Monday, October 18, 2010

Certified: Chapter Eleven: Feeding the Dragon

I decided to take just one class in the fall: The Political Ecology of Food and Consumption. It was a small class and I'd know half the people in it. Plus it was on a subject I was fascinated with: food.

Many of my novels revolve around food, one way or another. Mercy, Unbound is about a girl who won't eat. In Coyote Cowgirl, no one has seen Jeanne eat for twenty years. She ends up as a chef at La Magia Restaurant, creating truth-telling dishes for the little community of Sosegada, Arizona. In Broken Moon, Nadira brews chai and tells stories. In Church of the Old Mermaids, part of the novel takes place as the characters eat dinner or breakfast.

You get the idea.

I've had problems with food for as long as I can remember. The last really delicious meal I remember is when my grandfather committed suicide. I was eleven. Neighbors and friends brought over lots of food after he died. The Hungarian woman down the road made chicken and dumplings and apple pie and brought them over for us. I remember the meat melted in my mouth. And the apple pie was so beautiful: the crust was golden and the apples were just sweet enough. The smell of cinnamon filled my nostrils.

A couple years earlier, my mother had what they called a nervous breakdown; it most likely was postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. She had essentially stopped cooking (or doing much of anything) while she tried to deal with her mental illness. My father was working full-time, but he did his best to get all five of us children fed.

Essentially, we hadn't gotten a lot of good-tasting meals during those years right after my mother's breakdown.

My grandfather died, and I got a good meal. That felt strange. It is no wonder that before I started my first year of high school I developed an eating disorder. This was in the late sixties, early seventies, before people even knew what an eating disorder was. I was terrified of being fat when I started high school. If I was, I believed, no one would ever speak to me. So I watched everything I ate very closely. If I ate too much, I threw up.

By the way, I wasn't fat. I probably weighed about 90 pounds.

Fortunately I only binged and purged for a few months. I started high school and stopped worrying. Well, at least I stopped worrying about that kind of thing.

Unfortunately one of my younger sisters emulated my behavior, and she developed a full blown nearly lifelong eating disorder.

When I was in my early twenties, a doctor told me I was allergic to the world, including most of the food in it. This was a terrible diagnoses for someone like me. I became terrified to eat anything. I'm certain during this period that I didn't get many of the nutrients I needed. This no doubt exacerbated my struggles with depression.

Today I am gluten-free, dairy-free, corn-free, nightshade-free (at least I try), and mostly meat-free. I try to buy only organic and sustainably grown food. The upshot of this is that while I long for community--at least I used to--it feels impossible. Most people bond over meals. I usually can't eat anything everyone else is eating, so I don't bond with anyone and they don't bond with me.

For this Politics of Food and Consumption class, we were going to spend a day eating each other's food as part of our final project. (We each have to prepare a dish that is meaningful to us.) I was fairly certain I wouldn't be able to eat anyone else's food, so I felt a bit of anxiety about this. I contemplated dropping the class, but I decided to go for it anyway. Maybe taking this class would heal some of my fears around food.

Before our first residency, I got started on the readings. First up was Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating. He does research on our eating habits to see what gets people to eat and what doesn't. Restaurants and food companies use this research to help them figure out how to lure us into eating more. And the government no doubt uses this research to try to get us to eat more healthy.

Wansink found that most people think they are immune to advertising or to any kind of manipulation. His research has shown that just the opposite is true. How the menu is worded, how the restaurant is lit and decorated, what kind of music is playing, and where the food is from can make a difference in how people gauge the meal they just ate.

For instance, lots of Chinese restaurants have loud music and bright colors. This gets people to eat quicker. So the restaurant has quicker turnover. An Italian restaurant is often dark and quiet, with soothing music. People will linger for longer periods of time. That way they eat and drink more and they're spending more money.

In one study Wansink and his researchers served everyone the same wine, for free. For half the group, the label on the bottle said it was from North Dakota. For the rest of the group, the label on the bottle indicated the wine was from California. Guess which group rated their wine superior? Yep, the people who thought they were drinking California wine. In reality, it was the same wine.

