Tag Archives: food

Food and happiness

When the subject of food comes up in relation to happiness, it’s usually about comfort eating. And certainly, there are times when comfort eating is a thing. I’ve found toast really helps me ward off low-level depression – there’s nothing like low blood sugar to quietly bring you down. Food has a lot to offer us in terms of happiness.

Hunger, poor nutrition and low blood sugar will all contribute to feelings of gloom and misery. Eating a diet that supports your bodily and mental health obviously contributes to happiness. People dieting can be quick to cut out the fats, but brain and skin alike do need fats – plant derived ones are best. Amino acids from protein are essential for brain function, it is harder to feel happy if you aren’t getting enough amino acids in your diet. Protein is expensive, so poverty diets are likely to increase your unhappiness.

We live in a culture where fat shaming is normal, and where food is loaded with social and emotional messages for many people. However, food is essential to life, and as social creatures, food plays an important role (or can) in our interactions. Creating spaces where food can be approached in a comfortable and relaxed way, can really help improve happiness. Sharing nutritionally good food in easygoing company can be a source of great comfort, joy and pleasure. Being cooked for often registers with people as an expression of care. I’ve also heard many stories about older relatives who expressed love through food – and so long as that’s not your only expression, that’s fine.

Eating well takes care of some of our most basic needs. To eat well in a physically comfortable space as part of a community where you feel safe and welcome, answers a great many of our most basic needs. Taking the time to do this can be really powerful. When we feel under pressure to rush about, and eat solitary meals in a hurry, we miss out on a lot of good stuff, and we miss the social bonding that can happen around food.

I appreciate that for anyone with an eating disorder, food is stressful and problematic. I don’t have the experience to speak to that in much detail, I’ve only ever been on the edges of it. I think any of us can help with this by making food more comfortable and less stressful – not loading it emotionally with shame or with demands, not putting pressure on anyone over what they do, or do not eat, not making body size or appetite an issue – it all helps make eating less of an issue. Acceptance can be powerful and enabling.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s body shape, or about what they do, or do not eat, and the person is not your own small child, it’s not your job to tell them. A great deal of food-related bullying comes from people who are convinced they are being helpful. As though overweight and underweight people are unable to tell what’s going on with their bodies. Yes, sometimes illness distorts body sense, but if you aren’t either a mental health professional, or absolutely aware of how the person sees themselves, you’ve got no basis to take this on. Challenging people over their eating and body size usually has the effect of making them feel worse, disempowered, ashamed and miserable. None of these feelings enable a person to move towards a more sustaining relationship with food.

If you want to help someone have a happier relationship with food, quietly model that relationship, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they can make changes for themselves.


Food choices and climate change

Food choices are always a really emotive subject and I try to stay out of that side of it as best I can. My starting point has the potential to offend everyone: I’m not ideologically opposed to meat eating, dairy, or eggs. I am deeply uncomfortable with how factory farming works and how we treat the living beings in our food chains. I am absolutely clear that whatever you eat, eliminating food waste should be your priority, because if we tackled that we would get to grips with reducing suffering, and reducing the climate impact of meat.

Animal products for human consumption, and the methods by which we ‘grow’ these are harming the planet. If we want to survive as a species, we have an obligation to cut back on what we consume and to support and encourage others in doing the same. If you eat meat, consider having some meat free days in a week. Vegetarians can consider having some vegan days in their weeks, and vegans, you still have to wrangle with food waste.

You can also look at reducing the food miles in your food if you have the means. If you can source from local producers with better cared for creatures, then do that. If you can’t afford to eat more kindly, cutting back is also a good choice. If you go vegan, depending on where you live, you may have a hard time cutting food miles – beans, nuts and soya products tend to come to the UK from overseas. There are no perfect solutions here, but make whatever moves you can to cut the carbon imprint of your diet.

I’ve pushed towards veganism before and found it difficult. Sourcing affordable protein is an issue, although I can manage it. What’s turned out to be a real problem, is fats. What dairy remains in my life is as much a fat source as anything else, and it is the need for fats in the diet that has thus far, thwarted me. It’s easy (especially if you have a penance aspect to your food choices) to view fats as bad and a diet light on them as good. In practice, neither my skin nor my brain work well without them.

