Monday, August 15, 2011

Dining: Because You're Worth It

A while back I read an article in a kind of loopy free magazine about the yogic lifestyle, supposedly written for the NYC area. I say 'supposedly' for many reasons, but mainly because the article expressed the view that if one couldn't sit down to eat a vegetarian meal prepared from whole ingredients with love with the proper attitude of reference to the act, one should simply not eat until that opportunity presented itself. I, and I imagine several million other New Yorkers, objected strongly to the injunction to eat once a day, if that. If I don't scarf down leftovers on the train, I don't eat lunch.

That said, I am absolutely a firm believer in the power of a home-made hot meal. In college when I was hundreds of miles away from anyone deeply invested in my welfare, I kept on an even keel by investing in my own welfare: choosing quality ingredients, experimenting with new recipes and spices, identifying my favourite and comforting foods, and cooking a hot dinner with a protein and a veggie or two every single night.

One day during, I think, my sophomore year, I went to a stress assessment workshop, where I discovered that my peers and I were literally off the charts in terms of the quantity of stresses in our lives: divorced or fighting parents, slipping grades, peer pressure, homesickness, deaths of close family members, it seemed like I could check every box on the form. I think, with anything over 300 being very stressed, I measured over 450. The woman leading the workshop had her hands full maintaining professionalism. She didn't know how in the world we were still in a more or less mentally healthy and functional state! She then led us through an assessment of our ability to cope with stress. This test asked if we smoked, how much we drank, exercised, talked to friends, and notably, how often we sat down to a hot meal. I scored very highly on that one, and how I was managing to do so well in spite of a seemingly impossible bombardment of anxiety-inducing conditions began to fall into place.

I learned, somewhat inadvertently, the invaluable lesson of how important it is to love and care for yourself. Waiting around for someone to come along and do it for you is a recipe to be waiting a long time: you'll be a quasi-functional nervous-wreck at best, not likely to attract the most promising members of your favourite gender.

So, that experience predated my irritation with that pushy article by about three years. In between the two, at the point six months or so post-college graduation, I was doing yoga teacher training Friday nights, and all day Saturdays and Sundays, and working 9-4 Monday through Thursday at a coffee shop/cafe called Bread-Stuy (it's a nice place if you're in the area, by the library branch on Lewis in Bed-Stuy) and taking three yoga classes a week, while my husband was on an opposite late-night schedule that meant the whole weekend could pass without us having any more contact than the time it took for me to scarf down breakfast before rushing out the door for Teacher Training in the morning, and several weekdays as well. It's much more clear looking back than it was when I was in it: this was an unhealthy time. I was overwhelmed by my schedule, and was really struggling to cope in the absence of my husband, since I felt alone with my anxiety and exhaustion. During this time I was eating well at work: hot meals of paninis, or soup, or a delicious curried chicken salad, or house-made granola with milk. My coworkers, for the most part, would dish out something, and stand in the back stuffing in bites between dealing with customers. My manager made fun of me (or maybe pointed out frequently in frustrated consternation would be more apt) for insisting on getting a proper lunch break: twenty minutes to sit down and eat. If the weather was nice I sat on the patio, under the grape vines. If it wasn't, I grabbed a seat and an old magazine inside. With my schedule as insane as it was, any moment I could have to myself, to decompress, was vital, and no amount of employee pressure was going to make me give it up. I actually quit that job when the owner refused to give me time off to go home for Christmas. I had a new one that paid better within a week and a half of quitting.

Long story aside, what I'm getting at is, I was getting food made by people I knew who were invested in the cooking process, and I was insisting on taking the time to eat it in the proper fashion in response to a sharp increase in the stress in my life.

Nowadays, when my life is undoubtedly very busy, with a lot of different pursuits vying for attention, but far more manageable and pleasant: my husband and I have the whole weekend and more or less every evening to enjoy each other's company and relax, etc., I'm much more likely to find myself scarfing a Luna bar in the perceived absence of time or resources for a proper lunch.

And as I think and write about local, seasonal eating, and the concepts of 'Healthy at Any Size' and compare that to my habits of cold mac and cheese (albeit homemade with whole-wheat pasta and squash) on the G train on the way somewhere else always, that concept of standing up for the human pleasures of eating is taking on a new shine.

What I'm managing to put into words after years of living it, is that there's a difference between food and a meal, and there's a difference between eating and dining. Any animal can experience the pleasure of eating something delicious. The animals have this over us, actually: for the most part what they perceive as delicious are foods they are engineered to run on: nutritious ones. We humans are equally able to take simple pleasure in tasting something good, but if you think about it, you know the vastly more complex and deep pleasure of sitting down to a meal prepared with love with other people. The pleasant conversation, and knowledge of where this food comes from expands the pleasure of eating it many times over. It's worth remembering, and it's worth prioritizing.
Unfortunately you can't make pizza with your friends everyday (pics provided by the arist behind Mythfits: justinnw on twitter! That's me stretchin' dough and sprinklin' cheese, and yes, we made our pizza shaped like America, and then ate our birth states!), but there are many other delicious meals that aren't any harder to make than something out of your freezer. Frittatas spring to mind; quesadillas are another good example. That said, every now and then I really encourage you to get adventurous: start with a recipe, follow it to the letter if it's well outside of your comfort zone, and if it comes out well, next time, improvise! Don't get caught in the trap of thinking it's a waste to cook a beautiful meal for only one person. I'm convinced that dining alone can have its own charm, whereas eating alone can be a bit degrading, and besides, leftovers are your friends! Pull out the table cloth and light some candles!

To be fair, if I want to keep on writing two books-in-progress and a blog, and take lots of yoga in addition to teaching it, and take aerial dance classes, and keep the house clean, I'm pretty much going to have to keep eating lunch on the G train some days. But then, there is after all, a difference between scarfing and eating, and maybe it isn't such an impossible proposition, to dine on a train.

Love yourself; cook for yourself!

1 comment:

  1. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of NY, I'm glad we made time to make a pizza together! I'm jones-ing for more already!!!

    Thanks for the photo credit too :)