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As a Chef and human, my relationship with food is complex and varied. In one instance, food is my instrument. As a kind of artist, food feeds my professional and inspirational needs and as such must remain a little elusive, revealing itself part by part and always a bit discoverable. As a human, I receive food best when it is fully understood as an ingredient, as fuel or as nourishment. Lately, I have been feeling a sense of moderation and acceptance that seems, fortunately, to extend to all branches of life - including of course to food.
So, after weeks of feeling this equanimity of appetite and having relegated 'Muse Food’ to its rightful place and 'Purposeful Food’ to its role, I was recently surprised. I returned home from a disconcerting experience feeling ravenous. It wasn’t until after a few forkfuls that I realized I was eating, not because of any real hunger, but because I was upset. With the absence of anyone to talk to about my sudden destabilization, I had turned to food.
More and more, we are embracing the idea of food as medicine. We step lightly doing research, reading informative blogs and exchanging information. We are cautious. We are hopeful. We are prepared. But food as medication? Here, we act recklessly and largely alone. Why do we eat to tranquilize our strife? What is the underlying drive that motivates us to use this alternative to properly metabolizing our emotions?
John Covey says in his book, Food, Morals and Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating1, that centuries of learned behavior equating food with sin is the cause. As with the Ancient Greeks or early Christian crusaders, the idea developed that the pleasures derived from food - as with those from sex - undermine a more rational and reasoned approach2. This philosophy gave food a bit of a prohibitive element. And we certainly don’t need the Ancient Greeks - helpful though they may have been in building the foundations of modern government and public markets - to tell us that rendering anything forbidden makes it all the more compelling.
Biran Wansink purports that we have entrenched a behavior that responds to difficult feelings with food.3 If, for example, we continually give a child candy when he is sad, he learns to push that feeling out of the way and be soothed by the candy. He never learns to confront the sadness. All these theories combine to form a reasonably sound explanation of emotional eating. Giving food a seat of power in the middle of our primitive 'id’ selves clouds our way to truly experiencing food for its rightful objectives: pleasure, community and medicine.
Linda Spangle, author of Life is Hard; Food is Easy4 has a particular view of emotional eating and believes it can be categorized. Head hunger, she says, stems from an intellectual source such as a feeling of frustration or stress. Those folks, she claims, crave chewy or crunchy food; food that requires the heavy participation of teeth and crunching down. So, as it turns out, a nut is never just a nut. It’s a powerhouse of vitamin B and manganese.
Or, it’s your boss’s head anthropomorphized and embedded in your chocolate-walnut brownie. You thought you just wanted dessert. But really, you were feeling intensely misunderstood and needed to dissolve those feelings in an assertive, jaw-engaging, tooth-mobilizing act of vindication of self!
Spangle sites another example of a specific channel of emotional eating. While 'head hunger’ is noetic in origin, 'heart hunger’ is poetic in origin. The head hungry know what they need to do - redirect frustration to a bag of potato chips. The heart hungry, on the other hand, are sad, lonely or depressed. They don’t have as clear a sense of what they need, says, Spangle. They just know something is missing. Enter: comfort food. Food that is associated with simpler times takes center stage and center stomach. Filling that abyss of whatever we are missing with food of a hearty, heavy, dense nature becomes an urgent and singular objective.
The frightening synopsis: Centuries of mystifying food makes us feel guilty for wanting it or enjoying it. Piled on top of that, we are driven to momentary despair with upset or consternation, and with a subconscious but persistent regard for 'convenience’, we end up acting completely out of ourselves in a panicked attempt to medicate. Impatient, we invariably grab the crunchy, chewy chocolate chip cookies rather than firing up the barbecue and grilling ourselves up a delicious, omega-3 packed, umami sheathed trout!
So, how do we get our personal food power back? Despite its patency and presence in every self-help or weight loss book, it bears repeating: acknowledge the feelings. Duh. But as a foodie, liberated - not trapped - by food, go one step further. First, back away from the mashed potatoes...slowly. Then simply decide that if crunchy or creamy or homey is what you want, that is what you shall have. If you seek the comfort and coziness, seek it mindfully, on your own terms in food that you - not your reptilian, visceral self - desires.
THE RECIPE SECTION
In this series, I offer recipes that you can name yourself. Amend them to suit your dietary predilections and enjoy. I do urge you to preserve the essence of the recipe, however, and promise that doing so will augment the deliciousness....a lot.
Fried goodness for the heart, head and legitimately hungry
Ok, these are not quick but you can make literally thousands of them and keep them in the freezer for quick access in times of trouble. The yield for the below quantities is considerably less than 1000.....about 24.
The key to success is to keep the ingredients dry: squeeze excess water out of zucchini and onions. Combine the following 4 zucchinis (grated), 2 onions (grated), lots of dill (pulled off the stalk and chopped finely); 3 eggs, cumin, salt and pepper; 1 cup of crumbled feta or goat’s cheese. Warm enough oil in a shallow sautee pan to make a little lake in there about 2 inches deep. Olive oil tastes best but if you are skittish about smoke points, use a saturated oil like coconut or palm.
Don’t even think about putting anything in that pan until your oil reaches 350 (if you don’t have a thermometer drop ONE tiny drop of water on the oil and step away. If the drop dances, your oil is ready) . Now add 1/2 cup of the flour of your choice and stir. Without crowding the pan, add spoonfuls of the batter into oil and fry until it looks appetizing. This quantity should provide a basic prescription to address stress associated with: two traffic jams + 1 missed deadline OR 1 argument with spouse and 3 sub-standard service experiences OR three consecutive days of missed commuter train connection and one cranky toddler. For a tax audits or bad break-ups, add more cheese.
1,2. Coveney, John; Food, Morals & Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating; Routledge; London; 2000
3. Wansink, Brian Mindless Eating; Bantam Dell, New York; 2006
4. Linda Spangle, RN, MA, Life is Hard, Food is Easy: The 5-Step Plan to Overcome Emotional Eating and Lose Weight on Any Diet; LifeLine Press; Washington; 2003