Feast for the Soul

In the right spirit, all food is health food

| November-December 2002

We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.—Epicurus

Last winter I spent a month in Russia, teaching at Moscow State University. One weekend, my teaching partner, Martha, and I went with several Russian friends to visit St. Petersburg. We arrived late in the evening after a scenic but exhausting train ride. Our hosts, a medical student and his wife, had prepared a Russian banquet for us: borscht, thick slabs of dark bread, mounds of butter, salted fish, apples, pastries, cheese, and vodka. By the time we sat down to eat, it was well past midnight. Such a feast at such an hour is not unusual in Russia.

I was tired, though, and not particularly hungry. And I remembered that eating late usually makes me feel lethargic and dull in the morning. Like Buddhist monks who do not eat after midday, I prefer to go to bed on an empty stomach.

So when the eating began, I politely explained that I wasn’t feeling well and that I would just have some water and apple juice. My hostess seemed mortified. "If you don’t feel well, the answer is to eat," she said. "Yes. Yes. Eat for health." She said this last phrase loudly, as if to convince me by volume alone.

I held to my abstinence, though, with a slight sense of self-righteousness. While everyone else ate, drank, and was merry, I sipped juice and waited for the moment when I could politely excuse myself and go to bed. One of my last thoughts before sleep was, "Well, anyway, I will be clear and energetic tomorrow when we tour the city."

Alas, such was not the case. I was groggy and out of sorts, and felt alienated from the others. And they, despite going to bed full of food and vodka, were cheerful and brimming with energy.