To reduce the animal products in my diet I have to figure out an approach to food that sorts out the need for fats. Where in the food prep process the fats go, is a question I need to answer and I think it will take me away from the food approaches I am used to. My current project is to figure this out, and introduce the solutions gently so that I can change my relationship with food. I’ve replaced milk with substitutes with no trouble at all, and when there are vegan options I often take them.

I don’t think absolutism is the solution for all of us. Finding what works for you and how best to reduce your carbon footprint is a question to ask. Mine is pretty low as it is (carbon calculator over here – https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ ) but I want to do better.

Nibbling for Druids

British law amazingly enough upholds the right of people to gather food from hedges and margins. I’m not a serious forager, but I am a big fan of nibbling when out and about. I get a distinct sense of connection from eating what’s around me, it brings me into a really direct relationship with my immediate landscape.

I’m not a forager, I don’t go out to bring things home. Partly because I don’t have any scope to store,  partly because I’m not the only one who needs what’s in the hedges. At this time of year I’ll take a few blackberries when I pass them, I found some wild plums on the side of the canal a few days ago. Soon there will be apples, because trees have been planted locally for people to help themselves. I won’t take anything rare, or anything in short supply, and never more than a third of what’s present.

Plants that have grown in my locality have experienced the same weather as me, they are rooted in the soil I live on, connecting with underground fungi systems and soil bacteria. Normally what we do is eat food from anywhere and everywhere, we have lost the immediacy of connection with land because most of us don’t eat what grew around us. That can’t be replaced by snaffling the odd berry out of a hedge, but it’s better than nothing.

We don’t know what all the practical implications are of eating food from around the world. Certainly it helps diseases move around more quickly. We don’t know what the implications are of eating food that grew in one place with consistent soil bacteria. One fungi network. Or for that matter what the differences might be between working with your local yeast – the yeast living on your skin and in your air, instead of working with yeast from a package. Perhaps there are reasons modern humans don’t feel connected to each other or to the soil.

Pot-lickers of the world, unite!

Like most people (I suspect) I was brought up knowing that there were rules about eating food. One of the rules was not to run your finger round the plate afterwards. Nor should a person sneak out to the kitchen and carefully run their fingers around bowls, saucepans etc.

I grant you that it doesn’t look charming, and ups the risk of getting food on clothes. But at the same time, it’s a manners system that tells us it is preferable to waste food by washing it down the sink, rather than run a finger round the pot and eat what’s there.

Every morsel of food out there exists as a direct consequence of the death of a living being, except perhaps for milk and eggs, where the death of living beings is indirect, but still part of the equation. Anything that had seeds in tends to be the death of future plant life before it’s had chance to get started. For me, this makes it difficult to cheerfully wash that life away. If life is sacred, then surely, the careful running of a finger over a plate to make sure none of that life is thrown away disrespectfully, is a sacred act?

Anything we wash away has to later be cleaned out of the water. Down the sink is not ‘away’ really, it’s just a problem for someone else to deal with.

My guess is that the underlying reason for the manners of not licking the pot, is not wanting to seem that desperate. Getting every last scrap off the plate might look like poverty and desperation, and humans will go to remarkable lengths to convince themselves, and each other, that they aren’t that desperate, even when they are. However, there are many ways of achieving a feeling of abundance, it’s not like food residue is our only option.

So, I am putting my hand up to say that nothing goes into the washing up with edible food on it when I’m around. I don’t care what it looks like and I don’t care if anyone feels moved to judge me. I feel very strongly that we need to change our collective attitude to food waste – because what we collectively throw out is obscene and we’re killing a lot of things just to chuck them in a bin or wash them away. We need to show our food more respect.

Life without a fridge

I’ve been fridge-free for over five years now. Instances of throwing away edible food – zero. Food going off is pretty rare and tends to be because we’ve bought fruit that was reduced to clear and didn’t eat it all in time. Sometimes, the consumer goods that look like they are helping us, are not as helpful as they seem.

