This holiday season, many of us will venture into enemy territory.
By that I mean, of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanza meals with our families.
We may go in with the best of intentions. If we’re disciplined, we’ll have planned our personal menus, stocked up on whole-food, plant-based fare, practiced saying no to roast chicken, visualized not getting riled by Uncle Dave’s insensitive jibes about bacon being the fountain of youth, and girded ourselves to represent the plant-based movement to a bunch of people we love but may feel profoundly disconnected from.
I’ve done that dance for decades.
The thing that got me started on my plant-based journey was Diet for a New America, by John Robbins.
I was 24 in 1990, and had just lost my father to a heart attack. Up to that point I had no concept whatsoever of nutrition, or health, or environmental degradation, or animal suffering. I don’t even remember why I was drawn to the book in the first place. I just saw it on a display shelf at Barnes & Noble and picked it up.
I’m glad I did. The book altered forever the trajectory of my life.
I went vegan overnight. I stopped eating anything with processed sugar. I dropped 21 pounds and wore (for the first and so far the last time in my life) Gap jeans with a 31-inch waist.
Ultimately, after many twists and turns, I became a spokesperson for the plant-based lifestyle (aka professional veggie-eater).
And here’s the funny thing. I can’t remember anything about the content of the book. I’m sure there was stuff about the big three: health, animals, environment. I imagine that John Robbins told his own story about walking away from an ice cream fortune to pursue his truth.
But nothing remains in my memory.
With one exception: a rhyming couplet that has stayed with me for nearly 30 years:
Better franks and beer with thanks and cheer
Than sprouts and bread with doubts and dread.
Now, coming from a book that was promoting full-on vegan living, that stopped me in my tracks. Was he really saying that a junk-food diet consisting of processed meat and alcohol, consumed with gratitude and joy, was preferable to healthy sprouts and whole grains eaten in fear?
On the face of it, yes.
In the context of the full arc of the book, however, the point becomes clear: you can eat your sprouts and bread (and beans and carrots and celery and sweet potatoes and lentils and humus and salsa and brown rice and kale and quinoa) with thanks and cheer as well.
In fact, it’s much easier to be cheerful and grateful when the food that fills us is appropriate to our biology, ethically sourced, and consumed with loved ones.
So today I want to talk not about the quality of the food we eat, but the qualities of mind and heart that we bring to our tables.
And to be clear, I’m writing this article for myself as much as for you. These are words I not only need to say, but hear. Repeatedly.
A charming Jewish tale
A woman eating in a restaurant is overcome with delight by the aromas, tastes, and textures of her meal. She calls the waiter over and thanks him for the food.
“Don’t thank me,” he replies. “Thank the chef.”
The chef is brought out, and receives the woman’s gratitude. “Don’t thank me; thank the distributor who brought the ingredients.”
Given a phone number (this tale is pre-internet), the woman expresses her appreciation for the fresh produce and piquant herbs and spices that comprised her meal.
“Don’t thank me,” says the distributor. “Thank the farmer.”
And so a trip to the farm ensues (a la Portlandia). And this time comes the ultimate answer: “Don’t thank me. Thank God.”
Dancing with the Mystery
No, this article isn’t an attempt at proselytizing. You can substitute whatever you like for the G-word: nature, spirit, The Way, Sweet Mystery of Life, it’s all good.
But as a committed ecological gardener, I will stand by one aspect of the force that causes seeds to turn into carrots and broccoli and okra: it’s pretty freaking amazing.
We can’t force or command that force. We can only hope and live in ways that we believe are in concert with it.
That’s why every earth-bound civilization knows (or knew) gratitude. You can’t ‘not’ when you’re so close to the very start of the food chain. When the survival of the clan depends on the sun and the rain, the movement of animals, and other forces outside your control, you get very good at not taking anything for granted.
Something good comes along, and you appreciate the hell out of it because that’s just good manners. And just like saying please and thank you, good manners tend to get you more of the good stuff in the future.
We moderns don’t often think about food metaphysically. We can obsess about flavor (foodie), nutrition (plant-based), ethics (vegan), or carbon and pollution footprint (environmentalist), but we are rarely compelled to encounter food as a gift from a mysterious and benevolent source.
