Reason For Not Eating Out #48: To Eat With Purpose Every Time

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Last week, I listened to a radio program about the need for more grocery stores in rural food deserts, as they are known. This, which occurs in dense inner-cities as well, can lead to a health crisis when the only food options are unhealthy restaurant meals or junk food. I’ve written before about this lack of “real” food, as many advocates are wont to describe fresh, organic, and unprocessed food such as from a farmers’ market. Yet these terms can be slippery in a climate in which the tomato paste in ketchup or pizza is deemed a serving of vegetables in school lunch. There is another way of looking at the broad discrepancies in food options today in order to fight the injustices. And it’s something that we all can benefit from every day. Perhaps it’s not so much about identifying what’s “real” or “fresh” food, but food that serves more purpose.

An oft-heard joke goes, “When is a door not a door?” The answer: “When it’s ajar.” The joke works because the word “ajar” sounds just like the speaker is enunciating “a jar,” which is of course a completely different object than a door.

Likewise, we can encounter foods that may sound like, look like, and even taste like, say, juice. But it is instead water and high-fructose corn syrup with food coloring. The food may not supply sufficient Vitamin C, and its additives may even induce undesirable effects, but it satisfies the illusion of juice, and that is its primary purpose. We clearly don’t need more illusions in both food deserts as well as areas of plenty. What we need to come back to is a sense that food does serve a purpose, and to fashion our intake towards those we need most at any given time.

When is a soup not a soup, in my humble opinion? I would say when it’s made with dehydrated crystals of vegetable, meat, and monosodium glutimate, in a packet or bouillion cube. This weakens the resulting soup to a mere substitute for the healthful tonic it can very well be. A soup is especially good for healing, since the hot, liquid nature makes for ready absorption of vitamins and minerals. That is, if there is ample nutrition to be found. Probably, it’s made with the powdered stuff instead of steeping whole foods in broth because it’s lighter, non-perishable, and easier to ship. Is this a purpose you’d like to support most when having some soup?

Next time you sit down to eat, ask yourself, what is the primary purpose for which this food was prepared? Was it to delight and entertain the palate? Was it to quickly stave off hunger, like a peanut butter and jelly slapped together before running out the door? Or was it to turn a quick profit at the consumer’s expense? The answer has much to do with who was responsible for creating that food. If it was you, then you are in better control of making your meal purposeful. And most likely, you will.

At restaurants we see food that serves many purposes, but mostly they fall within the category of entertainment. They delight your palate; they look beautiful; they break creative boundaries; or they provoke wonder, as an intricately wrought plate of “modernist” cuisine might. If you go to a soup kitchen, of which there are many in New York, you’ll see that the purpose of food there is very different. It’s to feed and nourish, first and foremost. That alone is probably entertainment enough if you’re in line. Let’s take a moment, too, to consider that the purposes of entertainment can change over the years and be fickle; lobsters were once reserved for unhappy prisoners and indentured servants in Colonial New England, provoking a “lobster rebellion.” Nowadays, the creature is destined for indulging only those who can afford on a tasty meal. In other parts of the world, offal are delicacies, while in some, they’re waste; purslane can grow wild and unnoticed on piles of compost, or be consumed as a trendy salad green. However, some purposes are more lasting no matter what the fashion may be. These, like providing omega-3 fatty acids to protect against heart disease which lobster and most seafood does, serve a greater purpose.

It is my belief that food can satisfy so many bigger purposes than delighting or making one feel no longer full, we should exploit them as much as possible. And besides, the aforementioned two benefits easily come along with making food that serves more purpose, anyway. There is nothing wrong with enjoying food just for the taste or to become full. That’s essentially what a cookie does. Perhaps you’re looking to reward yourself or just celebrate — so be it! Just remember that when cooking, sourcing, or just choosing what to eat, there lies a purpose that you, above anyone else, can decide. Every time.

5 Responses

  1. eemusings
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    Death to that fake cream that comes in supermarket bakery goods and other such items masquerading as fit for consumption.

    My mantra is every meal should be a pleasure, although of course I don’t achieve that.

    I rarely got to eat out growing up, and now that I do more often (by choice, and at conferences and other events) it amazes me how shoddy some catered food can be – not even worth the time to chew.

  2. Meister @ The Nervous Cook
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    You always manage to hit the nail on the head, every time! Eating mindfully is one of the main reasons not only that I don’t eat in restaurants terribly often, but also one of the reasons I always cook enough of my own food to always have something healthy and wholesome available for myself at mealtimes.

    I was just the other day walking past one of those $1 pizza-slice joints — you know, where everybody is standing up holding paper plates covered in grease, drinking Coke out of a can in a tiny corner storefront with all the windows open even though it’s freezing — and it made me so glad to think, “Wow, I have these beautiful leftovers in my bag from the delicious and healthy dinner I made last night with my own two hands…”

    I can’t imagine having to scarf down some crappy pizza at lunchtime just to fuel the rest of my day. I eat deliberately, I savor my food, I enjoy every bite every day. I’d much rather eat and live that way than stand on the corner shaking out a metric ton of garlic powder to mask the taste of mediocrity.

  3. Emily
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    I love this blog post! Having just visited New York City I can attest to all of this being true. Not only does eating at restaurant not always deliver the nutritional value in foods that we would like, and expect, but I always eat too much! When paying for food (especially those expensive meals in NYC) I hate wasting anything! I much rather cook for myself. Can’t wait to try some of the dishes you have blogged about.

  4. Candy
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    This is true of a lot of areas. I have lived in both a rural and urban food desert. It’s interesting because even in cities like Portland, Oregon–a pretty organic-friendly city, there are still large spans of city where there are no affordable options for people to get healthy foods. Other than whole foods or similarly overpriced grocers, there were no grocery stores within a 45 minute bus ride, which is a problem. It makes it hard for people who live on a budget to eat well and healthy, because they see “organic” and automatically think pricey.

  5. lucy
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    I’ve been thinking about food deserts lately too. I live in an area that until recently (read: gentrification) was considered a food desert. It’s poor, yes, but so is Manhattan’s Chinatown or Queen’s Jackson Heights and there you find abundant produce stands. Why the difference?

    There’s been no demand for fresh produce in my area. The poor people here (and it is largely African American) prefer meat and heavily processed foods. As do so many Americans. So, yes, it’s a problem when people are committed to eating healthy or are trying to change their dietary habits, and there’s no fresh food to be found in their ‘hood. But there’s no conspiracy either that excludes poor people from healthier foods. Food desserts are the result of market demand, or rather lack of one.

    The question is: do we want our government interfering in the market forces that lead to food deserts? I’d say “yes” for something this important (for monetary reasons alone; poor diets lead to all kinds of strain on our healthcare system; not to mention humanitarian reasons), but many would avow this paternalistic approach.

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