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How we eat is as important as what we eat Print
Guest column
Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

The season of celebrating the Nativity of Jesus Christ is complete with abundant opportunities for eating, many from long-held family traditions and others might just be questionable habits we have picked up in our daily struggle to make ends meet and jam another activity into our already over-scheduled daily routines.

What if the old maxim “You are what you eat” also included “You are how you eat”?

A fast-food culture

For instance, when was the last time I ate by myself from a fast-food drive-up window?

Did I eat slowly, enjoying each bite while pondering ideas and concepts beyond the basic concerns of the moment? Or did I slam the meal down quickly with no thought beyond protecting my shirt sleeve from an embarrassing mustard stain or grease spot?

Was the most engaging conversation I had over lunch with the drive-up window employee when that person counted back my change? Is there a single fast-food meal I have ever had which I remember fondly and think of as a cherished memory?

And when I speed eat, which is what fast-food is all about, do I consider whether I’m thankful for “my daily bread” or just filling a void in my growling gut and am completely without any sense of gratitude for the food I’m partaking?

Sharing a meal with others

Pondering some of these thoughts perhaps we can begin to grasp the concept of “How We Eat” being as important as “What We Eat.” Eating slowly, moderately, and with others puts upon each eater an expectation of a community-larger than ourselves.

That means how do we relate to one another, how do we utilize learned manners and traits of civilized people, such as dividing portions and the politics of which fork placed where does what, keeping elbows off the table top, and the importance of gratitude in the sharing of the meal.

That means thanking the food preparer-host, and as people of faith giving ample thanks for the gifts from the Creator, considering all who labor to “give us our daily bread.”

At the dinner table we educate our children on how we share conversation and which topics are invited at meal and just as importantly, which topics are not. There is no shared human experience more collective than eating together, more rich in tradition and cultural difference, and inviting of new tastes and experiences than eating with others.

Food has soulfulness

And finally there is the reminder that food has soulfulness to it. As Gary Snyder points out, no living creature or thing survives without eating the life-force of another. Within each morsel we bite into are the elements of soil and water, sunshine and oxygen, and the sweat and blood of those who labor to plant, cultivate, and harvest this life-giving source.

We are inextricably all interconnected to each other and everything that takes of life to survive gives back life in its death and decay. We might exist at the highest end of the food chain, yet we are still a part of it. When we step out of this undeniable reality, we create a false world of genetically altered, chemically engineered food-fluff and all the accompanying waste of creative energy in its marketing and in its packaging.

Supporting local farmers

I ask you to consider awakening your internal hypnotized consumer to the reality of having your very existence determined by market forces whose primary goal is to separate you from both your conscience and your money.

Instead, consider spending some of your hard-earned dollars on the natural food products of your local farmers and growers. Then take some time to prepare a special meal (slow down) and invite others to join you as a group as you savor the gifts of Creation and realize how good it is to be a part of a community.

May our moments of gratitude also allow us to ponder how we might be more mindful of “How We Eat” as well as “What We Eat” throughout the new year.

Season’s blessings and mindful eating to all.”

Tom Nelson is coordinator of the Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Madison.