When the ice box is also the medicine cabinet

Julie Powell, authoress of the Julie/Julia Project, my favorite blog that I don’t write for, has been having a rough time of it lately. Well, as long as I’ve been reading the blog she’s had one rough time or another–not infrequently descending into bouts of self-pity that leave her screaming obscenities or banging her head against a wall. And, like all great writer/cooks, she takes to the sauce a bit when things get particularly rough, or at least when friends come over for dinner. But she’s been sick the last week or so, and cooking less lately, and philosophizing more in her daily entries.

A thought from a recent post really hit me, though.

“So last night, eating fried dumplings and Szechuan beef that I can’t taste or easily swallow because of my cold, which is probably a good thing, I got to thinking about food and depression. Here’s my thought, born of some circuitous sad-sack thought patterns: I think that in order to really care about food, you have to have experienced depression, or at least great difficulties. This is not to say that everyone who’s depressed is a gourmet, of course. But most of the people I know who really, sincerely happy most of the time are also profoundly uninterested in food. Food for them is just fuel to get them through the next day at the beach. Whereas people who’ve experienced great pain, either self-inflicted or not, sometimes come to the preparation and eating of great food as both a comfort and an affirmation of life, sometimes much needed and hard to find.

Or then again, maybe everybody’s fucking miserable, and some of them also like to eat.”

Ok, so I’m sure this is no new or profound thought, but it got me started on thinking about how true this is of the great food writers at least, if not of all people who like to eat. Food, at least for a food writer, is the inspiration for art, but without some connection to life, well, you’re just writing a glorified cookbook or another memoir. It’s the key difference that makes Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone or MFK Fisher’s Gastronimical Me so moving, and Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun merely a fun read about fulfilling a fantasy about moving to Europe and buying an old farm.

Now I’m not saying that Mayes’ book isn’t good. I enjoyed it. It made me want to live in Tuscany for a while, and certainly to cook in Tuscany, but it also gave me the impression that it was written by a priveleged intellectual living out a dream and just sort of stating the obvious–that it’s fun to do that. There are recipes throughout the book, and she pays a fair amount of attention to appreciating the local, seasonal produce available to her, but it’s all in this detached cerebral way that’s fine for making the point about how there are plenty of cool things about getting to live in a villa in an ancient Italian town.

Fisher, on the other hand, is a woman who did know great pain. She left a bland marriage in order to be with the great love of her life who almost immediately began falling apart–literally–from Buerger’s disease. Though they had several happy years together, living deeply throughout Europe and the US, for much of it he was in an agony that eventually caused him to commit suicide. Fisher wrote one of the most beautiful and moving tributes to the comforting power of food about an event several months after this episode. She’d traveled to Mexico to visit her brother. Since her love’s death she’d been unable to feel anything, and her description of the bland little packets of food that everyone else on the plane was happily munching and which she couldn’t bring herself to touch highlights how without that love that she’d risked everything for, she wasn’t sure she could find anything to suck out of life anymore.

Upon arriving in Mexico, she stops at a hotel for a night and decides to try to eat something in the restaurant, where they bring her tourist food, Americanized and bland, and she can’t bring herself to touch that either for the same reasons she couldn’t stomach the meal on the plane. Her waiter, realizing that she is so deeply sad and in need of comfort as much as nutrition, brings her a bowl of the beans and tortillas that the kitchen staff are eating. For the first time in months, Fisher tastes and enjoys.

You have to be just a little bit awed by the weight of that moment. The simplest food, the everyday staple of poor people in a poor country, had the power to bring a woman back to life.

Food as medicine is really something of a complex idea. For one thing, it is just that in the literal sense. We all need the vitamins and nutrients in the food we eat for our bodies’ natural functioning to continue. And various foods that we eat do have medicinal values–ginger, for example, is good at alleviating nausea (as is the nectar in canned peaches, something I’ve never understood by swear by). There are even studies demonstrating the scientific reasons why a bowl of chicken soup is helpful in fighting off colds.

But te point where food becomes medicine in the figurative sense is where mom’s homemade chicken soup has the greater impact in making you feel better than a microwaved can of Campbells.

It makes sense how food, and homecooking in particular, can be therapeutic to a cook. It’s a creative outlet, involves a process you can throw yourself into with as much energy as you need to, and it has an immediate, tangible result to the labor, which is satisfying in a way that many other pursuits people use to lift their spirits–running, for example–can’t offer.

For the eater, though, the therapeutic value of food, and even more so, the importance it has in one’s ability to be happy, is something entirely different, more readily compared to activities that are based in emotion. So it’s no surpise that food is used so often in literature and art as a metatphor for things that strike us deeply–love, sex, motherhood, and nostalgia, to name a few. Food stimulates pleasure on the physical level, on an emotional level, and when made with the specific eater in mind, it can stimulate on something like a flattering level.

So the question, getting back to the statement that prompted this ramble in the first place, is why certain people can be moved by tastes and others are not. Fisher things it has some amount to do with the age and experience of the person. I disagree with Fisher mostly. I’ve known well-traveled adults who could take or leave nearly any item on their dish, and I’ve known children to go into near rapture over a bowl of garlicky mushrooms. If I’m interpreting Julie’s statement above correctly, she would say it has something to do with the person’s ability to let their emotions rule them, that in order to allow yourself to be transported with joy, you also have to allow yourself to suffer. And by suffering, I don’t mean that you need to have the most traumatic experiences, but that you allow yourself to be affected deeply by your experiences, even the negative ones. And what is more exhilarating than being lifted from the bottom of dispair to some unexpected height of pleasure?

2 thoughts on “When the ice box is also the medicine cabinet”

  1. Is it as simple as saying that food lovers experience (and/or produce) food as art, and that thus foodies share in the artistic temperment– with its well-known intimate connection of emotional highs and lows with art? That’s probably an oversimplification– but in any case, I don’t find the connection you posit odd in the least.

    The other connection for me is between food and family– and of course for most people family is the great source of both joy and pain. The preparation and sharing of food is, for many of us, the most tanglible evidence of love we can offer, and as such is bolted to the joys and sorrows inherent in love.

  2. After losing a lot of weight a few years ago, I’ve noted to myself and others that part of my problem—if not the problem—is the wondrous variety of foods available. It seems like studies of healthy, lean populations always focus on what is eaten without ever noting the sheer boredom the lack of variety must produce. One would need to be truly in need of nurishment to eat the same thing every damn day.

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