We all grew up with popular quotes about food, “There is no Sincere Love than the Love of Food” – George Bernard Shaw, and the common cliché, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. Human beings love for food is ancient and legendary. It is also personal and complex. We eat when we are happy, bored, sad, depressed, lonely, or stressed. Although the basic premise for eating food is survival, in reality it is quite the opposite. The common conundrum, do we eat to live or live to eat? Our deep connection with food is legitimate because food is multi-faceted – it is alluring, irresistible and incites pleasure. I have heard many chocolate lovers dig into a warm oozing chocolate dessert and in their moment of pleasure declare “this is better than sex!!” Food also allows clarity of thought and mind, lifts our spirits, gives us physical strength and energy, and controls our circadian rhythm. There is an old adage “Money makes the world go round”, but in today’s world this saying should be re-phrased to “Food makes the world go round” because of our obsession and preoccupation with food.
In order to understand this unique phenomenon, I want to use my interpretation and dig deeper to explore some interesting facts and fascinating anecdotes about food. For instance, the journey of food, its roots, how it metamorphosed over time, how it evolved into a culture of its own, and our irresistible urge to pass judgement on those who differ from us in their food choices. However, to paint a complete picture, we also need to shed light on some not so glorious aspects of food. For example, our complicated love-hate relationship, the constant weight loss battle, and the impacts it has on our psyche, impeding us from being happy because of our nature to use food as a clutch to deal with emotional baggage. Ultimately, we have to remind ourselves that despite its shortcomings, food is a dominant force in our lives as it connects us all in a single universal bond. All these elements make food a true enigma and explains our intense love affair with food.
In the article “Origins of Food’, thefiftybest.com, as per the timeline documented, humankind’s culinary history dates back to 2.5 million B.C. where Lower Paleolithic humans used stone tools to butcher meat for food. Later around 108,000 B.C. the Neanderthals on the Italian Peninsular cooked shellfish, rice was grown in China around 7000 B.C., Tandoors used to cook flatbread in Rajasthan around 2600 B.C., followed by cultivation of tea, sugar, spices, salt, wine, etc. after 10 A.D. However, the drastic change in the trajectory of food started with the industrial revolution, and the technological advancements that transformed the entire landscape of food production. The article, The Long Lasting Effects of Industrial Revolution, Journal of Economic History, John Hopkins University, talks about how automation and mechanization brought efficiencies in food production, manufacturing, distribution, and drove the prices down. These factors had major implications on the culture surrounding food and the overall quality of life. This in turn had a domino effect as it opened up numerous avenues for people to tap into. It led to an exponential growth in the restaurant business, a spike in grocery stores and supermarkets, new career opportunities that allowed people to explore their talents and live their dreams, ushering in a new era of food and culture.
As the food industry went through a period of development, human beings started adapting their lifestyles to keep up with the changing trends. We went from grandma recipes being passed down through generations, to relying on cookbooks, followed by streaming videos on the internet. Food has now become an art form, a conduit for expressing one’s creativity and it is this deep passion that gave rise to a myriad of world-renowned chefs. Julia Child, the original celebrity French chef who hosted her own TV program in 1960s was a trailblazer for many world-renowned chefs like Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, Masaharu Morimoto, Wolfgang Puck, Jose Andres and numerous others. Gordon Ramsey with his TV show ‘Ramsey Uncharted’ and Anthony Bourdain with ‘Parts Unknown’, chartered a new territory by traveling to the most remote places in the world, experimenting with unique foods, cooking along with the indigenous people, and mesmerizing us with their adventures and story- telling. They along with other celebrity chefs pumped excitement into the culinary world and bridged the cultural gap by bringing the world view into our homes and to our TV screens.
