Everywhere we look another edible schoolyard is sprouting. In the most progressive schools, children are bringing their produce into the cafeteria to clean it and cook it. Junk food and soda vending machines are disappearing; some districts even outlaw lunchtime visits to fast-food restaurants.
The national concern for our children is important, and it’s one that I share. When my daughter was small I tried to get the local school district to allow more than 20 minutes for lunch; the kids would wolf down their food in eagerness for a few extra minutes of recess. These days my daughter is lucky enough to be at a college where healthy eating is considered part of the larger education. But I am still thinking about institutional meals—except now at the other end of the age spectrum.
Last spring my mother had to enter long-term care. She is someone who always cared passionately about food. In her hands a simple roast chicken was transformed into a dish that both embodied longing and fulfilled desire. And oh, her sweet and sour meatballs! Now she can no longer command her kitchen; she is presented with three generic meals a day. I recognize that the trays are put together with an eye to variety as well as nutrition. But even in her diminished state she discerns what tastes good and what does not, and she responds accordingly.
This experience is shared by many people who find themselves in institutional care at the end of their lives. Yet hardly anyone is speaking about better food for the elderly. Their eating habits are not a public health issue, like type 2 diabetes or childhood obesity. But providing pleasure through food is not frivolous; what and how we eat are crucial to the quality of our lives.
The nutritionists who work from charts to devise nutritionally sound menus, balanced in the standard American way with that sacred trinity of protein, vegetable, and starch, are missing something. Although this kind of quantitative analysis serves patients’ physical needs, it falls very short on their mnemonic ones—their rich memories. Swedish studies have shown that the foods served in old-age homes make a huge difference in the way people feel, even those suffering from dementia. Familiar foods can stimulate memories and improve cognition. The aromas and flavors of times past enable us to reconnect with the world, reawakening appetite not only for food but for life.
Standardized cooking is admittedly more efficient, and individualized attention would require additional expense. But we’re caring for people here, not manufacturing something. It should not be too much for caregivers to ask a few more questions when they are assessing each person. What are your culinary traditions? Do you have any comfort foods? How do you feel about broccoli and beets? These questions are so basic that no one ever thinks to ask them, but a meal that triggers a positive emotional response can make an enormous difference in a person’s day.
Thriving in old age is not simply a question of calorie counts and nutritional supplements. People of all ages deserve to enjoy their meals. Food should not be seen solely as sustenance, a means to keep people alive, but also as an opportunity to connect people in their declining years with memories they hold close.
Darra Goldstein is the editor of Gastronomica, an exquisite quarterly journal of food-focused scholarship, fiction, and poetry. This essay is excerpted from the Fall 2009 issue. www.gastronomica.org