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What is Food? What Does it Represent?

Well that’s a simple question to answer, huh? I can just go consult Google and get a dictionary definition, right?

any substance that can be metabolized by an organism to give energy and build tissue

Ok, that’s great. We can even expand that definition a bit by checking in with Wikipedia:(1)

Food is any substance, usually composed primarily of carbohydrates, fats, water and/or proteins, that can be eaten or drunk by an animal for nutrition or pleasure.

Now we’re getting somewhere! Ok, maybe not. In the strictest, dictionary definition of the word, any substance that provides energy is a food. By that definition, a Twinkie is food, though I doubt few here would agree, myself included. So what is food really?

Food, to me, is one of the most important elements of truly living, and I don’t mean that simply because it’s a requirement to keep from wasting away. Frankly, I love food. I don’t mean that in the “I love to eat” sense, though I do love to eat, but it’s deeper than the mere act of eating. I genuinely love food – the aromas, the textures, the flavors, the camaraderie. In fact, while I know that not everyone is a foodie, it amazes me that people can be so blase when it comes to what they put into their bodies. What you put into your body becomes your body.

Ok, so let’s go back to camaraderie. Or socializing. Call it what you will, but it is one of the most important aspects of eating. Humans have the distinct privilege of being the only animal that doesn’t simply eat, but “dines”. Dining is more than simply stuffing food down one’s gullet and moving on. Dining is a celebration of the experience of food. “Breaking bread” with other humans has been part of the human experience since time immortal. When a tribal hunting party brings home an animal, the hunter that killed the beast (or the person supplying the arrow depending on the culture) doles out the meat. Eating becomes a festival of sharing. Today, I feed you, for tomorrow, I may need you to feed me. Think of any gathering of family or friends. I bet nearly every time you gather with others for a good time, there is food involved. The act of cooking for someone else is an act of love and respect. To receive food cooked by another shows that they have concern for your well-being.

If you doubt me, think of people’s feelings toward those that hoard their food. Or people that refuse to eat other people’s food. The feelings attached to food and to the offering of food are why I will usually sacrifice my diet when someone puts in the effort to cook for me. If I go to my mom’s and she cooks spaghetti, I eat it. I may not always want to eat it, but the social aspect is more important than the food in that situation. Rejecting something that someone put the energy into making for you is generally taken as an insult if you don’t have an allergy to said food. It is not simply a rejection of the food, it is a rejection of the person.

Unfortunately, US culture places little emphasis on food. Largely, food is for nothing more than providing fuel. Few people here revel in food in the way that the French or Italians revel in food, as something more than some combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. Perhaps I should say that the emphasis we do place on food is of the wrong kind. As a culture, we hate food. It’s merely something that is required to stay alive and even then we can’t agree on what foods to eat. We’ve let corporations determine “what is food” and seem to have forgotten the most elementary task of nourishing ourselves. The problem with that is that corporations have little concern for your well-being unless it somehow positively affects their bottom lines. Why let someone feed you that doesn’t care about you as a person?

The phrase “soul food” keeps coming into my head while writing this. Those two little words say a good deal. Think about it…”soul food.” Food for your soul. It’s more than mere nourishment. While most “soul food” isn’t the most healthful fare, it shows the emphasis on dining, sharing, and community that are put into the food. It’s something given from one to another to provide more than just energy. That’s food to me. To spend an hour or more of your time to cook for another is quite an expression. It both shows and adds to the value of a relationship.

To truly experience a culture, you absolutely have to experience its food. In college, I took a Spring Break trip to Cancun, Mexico. Off the top of my head, my meals were largely eaten at Outback Steakhouse, Hard Rock Cafe, Subway, McDonald’s, and whatever other US-based chains we came across. Obviously at age 20, I wasn’t there to experience the gastronomy of the region (let’s be frank, I was there to drink tequila and party). For my honeymoon, I went to Acapulco, Mexico and actually got out and ate at some of the local restaurants, truly experiencing Mexican cuisine. Both trips were great in their own way. But from the standpoint of cultural experience, Acapulco was much better, the fact that I was in Cancun largely being irrelevant other than the drinking age and the skin color of the workers. It wasn’t solely the food, but that is a major part of it.

Some may think that I’ve just turned the act of eating into something that it’s not. But it’s only been in the past half-century or so that food has taken on the role of mere fuel. It’s only since the industrial complex started doing the cooking for us that eating has been an “on the run” affair. When we’re too busy to properly nourish our bodies, times are bad for sure. Other cultures – for instance Mexico, Italy, and Argentina – place a very major emphasis on socializing during meals. Long lunches, multiple course dinners, elaborate dishes prepared lovingly by mom for hours, all shared with immediate and extended family and friends. June Cleaver never let a show end without making sure Wally and Beaver were well-fed. Food creates a family and a community.

While we don’t all have the pleasure of eating with others, you can still give your meals the attention they deserve by eating at a table, not watching TV, not surfing the Internet, perhaps not even reading a book. I’m guilty of doing other things while eating, though I am working on that. Food is, and should be, an experience. Take the time to savor every bite that you take. Take in the smells and colors and textures. Put time and effort into your food; the time you put into preparing good food for you and your family is effort you are putting into caring for yourself and others. Ensure that you’re cooking flavorful, high quality food so that it is something to get excited about. If you can’t cook, learn. If you don’t have the time, reprioritize. Why simply eat when you can dine? So with all of that, I’ll end by saying “Respect Your Food. Respect Yourself.”

Sources:
(1) Food – Wikipedia

Scott Kustes is the owner of the Fitness Spotlight blog. A computer geek by training, he brings an intense passion for nutrition and health, specifically how evolutionary history determines the proper food for the human body. By looking at nutrition through the lens of evolution, in much the same fashion as Dr. Loren Cordain, Scott is able to find the logic behind what works and what doesn’t.

Scott has published two articles in “The Performance Menu, Journal of Health and Athletic Excellence”. The first article, published in Issue 26 (March 2007), was titled “The Spice of Life” and explored the myriad health benefits of including numerous common herbs and spices in your cooking. The second article, “Absolutely Offal,” was published in Issue 33 (October 2007) and explored recipes for cooking the most nutritious of meats, organ meats.

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