For a long time, my idea of romance centered around food. From dipping biscuits in a shared cup of masala chai, to eating mouthfuls of steaming hot pulao in candlelight, packing soggy sandwiches and cream rolls for a picnic, and ordering in samosas on lazy Sunday mornings. What we eat together, sits between us, playing an integral but silent role in our lives.
Food is not just a source of nutrition or sustenance for us. Unlike most other animals, we don’t eat only when we are hungry. We eat because it’s time, we eat because everyone else is eating, or because we are bored, or anxious or happy, or too polite to say “no”, or too lazy to throw away the leftovers, or because movies mean popcorn, drinks go with chakna…and sometimes, just because there is chocolate cake in the fridge.
Food brings pleasure, and comfort. When we deny it, we feel an intense desire and pangs of craving. And when we do indulge, it often brings guilt and shame. We view it with both love and suspicion. We eat with our eyes and our nose. Our relationship with food is complex, and exhausting. There was a time, when having food on the table was considered a blessing, but now - is it friend or is it foe?
We are certainly not meant to be adversaries. But modern living doesn’t make it easy. Meat is pumped with hormones, sugar is dangerous, milk is adulterated, fruit is artificially coloured, and vegetables are poisoned with chemicals. Most of the diseases that plague us come from what we eat. And then, there is this nagging issue of weight. A crisp ghee-soaked masala dosa is reduced to a mere number on the calorie scale.
Eating is the most natural thing to do but the truth is it is also one of the most complicated aspects of human behaviour. There are physiological, social, psychological and bio-chemical factors at play. And that’s not all. Age, sex, tradition, habits, religion, even what your mother ate when she was pregnant, all of it impacts your choice. And as if that wasn’t enough, we are constantly seduced by advertisements and the convenience of industrial packaged food. Artificial flavours, colours, emulsifying agents and additives are already very much a part of staple kitchen fare, so the question arises- How long before we begin to start serving artificial food? Where do I draw a line?
Last week, there were reports that a large part of Nestle’s food and drink portfolio did not meet with the recognized standards of health and nutrition. This meant that several guilty bottles and packets in my kitchen cupboard were desperately trying to hide. Over time it gets easy to normalize eating processed, sweet, salty, calorie-rich food. It tends to stealthily creep in, and this has been the case, especially during lockdown. But the leaked memo from a giant food conglomerate, was a grim reminder for me to take a closer look at my plate.
It is confusing. We are bombarded by mixed messages from all sides. What to eat and what not to eat. Eggs, nuts, coffee, fats, carbs…who is the villain, or is there a villain at all? Nutritionists, weight watchers, advertisers, doctors, the food industry, climate scientists, celebrities on Instagram and even my friendly neighbour - everyone has advice to give. Diet fads come and go, the list of ‘superfoods’ grows, as though it is a magic pill that will solve everything. How does one say “yes” or “no”. All of us want strong, sculpted bodies, but being healthy is hard. And being happy, is even harder. How to consistently make the right choice?
The food we eat is nourishment for the body and the soul. We share an intimate relationship, one that we carry till the very end. It must not be tinged with fear, anxiety or fatigue. Diet charts, meal plans or devices must not tell us what to eat and when. We cannot judge, measure and negotiate our way through the plate. Which is why perhaps we must rely on our own needs, intuition and desires.
The human body is a miraculous, wonderful thing, and I am responsible for mine. Pleasure is a delicate balance between what we have and what we want. All I need to do is choose wisely. Which means exploring the many different ways of cooking a humble baigan, ensuring all colours on the dining table, swallowing amla juice each morning, and stretching my toes in strange yoga asanas. But then, I also eat cake.
(The author writes on current affairs, human rights and social trends. She has an MBA from IIM Calcutta and a Chartered Accountant. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine.)