We’re finally here, at our last instalment (or at least last instalment for now) of the Little Words series. These little one word episodes have taken us through so much of our inner world as it relates to food. We’ve talked about our feelings towards change and the patience required when making any shifts that have to do with food or anything else that might be going on in our lives. We’ve talked about our relationship with excess, labels and our way of eating, we’ve discussed fear, and one of my favorites so far, ease, and how two little mantra questions can help us so much when we’re on this journey to improving our relationship with food. I told you we were leaving one of my favorite words for last and that is of course, food.
I must say upfront that we won’t be talking about delicious ingredients or comfort food in this episode, we’re instead going to talk about the things that have been taken out of the equation and which have been substituted by rules, rigidity, worry, fear of foods, stress, guilt and punishment when not behaving as we think we need to with food. Instead of these now very common spotlights we shine on our food, we’ll be looking into some of the things we’ve taken for granted, especially in recent years. Things like gratitude for having delicious food on the table, things like the privilege that lies behind being able to make specific food choices (being vegan included), things like the joys of eating and cooking, things like bringing food and eating back down to its simple basics, and how food can bring us together. How we, in spite of the enormous love we might have for food, cooking and nutrition, can also set it aside and use our energy for the many other things that fill our lives.
We talk a lot about our relationship with food in our blog and podcast, from the huge help it will be to the planet to make more plant-based choices, whatever that may mean for you, to how to find a more joyful place with food once again, letting it be simple, re-connecting with your own body’s signals and putting yourself back in the driver’s seat when it comes to making food choices. When I sat to write down the 7 little words that would make up this series meant to help you on this journey, I knew exactly how I wanted to end it. I wanted to strip it down to an even more basic place. I wanted to talk about how we’ve overcomplicated that lovely thing we call food, when in fact food’s place in our lives should first and foremost come from a place of gratitude.
A bit of storytelling
As you know, Carlos and I were born and raised in Venezuela, a country right at the tippy top of South America, with a full and extensive coast bordering the gorgeous Caribbean Sea. Although we both had very different upbringings, and come from a different type of family (mine is a family of immigrants not originally from there, his with many more generations of Venezuelans behind him), we both share so many stories that of course bind us together. From the names of local snacks and cartoons we used to watch as kids, to the cakes and desserts served at every single birthday party ever attended. We share stories of enormous fruit trees in backyards we would climb and eat from until we got a stomach ache or our gums went numb. We even share parties we went to as teenagers, probably brushing past each other on our way to get a drink without having a single clue we would be spending most of our lives together a few years later.
We now also share the experience of having become immigrants and living in another country, turning me into a 4th generation immigrant, since my family managed to arrive in Venezuela by way of Argentina, by way of Brazil, by way of Poland, by way of Russia, making me the only person in my family to have actually been born in the country many of us in my family called home for so many years. Carlos’s family comes from a different background, with different associations and a slightly different cultural heritage when it comes to food, and yet there were always so many similarities between his family and mine and the food on our plates.
Our early experiences with food create a deep mark within us, and our culture and traditions with food are a big part of that. Many people who have family members who lived through war, poverty or a big recession, probably grew up hearing all about how you had to clean up your plate. You probably grew up saying grace before a single pea could be touched. You probably got told off by grandmas who would tell you how they would have been lucky to have even some stale bread on the table as a kid. Others, who had families like mine who managed to escape their home countries right in the brink of war to find a home in a new country, probably passed along life lessons about adapting to a new place, about always smiling and being friendly, about joining as many clubs and classes and social events as you could find to try to acclimate and learn the new language, about how to make the local foods, how to dance the typical dances, while never forgetting what came before.
In my family, I didn’t have a lot of life lessons about cleaning my plate. Food instead was the biggest source of joy, celebration and community. Everything was celebrated with food. Anyone who crossed the door was fed something, and was sent with a care package home. There would be no gathering without something to share at the table, and never once did I hear the words, guilt, calories, diet, waist, cellulite or anything else of the sort at the table or after it. Our table was filled with Venezuelan dishes, Brazilian delicacies, hearty Russian stews, and Polish sausages, as a little tribute to every place that had ever been home or that had served as a jumping off point for the next. Because it was almost a miracle when my family got together (everyone lived scattered across the world when I was growing up), food was served in a blissful and happy environment and it was cooked as a form of celebration as well, with the cooking itself being just as important as the eating.
Without realizing it, I spent a childhood enjoying and admiring the joy and community food would bring, then going into adulthood with the gratitude I felt for being able to make vegan choices that would help our planet, but also very much aware that this abundance of great experiences with food, was not the reality for so many people across the world. After being a volunteer alongside my mother for many years in Venezuela and out, I have always felt so much compassion and concern for anyone who struggles to put food on the table, to anyone struggling with so many basic needs that are just not being met, and the fear and worry this causes a family.
So many countries around the world have been struggling with food insecurity for years and still are. What many people don’t know is that possibly in the majority of nations, even where there seems to be an abundance of food, there are always segments of the population who are struggling with poverty, or who don’t have access to fresh foods. It can be startling to learn how the same countries that have created things like the pancake burger or who have hotdog eating contests can also have families who can barely afford to put food on the table, let alone make healthier choices when it comes to food.