This transformation made trendy restaurants serving ethnic foods popular and fashionable in many metropolitan cities across the world. People became more willing and open, coming out of their comfort zone to try different cuisines. We now read reviews and look for star ratings before dining at a restaurant because we want to have the best experience, and of course it lends to bragging rights and posting our fun stories on various social media outlets. With the increase in disposal income in the last few decades, affluent families are willing to pay top dollar for an exquisite experience giving Michelin star and other top-rated restaurants added competitive pressure to be the best. In order to maintain the aura of exclusiveness in fine dining, Chefs kill themselves to maintain the star rating and their reputation. Gordon Ramsey was reportedly reduced to tears when his NY restaurant lost its stars, saying it was like ‘losing a girlfriend’, story covered by finedininglovers.com in the article – Kitchen Culture. Unfortunately, our desire for decadence and being eclectic comes at a hefty price. According to an article in lightspeed.com, 60% of restaurants fail in the first year and 80% within five years. In addition to the competitive environment, restaurants fall prey to other pitfalls like marketing strategy, food costs, inventory, and employee management, making their longevity short lived. For the restaurateurs, it is no longer just about serving specialty foods, but being a savvy entrepreneur and dealing with the challenges that come with running a business.
The culinary world has not only impacted the restaurant industry but has invaded our homes too. The Millennial and the Gen Z have taken over the kitchens and started experimenting with food. Cooking had been stereotyped by our previous generations, something that only women are supposed to do. Women being the home makers were stuck with that job and the common impression was that cooking is arduous, boring and repetitive. As women started coming out into the work force and gained independence, they too began portraying cooking as menial. Their inability to cook or having no inclination to cook, gave these women a sense of emancipation. But the newbies have totally changed the game by breaking gender barriers and shattering old fashioned mindsets. There is a newly found respect and appreciation for the skill and profession with the realization that cooking is a practical life skill, and for some a creative exercise. To quote the celebrity chef Thomas Keller – “A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe”. In addition, cooking has various psychological benefits as it can be a de-stressors. For example, listening to music while cooking can be calming and de clutter our minds. There is also a growing awareness of the health benefits from cooking a meal at home, experimenting with ingredients to create dishes that suit our palate and dietary needs. And now that men are dominating the kitchen, cooking is a new resume booster for folks in the dating scene as there is nothing sexier than a guy who can cook!!
Another interesting dimension to food is how we classify and label people for their food choices and habits. Firstly, we have the two big camps, the vegetarians and the meat eaters. Each camp has their own agenda, philosophy and attitude. Vegetarians have a sense of arrogance and act sanctimonious as they find the practice of eating meat immoral and wrong. For some, being vegetarian is a habit, they were raised that way and never adapted to eating meat, but they never miss a beat to make meat lovers feel guilty. Meat lovers on the flip side, feel judged and get defensive. It is beyond their comprehension that food can be tasty and exciting without meat. We frequently hear meat eaters asking vegetarians somewhat condescendingly “so what do you eat when you go out to restaurants”? They too do their share of putting down the vegetarians, leading to the constant tug of war between the two camps.
To make matters murky, there is the other set of population that are either Vegans, Gluten Free, Pescatarians and people with other special diets and allergies. There is so much indignation and irritation in society against these categories of people as it can become an inconvenience to cater to all these individual needs. Society can be quite dismissive of people with special dietary restrictions by not taking the condition seriously. However, these attitudes are slowly changing, and people are more accepting due to education in schools, social media and government agencies in many countries pushing to label foods, which is bringing the needed awareness. However, we all need to remember that although accommodating these needs can be annoying, some people have life threatening conditions such as celiac disease and allergies that have to be taken earnestly. It is a social responsibility and a per-requisite for being part of a civilized society. Irrespective, food is a personal choice, and we need to respect that – live and let live!!
The story of our love affair with food would be half told if we do not touch on some of the unpleasantries of food. Food when consumed appropriately is a medicine, it is our friend, but it turns into poison and becomes our enemy when we abuse it. And here in lies the dichotomy. As we peel the layers and bring the focus closer to ourselves, we begin to realize the havoc food can cause in our personal lives. To quote Shakespeare’s line from Midsummer Night’s Dream “The course of true love never did run smoothly”, so is our love affair with food. It is a rocky road with ups and downs, a love-hate relationship. We all have our weaknesses when it comes to food and for many the temptation is too hard to resist. The reasons what we eat and why we overeat may be different, but the end result is the same – regret, remorse and anger for making bad choices and giving into our frailties.