He also found that when people eat with other people they eat more. And the amount each person eats goes up with each additional person in the group. (Although I'm guessing that figure doesn't go up forever.)

People also underestimate how much they eat. Wansink conducted one experiment where they put a hole in the bottom of a bowl and inserted a tube from below so that they could keep filling the bowl with soup as people ate. (The "eaters" couldn't pick up the bowl and they didn't know about the hose.) The researchers kept track of how much everyone ate. Nearly all of eaters thought they ate one bowl of soup when in reality they ate much more.

People who ate from normal bowls (without a hose) ate about 9 ounces. The people who ate from the bowls with a hose were still eating when the researchers stopped them, 20 minutes later. The "typical" person ate 15 ounces, but some ate more than a quart!

Both groups of people estimated they had eaten between 123 and 127 calories. The people with the normal bowls had actually eaten 155 calories. The people with the hose had eaten, on average, 268 calories!

People were using sight to gauge when to stop eating, not when they were no longer hungry.

Perhaps we don't know when we aren't hungry any more.

At a super bowl party, Wansink and friends kept bringing chicken wings to the partygoers. When the researchers would remove the bones from sight and bring more chicken wings, the people kept eating the wings almost nonstop. On the tables where they left the bones, the people didn't eat quite as much.

What Wansink learned is that Americans seem to keep eating whereas people in other culture (particularly the French) eat and then they're done. They don't eat until they're sick or too full. They eat a meal, they enjoy it, and then they go on with their lives.

I don't know many people who enjoy what they eat. They wolf it down and then look for more.

Wansink also determined that if people put just 20% less on their plate each meal, they'd lose 25 lbs in a year. And they wouldn't even notice it. Most diets don't work because people notice the difference and they feel deprived. Then they fall off the diet and binge.

I also watched a talk by Marion Nestle and read her book What to Eat. Both she and Wansink talked about how supermarkets try to get you to buy things that aren't good for you or that you don't need. Supersizing everything makes us think we're getting a deal, but we're just eating more than we should.

They both suggested shopping on the edges of the grocery story. You get into trouble when you go into the aisles: the wilds of an unhealthy food forest! Too many misleading labels. Too much "fake" food. These stores are overwhelming and overstimulating for a reason. Maybe if you get lost or overwhelmed, you just start grabbing at things to buy!

After all my reading, I was excited to go up for my first residency.

Mario planned on coming up with me to Seattle this time. Since I was only taking one class, I thought it would be fun for him to drive up with me. I also thought it would help my stress level. I made reservations at a hotel we'd stayed in before. They didn't use pesticides and they hadn't done any recent remodeling. It was only a couple minutes from campus.

I decided I needed to do something else to help me when I went to Seattle. I had four more courses to take over the next year, so I needed to figure out some way to be there and to feel relaxed and safe. So I did a "journey" to the spirit of Seattle. I told Seattle I meant no harm. Asked for permission to come again. Asked if I needed to make an offering. Seattle wanted plum sauce. It was a big old dragon-like creature and it wanted plum sauce.


Now you might think this is crazy. Maybe it is. Logically it doesn't make sense. But logic doesn't work for everything. Since I was a little kid I have talked to the land, the trees, the clouds, the animals, the weather. And always, always, always, it makes a difference to my experience when I acknowledge and honor the presence of everyone and everything in a particular space: the Visible and Invisible.

It couldn't hurt.

I also asked permission of the hotel. If I did anything stupid or seemingly disrespectful when I got there, it was out of ignorance not out of purposeful disrespect.

I come in peace, peeps! Wherever you are.

At the last minute Mario decided not to come with me. He doesn't like Seattle. My feelings were hurt for a little while. Wouldn't it be worth going to Seattle to spend some time with me? He was participating in union negotiations in Vancouver, so I met him for lunch at Chutney's on my way to Seattle. I had thought about driving straight on to Seattle without having lunch with him so he would know my feelings were hurt. Fortunately I realized that was childish--plus I'd miss a chance to see my guy before I left.

We had a good lunch together.

Then off I went.

The traffic was fine. I still felt a little dizzy and off-balance after a recent bout with vertigo. I wondered if my days of long drives were coming to an end. I easily found my hotel. Their parking spaces were all sold out for the night, so I had to park in the street. This made me a bit nervous, so I put the Irish fath fith on the car: keeping it invisible to those who would do it harm.

