The Gratitude Challenge’s seventeenth topic is “Food”.
Food – if you read it from behind – doof – it means “stupid” in German. That’s how I sometimes feel about it: My relationship with food seems to be wildly ambivalent, ranging from “such a mundane task, I wish I didn’t have to eat all the time”, to “holy cow, I need to travel to that country just to try this particular dish”.
There’s also ambivalent feelings with “healthy food”: If something is considered healthy from a nutritional standpoint, how healthy can it be if our mind starts to “dictate” us to restrict ourselves to only “healthy” choices? Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind lives in a healthy body. There are many interpretations of that saying: Is one required for the other, can one only exist with the other? Which one comes first? But no matter the details, I very much can relate to the saying: Even though I ate so “healthily”, my relationship to food was probably not very healthy from a mental standpoint and so my overall wellbeing wasn’t either.
I avoided any kind of sweets, stopped buying items that had “sugar” on the list of ingredients. I thought I’m just doing something good for my body and I took pride in being more disciplined than others and not “needing” any “small treats” or regular meals. In hindsight I realize that all of this made me feel in “control” of at least one aspect in my life. In a world and environment where I felt my decisions were not tolerated, becoming vegetarian and quitting certain ingredients and foods was an unconscious decision to regain a little bit of control.
Generally, the need for control seems to be the underlying motivation for many food-related phenomena: People going fully organic, vegan, avoiding gluten, avoiding this or that – in many cases it’s not so much based on science or a medical necessity, as it is a way to regain a certain level of control.
It does not come as a surprise to me that Oktoberfest – the world-famous beer fest – takes place in Munich. It’s a city of control: Politically conservative, extensive rights for police and an above-average presence thereof, a society that is strongly focused on status and appearance. Only in a well-defined area and time it is then allowed to be excessive and order a well-defined drug – alcohol – by the liter. It very much resembles the Japanese concept of a 飲み会 (nomikai, a common all-you-can-drink afterwork gathering in Japanese companies) – conform to strict and narrow societal expectations and use well-defined times and areas as an outlet.
The ironic effect of restriction is of course that your mind starts to constantly revolve around the things you are denying yourself; in my case: Food. I travelled to other countries, let cultural heritage be cultural heritage and just focussed on trying everything and finding the best food. For several years I cooked a new dish every day, organized cooking evenings where everyone brought some ingredients, and then I made something out of it; I invited people from different countries to bring a dish from their home country and together we enjoyed a multicultural buffet.
All obsession aside, I really enjoyed the social aspect of these events: During my whole upbringing, food was never anything enjoyable or “social”. Instead, during each meal I found a complete lack of harmony and continuous family fights. The amount of food to be eaten was “enforced”; individual needs and preferences were not respected.
Sayaka Murata often addresses the topic of conformity – or the neglect thereof – in her books. In one of her most recent works – 地球星人(Earthlings) – the young character realizes: As a child you need to behave and conform to parental expectations, or else you’ll die. Even if objectively, this might seem hyperbolic, as a child it’s exactly how nonconformity is perceived.
I’m aware that as I am gradually breaking with this upbringing, I can also see food again in a more balanced way and with less strong negative feelings. One of my favourite movies – 飯と乙女 (Food and the Maiden) – is about how people’s eating disorder influences their lives – and it resonates quite a bit. Also in the movie, how those people deal with food is just an expression of an underlying wound that needs to be healed.
Still, often I catch myself feeling a lot of “doof” – stupidity – in food: Such a mundane task. Why do we need to eat all the time? It looks so stupid to open the mouth and just shovel stuff inside, destroy something that looks and smells nice. It looks stupid how we move our mouth, how we smack, how we slurp, how we crook our back and bend over our food like an animal. Humans try to make this daily duty less disgusting by introducing and – sometimes – adhering to so-called “table manners”, but isn’t it just a cover for something very primitive?
I feel disgust from the sounds and movements and sometimes I’m reminded of the scene in Spirited Away, where humans turn into pigs while guzzling heaps of food. Other timesI can really identify with the main character in Han Kang’s book “The Vegetarian”: Why do we need to eat? Why can’t we just be plants and be satisfied with sunlight and water?
To a certain extend I seem to experience some kind of misophonia, which Wikipedia defines as a “decreased tolerance to specific sounds or their associated stimuli […]. Reactions to trigger sounds range from anger and annoyance to activating a fight-or-flight response“. ASMR videos where people whisper in very small distance into a mic are supposed to cause a happy tingle in your body. In my case, they bring me into rage after seconds. I really dislike the sound of someone whispering, especially whispering right into my ear. Equally, beating eggs in a bowl, slurping a hot drink, hearing the roof of the mouth touch the inner part of the nose as it occasional happens with some people when they talk – it makes me almost angry and my whole attention is being caught by it, making it impossible to focus on anything else.