So we can do what would be unthinkable to indigenous peoples: we can eat mindlessly. We can eat while harboring anger and disappointment and fear and disgust. (Try being the only vegan at a cookout, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.) And we can eat without the slightest nod to the symphonic majesty that is nutrition: our flesh encountering sustenance and turning it into ourselves.
I first thought about the miracle that is eating when I began working on Whole, with T. Colin Campbell.
Dr. Campbell is a scientist.
And yet, when he describes nutrition, he gets positively misty. He talks about the symphony of chemical reactions, the marvelous perfection of the dynamic systems that keep us alive and vibrant, the awe-inspiring complexity-beyond-
He talks this way not because he’s a man of faith, but because he’s a man of science. He’s spent over five decades peering into the mysteries of biochemistry and has emerged a deeply humbled man. While some find wonder through meditation, or drugs, or grace, Dr. Campbell climbed the mountain of reductionist scientific research to gaze upon the wholistic nature of reality laid out before him.
Thus challenged by my co-author and mentor’s perceptions, I began to see the miraculous in a single bite of broccoli. The wonder of the amylase in my saliva. The sheer improbability of living on such a hospitable planet, where gravity and oxygen and temperature are calibrated to my narrow band of need. Where the earth brings forth food in abundance (most of the time). Where the savage and beautiful survival dance has produced a resilient variety of plant, animal, and fungus beyond imagining.
Which brings me back to the sprouts and bread. (And kale and Sriracha and nooch.)
There’s a robust body of research on the beneficial effects of gratitude. On health (people who are instructed to keep gratitude journals exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, get more and better sleep, and have more energy), mood (gratitude journal-keepers are happier, less depressed, and more optimistic, with corresponding changes observable in brain chemistry), and life success (more progress toward important goals, more and better friendships, enhanced empathy and reduced aggression).
If that were a pill (as we lifestyle advocates like to say about all sorts of things), it would be a blockbuster.
And yet, it’s as simple as conscious appreciation of the facts. Of the myriad forces and people and systems that operate more or less flawlessly and continuously to put food in our stores, our plates, and our bellies. To, as gratitude researcher Robert Emmons so lyrically puts it, count our “blessings vs. burdens.”
Vitamin G is instantly available to us in the perfect dose in every moment, when we can turn our attention from what’s wrong to what’s right.
Don’t worry: what’s wrong doesn’t go away when we avert our eyes for a moment. It will still be there, I promise.
The factory farms that produce the turkey on the table in front of you will still be cranking away.
The pesticides that lace the apples in the Shop-Rite pie will still be sprayed on orchards throughout the world.
The disingenuous marketing by Danone and Kraft and Coca-Cola will still be confusing and corrupting dietitians and laypeople.
But we don’t have to ingest that anger and fear along with every bite we choose to chew and swallow.
At the same time we guard our bodies from unnatural, unhealthy, cruelty-laced food, we can guard our hearts from the chemical army of stress that accompanies rage and dread.
There are always blessings to count.
I’m a how-to kind of writer, usually. I like articles with “3 tips for this” and “7 strategies for that.”
And I suppose I can come up with a 3-part plan for engendering gratitude. Journaling seems to work, at least according to the researchers who use it as a proxy for gratitude in their subjects.
Maybe meditation is your way, or time spent in nature, or in religious contemplation.
Rather than give you an artificial road map to appreciative enlightenment (if I had one, I’d surely be following it myself!), I kind of think that each of us finds our own path once we make the simple decision to be more grateful than disturbed.
Perhaps this is what punk bard Elvis Costello meant when he sang, “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.” (It’s a start, anyway.)
As for me, as I explore wonder and worry, joy and judgment, peace and panic, I begin to see the ever-present invitation to choose.
Am I to deliver a blessing or a curse? A yum or a yuck?
My holiday blessing for all of us is that, wherever we find ourselves, whomever we’re sitting with, and whatever is served, we will find the strength to choose wonder, joy, and peace.