Food insecurity is a world issue, it happens in many countries on a massive scale, and in others in smaller corners of society, usually where minorities live, and where other social justice issues abound.
These are just some of the reasons why when I talk about veganism I talk about it with many shades of gray. It’s also why I’m vegan myself, because I am very grateful to be able to do so in place of someone whose basic needs have to be taken care of first.
It can be so easy for us to place judgements on our own way of eating and that of others, and it can be so easy to get caught up in body image issues and perfectionism with eating when so many of our basic needs are already covered. This is not supposed to make us feel ashamed or apologetic of our privilege, but on the other hand, what I want us to see is that food has another side to it. This is the sweet part. A side that has much less to do with grams of fat, protein, calculation of macros or calories consumed or burned off. A side without any concerns of whether a food was pulled out from the Earth and put on the plate, or is a little bit processed, or somewhat processed or very much so. A side where food isn’t associated with guilt or pain (and trust me, there is also much to say about the very serious suffering of someone who is struggling with the stigma of being overweight, or who is struggling with an eating disorder and their mental health or physical health around food). A side that isn’t associated with a list of rules, of timetables, of measuring cups or scales. This other side of food, which rarely gets talked about (especially now that we’re knee deep in the clean-eating era), has to do with pure joy, connection, gratitude, presence and peace of mind.
Having had all these experiences with food growing up, still, this did not make me immune to the fear mongering, food phobia, to the food police, calorie counting, and obsession over food and body that so many of us have experienced. I’m now happily on the other side, and I can eat a croissant with the same joy and same lack of guilt as if I ate an apple, but that took time and all the tools I share here in this space. It also took a shift in perspective.
Shining a different spotlight on food
Everything we do, everything we work on, everything we talk about and everything we struggle with, can have a completely different look from a different vantage point.
When we’re in a position of privilege when it comes to getting enough food, and even more so when we’re even higher in our position of privilege in that we can make choices when it comes to food, we can see food from many different angles.
Today I want you to shift the spotlight on food a little bit. I want you to notice that your relationship with food, the way you eat or the choices you make aren’t absolute truths about you, and that in fact food is quite neutral in and of itself. Because so many things can shift within us when we simply shift our perspective, we’re going to try to shine a different spotlight on food during the next few days, and see what happens.
We can turn off the bright spotlight that was shining on food with the colors of guilt, rules, shame of overeating, body shame, perfection, intricate math calculations and worry, and turn on the spotlight that is all about gratitude for the food we have on the table, the joy that a full belly can bring as opposed to the worry of overeating or making the wrong choice. The joy that comes when it feeds those we love, and that we might be a part of preparing that and sharing that pleasure with all of them. We can turn off the spotlight on food that says “struggle” when it comes to cooking, shopping or making food choices, and we can turn on the one that shines on about all the pleasures of turning ingredients into something wickedly delicious, of bringing people together, of being the 4th or 5th or 10th generation that is cooking the same old family recipe. We can shine on the spotlight that reminds us of the value and privilege that many of us have to make a choice that will help create a safer world for other human beings, the animals and our planet (as in buying ethically sourced products, making more vegan choices or being vegan), understanding that it’s ok when others can’t make this choice yet.
Boy does that plate of food look differently when we turn off those first spotlights and instead flip the switch on the second ones.
Food for me now is the greatest source of gratitude, the fact that I have been able to make a food choice according to my beliefs is the greatest source of gratitude, the fact that I was able to let go of rigidity, guilt and shame when it came to my relationship with food is the greatest source of peace of mind and heart. The fact that I can create delicious recipes to share with all of you that come from the deepest place of love for food my family instilled in me with no guilt-trip attached, is the biggest source of joy.
A little homework to round off this series
For your little homework this week, I just want you to think of a giant spotlight when you have a food in front of you. Picture it turning itself off with all old negative beliefs about yourself or the food, and then shine a new one on. Remember all of the different wonderful things associated with the food and that moment of eating from that whole other perspective that is always there for you to reach for, and see what happens. Practice this again and again and the simple awareness and pause before you eat will put you in a completely different place with food, and perhaps, with time, will give you the little pleasures and joys my family taught me when I was growing up.
This final post of the series is dedicated to all my dear Venezuelan friends and family. Those who have left and miss their home. Those who have stayed and said goodbye to friends, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers. Those who have left and have loved ones still there, and especially to all of those who in my home country or around the globe might be struggling with poverty, hunger or food insecurity, or any lack of safety for that matter. I hope abundance will be once again found ahead and that we can all help create a safer world for you.
As a little tribute to the country that welcomed my family who arrived there with nothing but a few suitcases and some toddlers, where I spent my strange and also magical childhood, and where I met the love of my life (you know who that is), we’ve posted this recipe for one of our country’s most popular dishes, it was the only little post that interrupted this Little Words series, and with that we sign off until next time, with that little magical word we call food.
How easy it seems now, to look at the plate of food in front of us and say:
“Oh… wow… thank you.”