I was describing a sandwich in great detail. It was toasted on dense, whole grain bread, slathered in mayonnaise and mustard, accented with pepper jack cheese and avocado. The chicken was leftover from one I had seasoned and roasted myself, and I added salt and vinegar chips to boot. I was so excited about this sandwich that I was telling my friend intimate details about the way my creation made me feel.
“It was pretty much the best sandwich ever,” I said with great conviction.
“I used to eat that way.” She said blankly.
As the excitement of the sandwich dwindled, our conversation dried out. She wasn’t as thrilled as me about food on bread. She was gluten free, dairy free, organic only. My sandwich actually revolted her.
I realize that I probably make the best sandwich ever at least once a week, so I don’t expect people to be as delighted as me about certain food creation experiences. Maybe I talk about it more than even regular people because to me, food is exciting—it brings people together to celebrate nourishment of our bodies. As my 72-year-old friend said about coconut ice cream, ‘it’s orgasmic.’
I wasn’t devastated that my friend didn’t share in the delight of my lunch, but I was disappointed. She didn’t know how hungry I had been in the past few months. I hadn’t told anybody. The truth was, it had only been recently that I was able to eat the way I wanted to. Before then, I was struggling in a quiet, embarrassed way to actually get three meals a day into my system. Those of you who knew me then graciously invited me to dinner, picked up my tab and let me take the leftovers. I am grateful for your quiet support.
We live in a time that being something-free is a super trend. Dieting is something that everyone does, it’s a lifestyle. In order to lose weight, we don’t just eat a box full of ‘fat-free’ Weight-Watcher’s cookies and call it a day. We eliminate entire food groups as a symbol of our self-control, a sticker on the chart of our wellness plan. Dieting is an activity, a definition, a hobby. We don’t eat gluten. We overload on bovine protein. We eliminate cheese. Not because we have a life-threatening disease but because we CAN.
It’s important to share that I believe in taking care of yourself and to do it in a sustainable way. There is a lot of garbage in our food these days, and it’s smart to be consciously consuming. If eliminating a food group makes you feel better in a healthful way that works for you, congratulations. But I’m overwhelmed with how often I feel food shame for eating something that doesn’t fit into another person’s way of living. We have to talk about dieting to fit in with our culture. Whether it be the tonic instead of soda water I put with my vodka (less sugar) or the vegetarian burger I eat instead of beef (you need beef to survive), the scorn about individual food choices is alarming. American abundance and our focus on dieting has given us the opportunity to pick and choose what we want to eat, and it’s some sort of honor to be able to withhold from eat something that is listed in the ‘bad’ column of your food journal. Not everybody is that lucky.
I know I do it too. I publicly announce the elimination of certain foods from my diet. I make negative comments about the way fast food smells, and I have found myself looking at the pile of processed food in the grocery cart behind me with disgust. I’ve even got into a discussion about if meat is supposed to make us strong and fast, why we don’t eat tiger meat instead of cows.* But I have to stop doing that, because it’s really not my business.
A recent project alerted me to the fact that 840,000 Coloradans experienced a time when there was not enough money to buy food for themselves or their family during 2012 and 20% of Americans are currently on food stamps (http://www.hungerfreecolorado.org/). Not because the CAN, but because they HAVE TO.
I have never been starving. But I know what it’s like to feel desperate. I also know that at large percentage of the people I come into contact with don’t get to eat whenever they want to.
Food choices are individual, but eating is often a group affair. If there’s something in your life that you need to eliminate, do it with integrity. But our personal choices aren’t headline news, and we shouldn’t use them to make people feel bad about what the’re doing. Instead, let’s focus on the joy that eating can bring us, and revel in the fact that we get to share the experience of eating together at all.
*This really happened. And I may still discuss it, if you’re interested.