Sunday, February 17, 2013

Spice is the Spice of Life

The best strawberry I ever ate was the one I grew. Yes, the one. I never could keep the rabbits away; they'd always be one step ahead of me in harvesting the fruit, leaving emptiness of plant and heart every time a berry bloomed. Except that once.

Yesterday I bought some strawberries from the Giant, the one in Columbia Heights that lurks a block from where I live. I bought them because they reminded me of summer, knowing full well they could not be as tasty as a local strawberry. Prettier, yes, but pretty is supposed to be secondary to taste in matters of food. Pretty is for folks who have already mastered the art of taste, the culinarians whose knowledge of the palette gives them license to turn a plate into a work of ingenuity. For the rest of us, food is what we do to keep our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, and our brains pumping those chemicals we call emotions.

Well, in most countries.

For whatever reason, our country discarded food for food products. We discarded local markets where the shopkeeper knew your name for massive, soulless grocery stores like Giant. We discarded vitamins and minerals for high fructose corn syrup and preservatives whose names we can't even pronounce. Now we find ourselves faced with epidemic levels of diabetes, high cancer rates, and unprecedented allergies to components of basic foods. Last night I couldn't find an essential ingredient for my planned dinner - tahini paste - but Giant had a whole aisle dedicated to gluten-free food products.

The thing is, we don't even know that's not normal. How many generations have grown up knowing nothing other than Giant, Kroger, and Harris Teeter? How many don't think twice about frozen boxed meals or cereal in the shapes of cartoon characters or cheese products with some of the same ingredients as plastics? I certainly knew nothing else. But the course of my life has taken me to places that have shown me what food really is, that it's not just something to stop the rumbling in the abdomen. Food truly is life. No simpler way of putting it exists.

I don't just mean that it sustains us and keeps us alive. Of course it does. But think about it. When we get together for social gatherings, food is the biggest part of the party. Why is that? Is it that we have so little to say to each other that we feel the need to stuff our mouths as an excuse to be silent? While that may be true for some people, for most of us, it's not. Food is not merely fuel, it's spiritual. In ancient Egypt, ka was a spiritual lifeforce that needed to be fed even after death. Throughout history, humans have sacrificed food to various deities. Even today Jews and Muslims have rules for the way to slaughter animals and grow crops for food. But the spirituality of food isn't found in religion alone. Go to one of the "food countries" and see for yourself how food is the soul of a culture, that fresh foods are deities in their own right. Italy is one example. In fact, the Mediterranean peoples from Spain to Italy to Greece to Lebanon and around, have made food the spice of life.

I first learned that food was more than a solution to hunger when I lived in Europe in college. By the time I went to Lebanon more than a decade later, I had already developed an appreciation for nourishment of the soul, but eating in that country, eating the fresh, locally grown produce, going to the small market everyday, sitting at long tables covered with plates of mezze dishes, conversing over a lengthy meal, not merely eating but living...I'll never return to the American way of consumption. The chain restaurants where they microwave frozen foods and turn over tables in less than an hour. The corn-syrupy convenience of pre-packaged meals. The unhealthy addiction to fat, the fried foods, the bacon worship, the obesity, the chips and cookie culture. It goes against nature. It goes against the laws of the universe.

Food connects us in a cosmic way; it transforms something that was once living into energy so we can keep on living - you know, energy is neither created nor destroyed. The science of the universe, the laws of existence, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we are all made of, there is no denying that everything in the vast expanse of the universe is interconnected in a way most dare not contemplate. Human beings have used various terms to describe our cosmic connection: the ancient Egyptians called it Ma'at, Carl Jung called it the collective unconscious, the Catholic Church calls it the "communion of souls." The works of philosophers, theologians, astrophysicists, writers, and countless other disciplines on matters of a metaphysical nature could have their own library and no one could get through it all in a lifetime.

So how does this have anything to do with food? Think about it. Every bite you consume affects the rest of the world forever. That strawberry I ate, the single red berry that survived the bunny thieves, contributed to fueling me...every action I have taken since then has in some way been affected by the fact that I ate that one berry, that the chemical reaction that occurred as that berry was transformed into fuel for a human body helped in a tiny way to not only affect my actions, but events in the entirety of the cosmos. Whatever I did that day, no matter how small it seems to us, made the world different than it would have been had I not eaten that piece of fruit.  Now think about that in terms of the food you consume in a lifetime. Energy is the essence of being, and we are all part of one big collection of energy.

So how did we lose the natural, the spiritual, in our food? Why do we buy flavorless strawberries and green bananas and meat pumped so full of chemicals that we have to wonder if we can still call it meat? Why is the slogan for Welch's Fruit Snacks "We Put the Fruit in Fruit Snacks?" I know some of the answers to these questions. The real quandary, though, is how we continue on this path to nothingness. For every new farmers market on the corner, for every new quinoa trend, something like fried Oreos is put on a menu and someone is dropping dead of a heart attack or being tortured by chemo or checking their insulin level. But worst of all, worse than physical illness or even death, is the spiritual emptiness in our consumption habits, the cultural refusal to understand that what we put into our bodies affects the entire world.

The last strawberry sits in the container, a big one, red, beautiful, reminding me of summer. I found out that the berries weren't that bad, and a hint of the season I love so dearly came to my tongue. Another six weeks until the farmers market starts up around the corner and I can perform the weekly ritual of buying local. Another four until I get to sit down to meals in Lebanon and Italy. Until then, I'll suffer the Giant and its Florida-grown produce. At least I have that luxury.

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