I hoped the burglars and vandals understood Celtic charms.

My room had a kitchen so I would be able to cook. I put everything away and then I went for a walk. It was a hopping Friday afternoon sliding into evening. Across the street from the hotel was a health food store. Nothing much in it for me, but I bought a Lara bar. Next to the store was a used book store. Across from it was an Indian restaurant.

I felt buoyed by all the people, stores, restaurants. This was gong to be so different from my basement room in the little religious house away from everything and everyone! I walked around the block.

I felt a little strange. I wondered what all the people around me saw when they looked at me? Did they wonder why this old lady was walking around Seattle alone? Was that how people viewed me now? They saw my white hair and my broken nose and dismissed me as nothing and nobody?

I had someone tell me that once. About fifteen years ago. She said she saw me walking around the neighborhood and she just figured I was this little shy nobody. And then I opened my mouth and spoke.

That had been even before my hair had turned white.

Since when did I care what the hell anyone else thought?

Oh come on. We all care a little bit.

I didn't like this new mind worm. "You're old, you're old, you can't even be bold."

Oh man. Sometimes the mind is...a hideous thing.

I went to the all night grocery. I nodded to the homeless man selling papers. He looked healthy and well-groomed. His eyes were clear; his smile was friendly.

Usually when I go into a grocery store, I get depressed because there's so much I can't eat. This time I looked around the store as though I was researching it.

What were they trying to get me to buy? What was the narrative of this store? As I came into the door, I saw flowers. Beyond the flowers, in semi-darkness, was case after case of wine. And then the produce.

The Days of Wine and Roses...and Produce?

I left the store and went back to my hotel room. I called Mario and excitedly told him about the bookstore I knew he'd love, about the all night grocery store, the Indian restaurant. He sounded sad and said he wished he had come.

I said, of course, if you had come you'd be with me. That's worth any trip.

After I got off the phone, I remembered I hadn't gotten the plum sauce yet. I went back into the night and headed for the all night grocery store. I passed the homeless man again and we exchanged "hellos." I told him I'd forgotten something. "Good thing you remembered," he said.

I went right to the check-out so that I wouldn't have to spend forever in the aisles looking for plum sauce.

A woman said she'd show me where it was. She asked me what I was going to use it for. I couldn't say, "To appease the dragon of Seattle." I mean, I could. But then that would have been an entirely different conversation. She'd be fitting me for a straight jacket.

So I fibbed. "Spring rolls," I said. Although I wouldn't actually use plum sauce for spring rolls. Yuck. I couldn't think of anything else. I should have said moo shu. Something. I kept thinking, well I don't actually eat plum sauce because when you cook plums the oxalic acid becomes inorganic and is harmful to the body.

She didn't want to hear about oxalic acid or the dragon of Seattle.

She took me to the plum sauces. They didn't have a lot of plum in them. Corn. Sugar. Would the dragon care?

Or was it the thought that counted?

I bought the plum sauce.

When I came out of the store, the homeless man asked what I'd bought.

"Plum sauce," I said.

"Mmmm," he said. "That sounds good."

I couldn't lie to the homeless man. I didn't tell him it was for fake spring rolls. But I didn't tell him about the dragon either.

I said, "Yes, I hope so."

Then I bought his paper.

What a pleasant man he was.

I went back to the hotel. I put stones around the plum jar, to create a little plum sauce sacred area. I laughed. Sometimes it was fun being me.

I turned on a baseball game, muted the sound, then put on a Deep Space Nine disk on the computer. Multi-media.

Tried to sleep. The room was too hot.

I managed.

In the morning, it was raining.

I packed and loaded the car. Then I went to the hotel's little courtyard where I was surrounded by plants, and I left the plum sauce.

Off I went to class.

We were in a tiny windowless room.

It was awful.

I went inside and got immediately dizzy. The fluorescent lights flickered. I was horrified.

How was I going to sit in this tiny room with sixteen other people?

I left and thought about dropping the class. I could take another class, a required class, from my advisor. Her class was in a big room with lots of windows and lots of space.

