out a window of the stone villa, and looking up at the most stars I had ever seen, thinking, I have never felt so full and happy. Our cooking course in Italy was taught by Faye Hess (here’s her blog), a NYC cook who makes the best food in the world and has more fun in the kitchen than anyone I’ve ever known. This is the lady who made me go out in the fields and pick lavender and rosemary so I’d “never forget the smell of fresh herbs on my fingertips,” who held my shoulders down while teaching me knife skills in a breezy, sun-soaked outdoor kitchen, who gave her six-year-old son Ferdinand the thumbs up to marry me after he picked me a bowl of flowers and proposed in a lovely Tuscan cornfield… this is the woman who stood at the stove slowly stirring risotto while informing our group – with elaborate gestures and utter conviction – that “making risotto is like making love — you gotta give it everything you’ve got, gotta take care of it. And the best thing is when you don’t even have to ask what it wants, you just KNOW, you just feel it.”

wonderful Faye.

Needless to say, I fell in love with Faye first, and then, by default, with food and cooking.

learned how to crack an egg with one hand one of those summers. so proud.

So, for me, it all began in Tuscany. And of course I swore I’d return to Elon and cook all the time, pass along what I learned, etc etc. That didn’t quite happen, and I have to admit I’m still not all that great in the kitchen. BUT, Faye and Italy taught me such an important lesson: that food is so much than just food. And that cooking is about sharing, satisfying, and bringing people together.

That’s a hard lesson to come by these days, I think, especially in our food culture. I’d venture that most of America’s kitchens only see such joy surrounding food on Thanksgiving and around Christmas. And that’s a shame, but I get it. It all comes back to the time we don’t have, the energy we can’t summon, the money we may not have to spend on buying organic, the scattered family members on weekday nights. Life pulls us in a heck of a lot of directions, and while I won’t sit here pretending I know what it’s like to be a working mom with a family to feed, I will say that I believe that our food system, boiled down, has come to revolve around a simple, awful relationship: convenience versus health. And while I’m only beginning to understand the factors between food and economics, I know enough to say that it’s not right that healthy food costs more than junk food in this country, that many of us habitually dole out money for high rent and big cars instead of for good food, and that it is so much easier to eat poorly than well. I get that spinach is not on the Dollar Menu because the consumer demand is just not there, but what would consumer demand be like if it was widespread knowledge that the average meat patty in your average fast food joint consists of trimmings from eighty different cows from around the globe? Maybe with knowledge like that, we’d make different choices. Maybe we’d choose health over convenience more often.

That, in a nutshell, is where I am three years post-Tuscany. I’ve learned a lot about food and food systems, and I’m still learning; once you start asking questions, it’s hard to stop. Since I stopped eating almost all types of meat about three and a half years ago, I’ve tried to do very little preaching when it comes to eating habits, because I believe that what one chooses to eat or not eat is a personal matter. But the more I learn about the significant role that food plays in our health and how connected diet is to disease, the harder it is to stay quiet. And food issues are everywhere. They’re tangled up with money, policies, epidemics.. you name it. And I’m becoming emboldened to speak up about what I am learning.

i live for meals like this.

Speaking of people being together and enjoying their food, check out this recent article in the NY Times: “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.” Reading this made me recall my meditation experience in Sri Lanka and how every meal we ate for ten days was done (as was everything else during those ten days!) in complete silence. I remember each of those meals so incredibly well.

There are some things in life that are really important not to take for granted, and food is one of them. Being so far removed from the process of food, of how dinner has come to be on our plates, is dangerous. I believe that active participation is necessary for the things we care about, and, frankly, you gotta work hard and exert time and energy for the good stuff. Relationships, that dream job, ab muscles, a college degree, a healthy body full of good food.. the list goes on. This is why I don’t really believe in things like diet pills, Peapod (a service that delivers groceries to your doorstep), or cheap, have-it-anytime-you-want meat. Drugs can’t replace exercise. Spending time at the store deciding what you’re going to put in your body is important. And, okay, I’m not saying we should revert to hunter-gatherer days and kill fresh game for our families on a regular basis, but I do think spending a few extra bucks to buy organic meat (if you choose to eat it) at your local farmer’s market is a great way to actively participate in a fundamental aspect of your existence: eating.

I recently watched the documentary Forks Over Knives. Here’s the trailer:

It’s a great doc, and eye-opening enough that I got my parents to sit down last night and watch it with an open mind. They did, and some interesting conversation ensued. I learned more about the food culture both my parents grew up in, especially how revered meat and dairy was when they were young. My dad, in particular, has actual emotional ties to meat. “I cannot fathom a day without meat,” he said. That stunned me. “For a meal to be satisfying, it has to stick to my ribs,” he continued. “It has to consist of complex proteins.” “What makes it complex?” I challenged him. Without skipping a beat, he said, “It has to have walked.”

Ooookay.

So, I realize there are significant differences between the food culture my parents grew up in and the one I am experiencing. I didn’t hesitate to point out to my dad that the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and the contents of a typical American diet these days are among those differences. With that in mind, the big takeaway from Forks Over Knives for me was the message encapsulated in a single quote: “The answer is not another pill. The answer is spinach.”

I didn’t grow up with a garden, but I was raised on unsalted peanuts and homemade apple sauce in a household where Wonder Bread was unheard of and soda was saved for special occasions. Needless to say, the young me lived for the weekend play dates with friends whose moms would take us to McDonalds for lunch. Now, of course, I thank my mother as often as I can for instilling in me fairly good food habits. And today, I’m lucky to have some more great foodies in my life, people who care deeply about good food and healthy eating: Faye, Julie & fam, Kiersten & fam, Jesse & fam, Mags, Rach, Coop, Beth W., Dale, Chet & Mary, Travis & Chelsie, Helene & Jared (to name just a few!) — thanks for the conversations, lessons, and meals. You are great examples of “eating what feels good.” :)

And that’s some of what I have to say about Food. I’m excited to continue learning more about nutrition, to keep up the good conversations about why food matters, to continue reading books and watching documentaries about an issue I am passionate about. Here’s to wholesome, satisfying meals on your tables, everybody. May you enjoy some yummy fruits and veggies this weekend!

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2 thoughts on ““the answer.. is spinach.”

  1. Love this one, Nat. One thing I can tell you (and I think you already know) from working closely with nutritionists at a place that is supposedly the “cutting edge” of research is that nutrition is SUCH a young science in comparison to the others. And what that means is they really don’t know as much as they’d like you to believe they do. Why is it, exactly, that spinach is better than the processed meat? And where did the guidelines come from that say we should eat certain percentages of calories from different macronutrients (ex: 20-35% from fat, etc)? There are ideas and hypothesis for all these things but they really don’t KNOW. And I think that’s why you and I love learning about this, eh? There’s still so much to be discovered.

  2. Hey Natalie! It’s Jenny Holbrook from the ISS days. This is a great blog (found it through your post on FB). I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue of our current food culture. I live in Scotland and I can tell you, convenience over health is a MAJOR issue here as well, in the land that pioneered such greats as ‘deep fried mars bars’ and ‘deep fried pizza’. The understanding that so many kids here lack, about the relationship between food and wellbeing is very apparent and very saddening. It’s great to read opinions like yours on natural food that don’t come with an air of pretension. Keep writing!

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