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.
I was dismayed by the apparent injustice. I would have done well to have remembered a lesson I learned on Thanksgiving 25 years ago, when I had gone home and announced that I would not eat turkey (putrefying, hormone-laden flesh), baked potatoes (from a deadly nightshade plant), nor cranberry sauce (sugar-laden). I would cook my own (healthy) meal. Thanksgiving dinner turned out to be a dour event as my dumbstruck family stared at my plate of brown rice, tofu, and seaweed. And on that occasion too, despite my seemingly virtuous eating, I had felt poorly afterward.
Soon after my Russian sojourn, I traveled to Germany to see a friend in a village near Kassel, where we attended a breakfast marking the end of a local holiday. In a huge hall, a 30-piece German brass band played oom-pah-pah music at a mind-numbing volume, and hundreds of men dressed in dark suits and frilled white shirts sat at long tables, drinking beer, talking, laughing, and occasionally breaking into song.
As soon as I sat down, a large mug of frothy beer was placed before me, and my immediate neighbors—red-faced and smiling—raised their mugs in salute. "Beer for breakfast," I thought. "I’ll be a space case all day—I’ll probably lose my passport and shoes." The surrounding mugs were still expectantly suspended in air, though, and it did not seem an appropriate time to ask for peppermint tea. I smiled, clinked glasses, toasted Zum Wohl ("To health"), and took a sip of my beer. It was thick and delicious. I took another sip and started talking to my neighbor, a local policeman. When I finished my mug, another appeared in front of me as if delivered from a celestial brewery by a celestial hand.
Eventually breakfast was served. It featured a deep-fried pork cutlet about the size of a Frisbee. Having eaten little meat and no pork for over two decades, I thought, "I’ll have nightmares just like Gandhi did when he ate meat!" Breakfast looked inviting, though, and what was I to do? Ask our Valkyrie waitress to bring me a hummus and alfalfa sprout sandwich? I dug into the cutlet with relish. It was delicious.
When we left, I felt relaxed and happy. I felt unusually energetic and ebullient that whole day and for days afterward. Perhaps this time the lesson will stick: Food is blessed by being shared, and by being eaten in fellowship amid conversation and laughter. In such circumstances, all food is "health" food. In any case, I will never again refuse a midnight banquet, and I look forward to my next breakfast of beer, pork cutlet, and song.
Ronald E. Koetzsch has been writing about health, spirituality, education, and social issues in the alternative press for many years, and his articles are often reprinted in Utne. He is the author of MacRobiotics Beyond Food: A Guide to Health and Well-Being (Japan Publications, 1988) and MacRobiotics: Yesterday and Today (Japan Publications, 1985). He is also a stand-up comedian. This article originally appeared in Natural Health. Koetzsch lives in Fair Oaks, California. Exerpted from the anthology Food: A Taste of the Road (Travelers' Tales, 2002).