In order to do without a fridge, we buy little and often, which means there’s a plan for anything bought, but we can also respond to whim and bargain. We gave up cow’s milk when we started this – it just doesn’t keep well enough. Everything else does just fine in the cool box.

No doubt our diet makes this easier – two vegetarians and one omnivore, and I don’t buy raw meat, so that’s far more manageable. We eat a lot of fruit and veg, a lot of dried rice, pasta and pulses lurk on the kitchen shelves. Much of this doesn’t go off quickly and can easily be spotted when it does.

Having lived with fridges my whole life, I was obliged to change tack while on the boat – they just take too much electricity. Other boaters advised the switch to a cool box. It proved easy – far easier than I’d expected. The absence of a fridge means having to be aware of what fresh food is around and how long it will last – variable with temperature and whether anything frozen has gone into the box recently. The attraction of a fridge is that you can put a lot of things in it and not feel a need to think about them, but this is how the unspeakable horror at the back of the fridge comes to be.

Having been fridgeless for a good five years now, I do not see fridges as a quality of life improver. Expensive, yes. Big consumer items that take up a lot of space. Energy I don’t have to use. Taking the fridge out of the equation has given me a better relationship with food. I can’t say it would work for everyone, but I can say it’s always worth questioning the apparently essential things, because you may well find some of them aren’t so vital for you after all.

Hail Seitan!

As a household we took the decision some months ago to reduce the amount of animal products in our diet (2 vegetarians and one omnivore). We haven’t gone vegan, but have changed the overall balance, so I suspect that puts us in the rare position of being able to offend everyone with a strong opinion on diets!

The primary motivator for us was the environmental impact of animal based food. Animal welfare is also a major consideration. As cheese is rising in price apace, that’s also been a factor. So has boredom – we wanted to eat more interestingly, and for that matter, have more good stuff.

When we look at taking up a more ecological way of doing things, one of the household rules is ‘no hair shirt’. If it feels like we’re being noble and suffering, we’re doing it wrong, and we won’t be able to sustain it. Getting it right means a sense of improved quality of life. We try to do this without it costing vast amounts more money.

Seitan has been good to us (and we insist on pronouncing it ‘Satan’). Seitan is a vegan protein – vital wheat gluton and can be bought as a flour-like substance. Health food shops may have it, the internet certainly does, and if you buy in bulk it works out cheaper than Quorn. The internet abounds with recipes, but basically you can make up a dough, flavour it with whatever you like, braise it in the slow cooker and then give it a second outing, and it is a wonderful, endlessly variable thing. Not that hard to make, and the omnivore in the household is happy to accept it as a substitute.

My latest venture is into the realm of shneese. Which isn’t cheese. The attraction of dairy products, I eventually worked out, is as much the fat content as the protein. Vegan proteins can be short of oil, and thus the idea of shneese was born. There are (I have since discovered) lots of recipes out there for home made vegan cheese substitutes, but the key thing is to use a gelatine substitute so it will set. Some kind of nut or seed to provide the protein – I’ve used sunflower and cashew to good effect thus far. Some kind of oil. And something else – thus far olives, avocado and mushroom have been employed to good effect at different times. Their role is to give the oil something to make friends with. Nutritional yeast is also a good idea. A blender is required, to make the whole array of things into a single, settable gloop.

Last night we put shneese on pizza. Now, I’ve seen vegans with grated carrot as a pizza topping, and it looks the part… and even though I like grated carrot, I’ve never been able to face this as a prospect. The whole point of a pizza is that sense of indulgence. A mushroom and sunflower shneese, tomato, olive, artichoke hearts… it didn’t feel like a downgrade.

I like knowing that I can throw together really good food for vegan guests, should I need to. I like having the increased diversity of diet. I love that this is working out cheaper than buying dairy products. I like the idea of having cheese as an occasional luxury, not a staple, and only using eggs when I want them as eggs, not as an ingredient. Also, I’m enjoying the names. Notzorella, anyone?

