Food for the Soul

When was the last time you ate a meal cooked from scratch? From whole foods grown in your community, by people you know? Sadly, for most North Americans, cooking and eating are activities devoid of any deep meaning. Processed foods provide little nourishment for our bodies, hearts or communities. For true health on all these levels it is essential to rediscover the joys and delights of cooking and eating whole foods. Indeed, food can be our most intimate tie with the earth, and our attitudes towards it reflect how we value our own lives as physical and spiritual beings.

Food production, once the realm of small family farms, is now dominated by large profit driven agribusinesses. Using energy intensive farming methods that degrade the land, they then process their products, adding synthetic ingredients (cheaper than real ones), package it, ship it thousands of kilometers, and spend millions marketing their products to us. Just as we are urged to buy houses, cars, clothes — to buy "happiness" — so too are we urged to buy, entertain, and distract ourselves with food. And if it isn’t fast and easy we aren’t interested in preparing it. Cooking and eating are just one more thing on our "to do” list, or a mindless distraction. Whether we end up munching chips while we watch TV, or counting calories to lose weight, food is reduced to a mere commodity and the human body to a mere machine of consumption.

I’m not suggesting we give up all modern conveniences, spending all day preparing food and searching for firewood for the cook-stove. What I am advocating is the reawakening of food as a biological, spiritual and community experience. Where what we eat is recognizable as an individual plant or animal rather than a synthesis of chemicals, denatured food and big business packaging and advertising. Where we have a direct tie to the people and place that produce it. As Lanza Del Vasto wrote, " Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands and the mouth."

To bring more enjoyment to your food experience, start by getting to know the local farmers. Visit farm markets, and take farm tours. Knowing names, faces, and places enriches all other aspects of cooking and eating. Second, make food a meditative practice. Give food preparation your full attention. Take delight in the texture of the vegetables as you chop them and in the aroma of cooking grains. Before eating, say grace to thank and reflect on the forces of nature and the people involved in the production of your food. If you eat meat, acknowledge the life that was given so that you could continue yours. Eat slowly and chew thoroughly. Feel those green beans squeak between your teeth and savour the sweetness of well-chewed rice. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the taste, texture and colours of you meal. Finally, take time when you’re finished eating to just sit quietly for a few minutes.

It may take more effort to grow our own food or seek out local growers. It may take more time to cook a meal of whole grains and fresh vegetables than Kraft dinner. But along the way we can meet our neighbours and help support local community farms. We can develop an appreciation that food comes from the earth, not a box, and that our survival is tied to those individuals and the land who produce our food. We can develop a new relationship with cooking and eating, a relationship that nourishes our bodies, hearts, and minds. We can rediscover food as a truly holistic experience.

Lindsay Hartley is a freelance writer in Nanaimo.