For a couple of months now, there has been a thank you card from a customer sitting on the side by our office coffee machine. The message in the card thanks the staff at Riverford for, among other things, our ‘spirit-lifting food’.
Society these days has too much of a utilitarian approach to food. Too often our efforts at healthy eating reduce food down to a bunch of stats about carbohydrate, protein and fat content. We get obsessed with the latest scientific research saying we should eat more of X and less of Y. I hear people in the canteen queue at work saying “oh, I can’t eat that, it’s too carby”, or “give me more meat, I need the protein”.
Now, while nutritional science has its place, it goes too far when it becomes the be all and end all of food. You won’t get very far in romantic relationships if you pick your partner based on stats like weight, height and IQ – but we seem to do it with food. I'm convinced there is something more to food than physical nutrition – as Julie in her thank you letter implied, good food has the capability to lift our spirits, which is sorely needed in today’s world.
In the weeks since I read Julie’s card, I’ve been on a personal quest to home in on this spirit-lifting capability of food. What’s it about? Where does it come from? Is it intrinsic to the food or to us? How to maximise it? How far can I take it?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a small number of what I call ‘divine food experiences’, when the experience of eating a meal has lifted my spirit so high that I’ve been almost overcome with emotion.
One such time was when I was visiting my wife’s parents in Poland. My mother-in-law prepared this very simple traditional meal of fried fish, boiled potatoes, green beans and coleslaw. All the veg was grown in her allotment, and the fish had been caught that day by my father-in-law and my four-year-old-son. There was an authenticity to the meal that blew me away.
The food tasted amazing, but there was more than that, it was imbued with love. In that meal I tasted the great love my mother-in-law had for her family, her years of dedication to her husband and children, I tasted the hours of hard work she’d put into her allotment along with the love and the joy she felt doing it. I tasted the joy my father-in-law had in teaching his grandson to fish.
In the subtle dill and butter dressing I tasted the Polish nation with the immense suffering and sorrow it had gone through, and along with that I tasted the Polish people’s solidarity and their love for their nation. It brought a tear to my eye, and still does now. I wasn’t just stuffing a bunch of carbs, protein and fat down my mouth-hole, I was outside of time communing with the very spirit of humanity, experiencing its sufferings, history, hopes, joys and above all its triumphant love.
Reflecting on this experience and asking others about their divine food experiences, I’m convinced of the enormous power of good food to raise our consciousness and unite and heal people. Authentic food eaten with the spirit of gratefulness, deep appreciation of all that went in to it, where it came from and what it means, is nothing less than a sacred encounter.
It is the universal sacrament that spans all history, nations, religions, and even species. It is the meditation everyone can practice. And I think we would do well as a society to aim for every time we eat to be an experience of great love and awesomeness.