Pauper arts

art gearThe twentieth century saw some radical cultural shifts for the western poor. We moved away from self-sufficiency, and towards consuming low cost goods. We stopped cooking from scratch and bought processed food. Many of the skills that had historically been essential for paupers, became lost to the vast majority. We’d ushered in a new era of prosperity and ease, and no one would ever have to cut worn bed sheets in half again to re-sew them for a re-use.

Now, many people are finding they don’t have the money to support the lifestyle they’d once taken for granted. It comes as a shock. Being poor is very hard if you have no idea how to do it. Let’s just consider food. If you can grow your own veg and fruit, make jam from the fruit, keep a few chickens, if you know how to re-use your leftovers, how never to waste anything, then you can eat for very little cost. It takes time. We’re used to throwing away a third of the food we buy. There’s a huge distance between those two ways of being, and the pauper arts are not reclaimed over night by people who find they need them.

The twentieth century taught the western poor to want all the same things the rich were getting. Of course we want fairness and equality, but we didn’t pause to ask on what terms we were getting it, or what it meant. Nor were we encouraged to, because turning us into an avidly consuming class drove the economy along. The more we can be persuaded to want, and the more willing we are to go into debt to have those things, the more vulnerable we are. We’ve been sold the idea of comfort and convenience, and now we have to work ever longer hours to pay for it, or the money dries up and we suddenly can’t afford to eat.

The cheap boom of the twentieth century was underpinned by low cost goods from abroad. The environmental cost of cheap food is huge. In another country, people are working in dangerous conditions for little pay to put cheap consumables in our shops. That’s a very high price, and just because we aren’t the ones paying it, does not entitle us to be comfortable. We can’t go on consuming at the current rate or in these ways.

What we need to do is stop being seduced by advertisers and junk pedlars. We need to stop accepting that we need everything done for us, by someone abroad, or by a machine. We need to reclaim the pauper arts that truly can allow us a better quality of life for less money. Much of that knowledge is still out there, and much can be re-invented. The important thing is to know there are options.

If you know how to do a good job of being a pauper, a little money goes a lot further. There is a sense of power and achievement in self-sufficiency, in being able to repair clothes, mend useful items, convert one thing into another. There’s a lot of use in cooking with leftovers and making compost out of kitchen waste. No one is going to pick all of this up overnight, but thinking creatively and imagining solutions is a good place to start.

In front of me on the table is the sorting and storage system for Tom’s art gear – an old, unwanted metal tea set, bought for a pound, and doing the job very well. Next to it is a plastic sweet box that I cheered up by collaging it with paper from old calendars, and am using to store my sewing kit in. We had fun with those, they will serve us well for a long time, and they cost very little. They kept a few things out of landfill, too. We’ve got a draught excluder made from a pair of worn out jeans. Bags made out of old curtains. Old curtains cut down to be smaller curtains suitable for these windows. It adds up.

What we all need is a new aesthetic; a sense that clever re-use is chic. If we only collectively decided that ‘make do and mend’ is a great look for this year, it would be easier for a lot of people to tackle poverty whilst feeling good about it, and to step back from the over-consumption that is pushing our planet to the brink. We need to declare re-use the sexiest thing imaginable. That it currently isn’t, is just a trend, and trends can change.

Food for thought

We’ve had the horse meat scandal in the UK, with horse DNA turning up in processed food. As I see it there’s no reason to be sentimental over one endearing mammal (horse) and happily scoffing another (cows), but people do. What we should be talking about is why this has happened, and whether the cow DNA came from properly sourced cows. Were we getting healthy cows, or sick rejects in those burgers? No one seems to be asking, much less checking. It is the pressure from supermarkets to push down the prices they pay farmers that has lead to this. Quite simply, if we want it very, very cheap, we cannot also expect to have it be very, very good.