In order to compensate we put intense pressure on ourselves to shed the extra pounds and allow it to consume our lives. We make new year resolutions, invest time and money in weight loss diets such as Paleo, Vegan, Low-Carb, Atkins, Shakes, Detoxes and now the most popular – the Intermittent Fasting. Companies like Jenny Craig, NutriSystem, Slim Fast, Weight Watchers, etc. have carved out a cozy market segment for themselves by catering to the needs of millions wanting to lose weight. The Diet and Weigh loss industry is worth $72B in US alone (AP News) and growing especially among the millennial in comparison to the baby boomers. Can we really blame anyone for getting lured and giving into this addiction? There are fast food joints just a stone’s throw away from each other across all of America, making fast and cheap food accessible at every nook and corner. One visit to Costco, Walmart, Wegmans, Whole Foods, or any major supermarket can have your head spinning. The excessive quantities, cuisines, varieties, perishables, to prepared meals available in these stores are staggering. People are spoiled for choice and naturally we succumb, we are human after all. The behavior demonstrated here is a consequence of the copiousness permeating our society, the price we pay for being economically privileged.
For majority of us, our self-esteem is tied to our physical appearance, hence the constant inner struggle and ongoing conflict with food. I have yet to meet a person who is truly happy with their body image. Common saying is that “Perception is Reality” but if our perception of beauty is that of a Victoria Secret model with a perfect body, then that perception is skewed and the expectation of ourselves to look like a model unrealistic to a large extent. Modeling is a profession and maintaining a perfect body comes with many great sacrifices. It is similar to a normal person expecting to have the body and the fitness level of a sportsperson. As a society, we foolishly use models and athletes as a yardstick of beauty and fitness, and the impressionable young end up aspiring to these absurd standards. This cultural norm is proving detrimental as it is hurting the confidence of these young minds, leading to emotional issues at a tender age and an unhealthy relationship with food. In comparison to men, the pressure on women may be higher when it comes to physical appearance and weight, but men are not spared either. They too get judged for being over or under weight and have to deal with the repercussions of body shaming.
But all is not lost in our ongoing saga with food because food has the one biggest advantage in its corner, its most redeeming and powerful quality – its ability to bring people together. Food is tied to tradition and memories. People use festivals and celebrations as an excuse to feast on food, create new bonds and strengthen existing ones. For instance, in America, Thanksgiving is the most popular festival that people wait the entire year and travel hundreds of miles cross country to be with family and eat Turkey and Pumpkin Pie. Many parts of the world celebrate Christmas by baking cookies, fruit cakes and eggnog. Indians celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, and people spread light and love by exchanging sweets and goodies. Chinese celebrate their biggest festival, the Chinese New Year eating pastries, dumplings and many more delicacies. Aaron Sanchez in a Huffington Post article, How Food Brings Cultures Together, states: “Coming together and sharing a meal is the most communal and binding thing in almost every place in the world. Being able to make a dish and share that with the people you love is one of the most universal concepts because it’s at the root of our survival”. We may differ by country, religion, culture, race, language and gender but food unites us, it is a common thread binding us together across cultures and ethnicity.
In the end, the conclusion we arrive at from these reflections is that, although modernization brings conveniences and simplifies certain facets of our lives, it comes with its own set of challenges and hardships. From industrial revolution to the digital age, our lives changed drastically. As trade and commerce opened up, world became smaller and the global economy made things more accessible. Preparing food used to be an all-day affair in the pre-industrial age but the invention of machines and appliances made cooking faster and easier. And with the digital age, food can now be delivered at our doorstep by pushing few buttons on your device. Food delivery services like DoorDash, Grubhub, UberEats can deliver food to us in less than 30 minutes and companies like Amazon can deliver some expensive and fancy ingredients like Black Truffle (mushrooms) from Italy or the world’s best Russian Caviar in a day or two. In a world where speed, ease and convenience are at our fingertips, one would expect life to be simple but on the contrary, it can be difficult and trying. Automation and mechanization have made people less active. Leading sedentary lifestyle and over-indulging in food have given rise to many diseases and health issues. The life lesson to learn and absorb is that there is no utopia, no magic pill to fix the problems created by food. Food is a double edge sword, and we have to take the good with the bad. We have to be the mature adult forging a path of moderation and making smart food choices to live a well-balanced healthy life. It is easier said than done but something for us to aspire toward. We can work at being our better selves, and instead of giving into a torrid relationship, temper our love affair with food.