We have entered the season of abundant food. As I write, the cucumbers, wax beans, and summer squash all need to be picked. The continuing rains mean that the tomatoes need pre-emptive harvest so they don’t split on the vine. Fennel is waving it’s wild fronds, asking to be pulled, and as soon as the soil dries sufficiently, it will be time to dig potatoes. We’ve enjoyed the first shining black eggplants, and the blackberries are coming on nice and thick.
The parts of my day that aren’t taken up with preparing meals for the family are taken up with tending the garden and harvesting. Around here, life and food move in orbits around one another.
But what is that food? Since I spend so much time with it, I get to think about this a lot. The simplest answer is: plants and animals. Even if we don’t eat the animals, we use their manure to make the ground fertile for the plants. We spend a lot of time with plants and animals here. It is time well spent. I recommend it to anyone. Even if you don’t have a garden, it’s good to think about your food, and spend some time with it.
You don’t have to know much to start investigating. Where are the seeds in that cucumber? What color are they? Do you know what a cucumber plant looks like? It’s flowers? The texture of its leaves? How are they different from a tomato plant? It’s a worthy meditation to think about the plants and animals that feed us, to contemplate the way they grow, and take joy in their beautiful lives. I believe it stimulates a deeper layer of our intelligence.
Food is business, politics and economics. We vote with our forks when we choose what and where to eat. Do our food dollars stay in our community? Do they support a local farmer? An estimated 19 cents of each dollar you spend on grocery store food goes to the farmer that grew the food. The rest is marketing, transportation, packaging, processing. Those things are big business. And those are jobs that need doing, too. The first Stock Market came into being in 12th century France for managing the debts of the local agricultural community. Around here, the local Stock Market is very literal. It deals in livestock. We’ve come a long way from that in the bigger picture, but the big crops – corn, rice, and soy – still hold dominate positions in economic trends. Free trade, fair trade, forced trade all have a lot to do with international political relationships. And it’s all represented on grocery store shelves.
Deeper than politics, food is social. We have more tastebuds in the last three months of time in our mother’s womb than we will for the rest of our lives. We learn the tastes of home before we’re even born. Later, we share family meals and associate nourishment with family togetherness. We learn from our environment what is considered worth eating, or not.
Linked to that is food as a spiritual force. In nearly every organized religious tradition, there is food as a sacrament. In Judaism, there is the Passover Seder, each food on the plate commemorating the spiritual history of the people. Along the same lines, in Christianity we have communion, a sharing of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ. The Tibetans offer a tsok, a ceremonial meal dedicated to the appeasement of local spiritual forces. It is important that the meal be well balanced, including all five ‘tastes’. After the ceremonial offering of the food, everyone partakes in the blessed meal. Even aside from the major traditions, a great many people observe some sort of ‘grace’ before a meal, purveying a sense of blessing on the food.
And of course, food is nourishment for our bodies. Hippocrates, the Greek physician in the 4th century BC, famously stated, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
He wasn’t the first to figure that out. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine (in India) have long relied on the qualities of food to balance and heal, as well as feed, the body. Studying either of those systems can be a life’s work in itself, and a fascinating one at that.
In TCM, the potential effect of each food can be categorized by several different energetic qualities. There are six divisions of yin and yang: heating/cooling (which has nothing to do with whether or not it is hot or cold to touch), interior/exterior, excess/deficiency. Then there are five flavors to be used: pungent, salty, sour, bitter, and sweet, as well as five elements to take into consideration: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Wow!
Ayurveda works with the principles of the Doshas (constitutional divisions) – of Pitta as fire, Vata as wind, and Kapha as water – and the Gunas (for a short bit on Gunas go see my post ‘the trees‘) – Sattva, Raja, and Tama. These relate to all matter, and are changeable according to whether food is eaten cooked or raw, fresh or old, and so on. Keep in mind that these ancient systems of medicinal understanding aren’t just complicated for complications sake. They are a collection of thousands of years of insight into the human relationship with plants and animals, with food.
And there are no shortage of more modern takes on nutritional medicine, either. From fast food family dinners (with sufficient nutritional value to keep us alive and make us sick) to Weston Price aficionados, and everything in between. I can think of Atkins, Paleo, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Grapefruit, Raw Vegan, Raw Non-Vegan, Vegetarian, Macrobiotic, and Locavore to name a few, and there are plenty more. The more extreme diets guarantee themselves as ultimate truths. There are studies to back up everything they say, and they say just about everything. Some say no carbs, lots of meat, others no meat or carbs and just veggies and nuts. Some want all food cooked, and others want nothing cooked at all. Discussions between dedicated foodies of different orientations don’t quite escalate to the scale of political conflict, but the heat gets turned up, that’s for sure.
I’m pretty sure humans are the only creatures with such a complicated relationship to their meal plan. I’d like to simplify the view a little right now.
Now, are crackers sealed in a bag then sealed in a box alive? Not now of course, but they came from living stuff. Can I imagine the wheat that became the crackers? What does wheat look like? How does it grow? It looks like grass, then forms the pretty wheat corns on top. It starts green, then turns golden. I think this helps a little, to use our imaginations and make a connection to our food. No matter what food we eat, it was grown somewhere on the earth, by a farmer. Tomato seeds and potato eyes are easy to see, and it isn’t so hard to imagine their growth. Crackers and chips are a bigger mental stretch, but a quick scan of the ingredients can make it clearer. It’s much harder to do this meditation with a can of soda, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
The more we connect with our food, the more conscious we become of our choices, and how exactly we live on this planet. It’s an everyday sort of meditation. As for me, I’ll stick with my cucumbers and tomatoes.
Whatever you eat, in this abundant season, may you be well fed.