We keep animals in crowded, unnatural conditions as it is, to answer western demand for a high meat diet. 50% of the grain grown in the world goes to feed animals for the meat market (according to the BBC this morning). At the same time European advisors recommend we should not eat more than 20 grams of processed meat a day. That’s about one slice of ham, if you aren’t metric. We’ve known for a while that processed meats increase risk of heart disease and cancer. Processed meats use up all the stray bits you wouldn’t buy if you could see them ‘in the raw’. Lips and arseholes and all that. Now, my feeling is if you are going to kill an animal to eat it, you have an ethical obligation not to throw bits of it away, so that puts me in favour of processed meat, and it tends to be your protein for the poorer consumer as well. Cheap unwanted bits have been with us for a long time, and that could be made to work. I assume it’s not the meat content of the processed meat that causes the issue here because officialdom says that non-processed is fine. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they’re right. Processed foods however, are loaded with salt, and chemicals – especially preservatives.

I should mention that I’m a vegetarian. Not out of any particular ethical principle, I have too strong a sense of plants as living individuals too. I’m a vegetarian because when I ate meat, it made me very ill, all the time. I react to it like it was a toxin, without going into the grim details. I suspect it has nothing to do with the flesh and everything to do with the chemicals pumped into the flesh, both during the lifetime of the creature (I get sick on antibiotics too) and in the processing part. But, we’re not talking about identifying and clamping down on dangerous chemicals in our food that cause heart disease and cancer. Oh no. We’re talking about your 20 grams a day. That makes me uncomfortable.

I strongly believe that as a culture we consume too much meat. It isn’t environmentally sustainable (go back to that grain statistic), it create greenhouse gases, the animal suffering is increased dramatically as well. If you assume your meat comes from happy free range creatures, that’s a lot more comfortable than picturing the misery of battery farming, the endless pens, the animals that are turned into units of production and not allowed to be animals at all.

All that said, I recognise there is blood spilled regularly for vegetarianism, and that veganism would mean no more spring lambs in the field and radical changes to a British landscape that evolved around keeping animals. There’s a whole other essay to write there. However, in an ideal situation, animals get to live as animals in good conditions that allow them to be themselves up until we eat them. Animals contribute to the fertility of the land, when you do it right, are farmed where you can’t grow crops anyway, live on locally grown hay and grass, not imported grain, and are part of a holistic and functional system. Current demands don’t allow that. A percentage of people going vegan and vegetarian helps to bring demand down, and if that works for you, excellent. For everyone else, a low meat diet is, I think, the best option. That means thinking about how we ate say, 50 years ago, where it wasn’t a case of meat every day, and potentially at every meal. Having some days off from meat each week is evidently better for your body, with the whole heart failure and cancer issues to consider.

We’ve come to associate eating meat with wealth and luxury. We associate it with status, with being macho, and we still have people claiming that you need meat for a healthy diet. We don’t. We need protein. We don’t need meat so much that its worth having every bargain basement cow of uncertain provenance sneaking into the food chain. We don’t need chemical poisoning either. What we do need, is a radical rethink of our whole food culture.

The power of senses

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. So reliably true, that one. No matter how much I try to be aware of that which I take for granted, it’s hard to see what has always been there. The lesson of the last couple of weeks has been all about taste and smell. Normally I have a really good sense of smell. Colds of course will take that away, but this is the first time when I’ve been unable to taste properly. There were days when I couldn’t even get mouth tastes.

Inside the mouth, we perceive sweet, bitter, tangy, salt and hot as basic flavours, but most of the nuance comes from what we can smell of the food as aromas percolate upwards into the nasal passages. I have no idea what went wrong with the mouth tasting, but by Christmas day, everything I put in my mouth was like cardboard, taste wise. It made me highly aware of textures in a way that normally I’m not, because the only way to distinguish between foods at that point, was the feel of it. There’s a startling diversity to the feel of eating different fruits and vegetables, I realised. That was a discovery. I’ve lived thirty five years and never truly appreciated the wonder of food textures before. Hopefully I can hang on to that.

Eating good food is one of life’s pleasures. I became aware of how much is lost when the flavour goes away, how mechanical and grim a process food consumption is when I can’t taste anything. And then the miracle of occasional flashes of flavour. A moment of perceiving something, the sheer relief of chilli or pepper getting through my system to register in my brain. Taste became a source of wild excitement, in tiny, unpredictable bursts. I’m still not quite right.