I went back down to the car and called Mario. I cried. I tried to ground myself. I was so sick of feeling sick. Why couldn't I walk into a room like any normal person and not notice anything?

I stood outside the car and stared up at the gray sky. I drank the tears from the clouds. It was hardly raining. I used to call this kind of drizzle cloud sweat. Maybe it was dragon sweat. Maybe it was the dragon letting me know that I could navigate this watery realm.

I went back to class.

We introduced ourselves. The instructor wanted us each to tell a food or farm story. I told both. About my grandfather who owned a farm, who worked it and had another job. He had bad hay fever, and yet he still wanted to be a farmer. Until he took a loaded shotgun, stepped off his land, and shot and killed himself.

Then nothing was ever the same in our family. Ever. The farm I had practically grown up on was gone, over.

Everything changed.

I told them I still remembered that meal, on the day of his funeral.

We then talked about food and food issues. Our instructor suggested that changing our eating habits or buying responsibly wasn't enough. This bothered at least one activist in the room. People want to believe that these little things can change the world. My experience has been that we need more. We need policy changes. We need a cosmic shift. A paradigm shift.

He also showed an alphabet poster where each letter was the first letter of a particular brand. We went through the entire poster to see if we could name the brands. "K" for Kellogg. "T" for Tide. Etc.

I didn't know most of them. I was happy I hadn't been branded. I was disturbed that most of them did know the brands, particularly the younger students. It seemed like it should be the other way around. Did this mean younger people had been exposed to more branding than those of us over forty?

At lunch, we were instructed to go to Whole Foods. We had to walk through the entire store and then pick a section and figure out what the narrative was.

I had a meeting with my advisor first. She said I seemed right on track. I told her the room was horrible. She agreed. She said they were so pressed for space, and since we weren't going to be in that room for the last residency, we were stuck with it.

I walked to Whole Foods and went through the entire store. I'd been there before. It was huge. I felt a bit dazed, as I often did. In the produce department I stood and looked at rows and rows of beautiful colorful fruits and vegetables. Two young nice-looking men were putting produce out. They were friendly and answered any questions I had. As I looked at this beautiful food I wondered how any of us ever ate anything else.

Then I sat in some nearby chairs and watched people. One man by himself at the bulk bins looked quite confused. He started to take filberts and then changed his mind and was going to get cashews and then changed his mind again. He finally got almonds. I noticed quite a few confused-looking people.

What was the store's narrative? "Come to this beautiful, peaceful place where we have all the answers. Whatever you buy here is healthy and you'll live forever."

After lunch, the class discussed our experiences at the store. And we talked about the readings.

Then it was over. I felt invigorated by the experience, despite the awful room. How we get food and who gets food is a social justice issue. What you eat or if you eat determines how healthy you are--or if you'll live at all.

Change the food we eat and the world changes.

1 in 7 people in the United States live in poverty. Over 20% of the children in the United States live in poverty. In all likelihood, this means they are subsisting on junk food because junk food is cheaper for people who don't have the time or knowledge or space to cook.

We produce enough food in the world so that no one needs to go hungry. And yet it is still happening.

I had much to think about.

But first I was ready to leave the dragon of Seattle and head home.


kerrdelune said...

A gorgeous, gorgeous post, and I consumed every word eagerly. Thank you, Sister Kim and much love, Cate

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the perspective -- and the reminder that having luch with your man is more important than, well, just about anything.
I wonder if the dragon would have been served by feeding the homeless man with plum sauce...and spring rolls. Seems like he was Seattle's envoy. Would that have been a suitable ritual to honor the spirit of the city? Hhmmm...


Kim Antieau said...

I considered giving it to him, but there was nothing to go with it. (I was in a hotel and had no food to give him.) But more importantly I didn't feel like I needed to take care of him. I bought his paper. That's what he needed. And he gave me human warmth, which is what I needed.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I've read your blog. Enjoyed this one so much. Will be on our way next week to winter in Yuma. Hubby has had a flu bug for over 10 days. On bland foods and as I read about the food in the store, I thought...hmmm, gotta get him more healthy! thanks for the great post.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.