The Joy of Eating

Celebrating sustenance three times a day

| May/June 2002

One of the great joys for my wife, Julie, and me is watching our 7-year-old eat. He approaches a plate of food with something like awe. A smile breaks across his face and questions fly across the kitchen: What’s this called? How do you cook that? Why are those potatoes yellow and not brown? If he senses we’re not looking, he will surreptitiously grab a handful of vegetables or noodles to explore their texture and temperature.

Soren happily chows down with no thought of calories, carcinogens, grocery bills, fat grams, E. coli, or genetically modified ingredients. His only real concerns at the dinner table are that something may be too spicy or, even more tragically, that we might have forgotten dessert.

Dining with Soren offers a glimpse of Eden, remembrance of a time when we assumed that everything on our fork was wholesome. This has always been childhood’s state of grace, and it was shared by most American adults until sometime in the 1970s. It may have been cyclamates, a carcinogen lurking in every can of diet cola until the FDA banned it. Or the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, which indicted meat-eating as a waste of valuable food resources that heightens world hunger. Or maybe it was just our collective belly expanding a little more every year. But over the past three decades, Americans have become ever more wary of what they eat. Now we talk about cheesecake and pork chops in hushed tones once reserved for oral sex and hashish.

The simple act of breaking bread has become a complicated matter of personal health, humanitarian concern, political commitment, and public safety. That’s one reason it’s so much fun to watch Soren eat. For him, food is about tasting good and filling up, not a thrice-daily symposium on medical and moral issues. It’s not surprising that many Americans are sick and tired of thinking about everything they put in their mouths. "Damn the tofu and oatmeal and skim milk," they declare, "I’m going to enjoy a double bacon cheeseburger with extra mayo, a supersize order of fries, and a bucket of Coke." Burp!

And we can see the results all around us—in rural landscapes overrun by factory farms, in food and water laced with chemicals, in the cardiac unit and cancer ward of a hospital near you.

Like it or not, what we eat has consequences for us and for the world. Dinner is not something that just magically appears on our plates. In ordering a burger or making a salad, we are inextricably linked to the land, cycles of rain and sunshine, farmers and farmworkers, compost or chemicals, processing facilities and slaughterhouses, truck drivers and miles of highway, co-ops or corporations—to a whole web of ecological and human activity.

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