I also started to realise that I could tell, putting something in my mouth, how much fat content it had. Even though I couldn’t taste anything, on some level I was picking up fat content as a source of interest. I have no idea what the mechanics are, but our bodies are wired to respond to fats. Could I have this awareness all the time and just not have been noticing it? Or is it too subtle a thing to register consciously when all that flavour information is coming in too?
Deprived of my sense of taste, the whole experience of tasting has become something of a holy grail for me. The value of it is elevated in my mind where probably I wouldn’t have thought about it before – I just took it for granted.

I’ve learned to be grateful for the awkward life lessons that allow me to rethink things and understand anew. For me this is part of my Druidry, that learning how to take a setback or a problem and turning it into something useful, or meaningful. It makes it easier to take the knocks. I spend less time saying ‘bloody hell that was not something I deserved’ and more time going ‘I wonder what I can make that into?’ so there are practical advantages, and I do sometimes learn a thing or two.

Signs of spring

A few weeks ago, lambs appeared in a field on our school run. They were small and unsteady on their feet that first day, so I assume they weren’t very old then. We cycled past them twice a day. I’ve never lived that close to sheep before, so seeing lambs has tended to be an occasional thing. This year I’ve watched them grow, seen how quickly they became confident. They went from uncertain footing to gambolling about, from close to their mothers to rampaging in a group, getting through fences and coming to look at us rather than shying away. The speed of their growth was amazing.

They arrived in the field during a warm and sunny spell. We saw the lambs when the weather changed, huddled against a downpour and no doubt feeling the cold. They gave us very different looks that day. I wondered what it must be like for them, used to sunlight in their short lives, suddenly finding the world is not so warm and friendly after all. We all go through that one sooner or later.

I also saw how quickly they denuded the field. They moved on a few days ago, leaving patches of bare earth and close cropped grass, which will recover in time and can be re-cropped. There are only so many animals any given bit of land can support. The more intensively we want to farm, the more we have to move away from what nature does, and create synthetic environments. There’s going to be a finite amount of room for ‘growth’ there, and only so much we can produce. What happens when demand outstrips supply, when we want more meat to eat than the land can bear? Imagining that science will magically come up with solutions seems naïve to me. A way of not looking at these issues ourselves.

Of course the lambs have no sense of the fate awaiting them. They will go for food. Much of that food will be wasted, in production, in transit, by the supermarkets and finally by the biggest culprit – the humans who finally buy them for the table. How many of those lambs are going to die just so that we can throw them away? Thinking about that as an abstract thought isn’t comfortable. Stopping in the lane to look at them, seeing them as individuals – curious, playful, alive and oblivious, the use of them feels uncomfortable enough and the idea of their lives being wasted, is unbearable to me.

Part of the problem is that we are so remote from our food sources. Most of it turns up clean, gutted, packaged and impersonal on supermarket shelves. Wander round a store and you don’t get a sense that you are seeing once-living things that have died to give you food. Instead you see the packaging, the brands, and the scrubbed-up inoffensiveness of unrecognisable things. If we lived closer to our food, if we had watched it grow, nurtured it, looked into its eyes, I think we would find it much harder to treat it as just a ‘product’ and throw it away on whim.

Caring opens the way to discomfort. Not caring makes it easy to use and take, to consume without thought or guilt. I’m trying not to couch this in meat/meat-free terms because this is not just a creature issue. Plants are living things too. The soil we use to cultivate them could have been left to nature, and to other life forms. Growing plants to throw them away is just as destructive as doing it directly to animals. I think about the dead fish we throw back into the sea to keep within quotas, and I want to weep.

Not caring about who we eat, makes it easy to do as we please. We talk of ‘what we eat’ making it into objects, things. Food is ‘stuff’. As soon as you say ‘who’ it becomes a whole other issue. To the lambs in the field, their lives are not secondary to ours. They do not see themselves as a product, a brand, an item. They are alive, for now. Everything in nature depends to some degree on the death of something else. Plants don’t necessarily directly kill to live, but their growth depends on the fertility of the soil which in turn depends upon the death of other things. Eating is one of the most natural things we can do. But as a species we seem hell bent on making the process as remote from the rest of nature as possible. This does not strike me as being the best plan.