Talking about focus: Often I see people not focusing at all on what they eat, eyes and thoughts glued to the screen of their phones or TVs. Most Taiwanese I know claim to find good food very important, but seldom have I been to an environment where more people considered eating just to be something you could multi-task together with some game on the phone or a movie on the iPad (the latter having the centre space on the table, the plate of food tucked somewhere behind). As a German of course I can hardly criticize, coming from a culture where “good food” means “cheap and filling”. I once heard that Dutch tomato farmers joke about how Germans happily buy the cheap tomatoes that are too tasteless for all other countries – I have no difficulty to believe this.
Many Japanese people recite a short phrase before starting a meal: いただきます (itadakimasu), which roughly translates to “I‘m receiving this from a superior being”. No matter if you believe in such a thing like “god”, I like the expression of gratitude for all the things and the hard work that were involved to bring tasty food right in front of us, ready to be eaten. Then again, the self-imposed permanent time pressure in Japanese society also brought to the world inventions like 立ち食い蕎麦 (tachigui soba): Devouring buckwheat noodles while standing at a counter or in a small one-person booth to not waste any time.
No matter if you think the act of eating is something primitive and annoying but necessary or if you are a foodie and love to think about food the whole day – in every case the availability of food that we like contributes massively to our wellbeing and how comfortable we feel in a certain place. During the two years that I lived in Mexico I really had a very limited number of moments where I thought “wow, this is the place I want to be and nowhere else”. When I felt hungry, I was so annoyed because I did not feel like eating anything that was there.
Now you could of course argue that feeling comfortable living in a certain country or not also very much depends on other factors such as culture, the people I’m surrounded with, living conditions etc. And it’s true, all those factors do play an important role, too. But when I went to Peru, I found the culture, the people, the sense of security (or the lack thereof) rather similar, just I liked the food waaay better than in any other Latin American country I had been and guess what – it’s my favourite country in that region of the world.
Of course, there is no point to argue about taste preferences – each to their own. However, I found it interesting that there seems to be a pattern where people who enjoy the food in Latin America are not super excited about the food here in Taiwan, and vice versa (I think the food here is fantastic).
People also talk about “comfort food” and food that makes them feel like being back home, but even after a lot of pondering, I could not think of any such dish. Don’t get me wrong: I think my mom is a very good chef and in my whole family many members seem to be blessed with a talent for cooking or baking. But when it comes to “real” German food, there’s not much I would want to have when I’m abroad.
I talked to a Turkish colleague who had been raised as a child in Germany but then lived abroad and just moved back to Germany. I jokingly stated “be honest, German food is of course the best food in the world”. He didn’t understand that I was just kidding and so he responded in a serious manner that he indeed missed potatoes when living outside of Germany. This would not happen to me. I do agree that the many different types of potatoes in Germany taste much better than the tasteless white stuff you tend to get in many other parts of the world. But if anything, I would miss Turkish tahin, simit and gözleme when abroad. The only thing I would probably buy if I found it abroad and knew that it was made well is Swabian Brezel – but then again, even in Germany it’s hard to find a really good one, so usually I don’t bother. Sometimes I’m surprised what I miss when abroad, for example in Mexico at some point I was craving Brussels sprouts.
Coming back to the quote from the beginning – mens sana in corpore sano – I think we also need to take care to nourish ourselves with enough “food for thought”. As I reduced my working hours, I find much more time to indulge in works from some of my favourite authors such as Hiromi Kawakami or Fjodor Dostojewski. It is so interesting to see how Asian authors include supernatural details with less reluctance in their stories, just as the belief in ghosts seems more common across Asian societies when compared to Europe. This combined with protagonists that impersonate some kind of maverick or outsider, makes these works really resonate with me.
I am grateful to live in a world that offers such abundance of different kinds of food, dishes from different cultures and regions and the ability to try – and in many cases also enjoy – quite a few of them. I’m grateful for dinners that I can enjoy together with people I like, just as I am grateful for not needing to worry if I’ll be able to afford my next meal. I’m grateful for having the senses to fully experience food – my eyes, nose, ears, tongue, and skin. I’m grateful for food – and food for thought – providing me with the nutrients that keep my body and mind healthy. I’m grateful for finding more kindness towards myself and therefor be less strict when it comes to my food choices.