Why I can’t stop worrying about food

This blog post is what happens when you listen to a news report about factory farming, feel disgusted, and then belatedly make the connection between the steak on your plate and this guy here. Do I want to eat cows? Do I need to eat cows? I wish my brain would be quiet on the issue of cows, as I really like hamburgers, but unfortunately it's not that simple.
Flickr // Creative Commons

Disclaimer: I am currently freaking out about meat and reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and my brain is exploding. Please brace yourself for an introspective rant about my eating habits and fear of supermarkets.

Like most people, I inherited many things from my mother. First and foremost, a love of food. In my family, as in many others, food is a source of joy, comfort and love. Sharing a special meal together is our way of celebrating life.

My mother has always valued family meal times above all else. She loves to prepare food for a crowd, and one course is never enough. Our deepest discussions have occurred around the dinner table, with an impressive antipasto platter spread out before us. Cheese and crackers are a family favourite, washed down with wine and always followed by something sweet.

Growing up, food was firstly a source of pleasure, secondly a source of sustenance and nutrition. My mother always prepared healthy, balanced meals, but as a child I was disinterested in vitamin counts and protein content. I ate when I was hungry and food was magical, yet simple.

This began to change as I got older and became more aware of my body. I would love to say I never once worried about my weight or my appearance, but like many teenage girls I went through all sorts of emotions in regards to my image. Food began to take on a different role – it was still joy and celebration, but it was also something more. It was sugar, or it was fat. It was healthy or it was ‘bad’.

On the whole, I shrugged any anxieties off and continued to eat as I had always eaten – a relatively healthy, balanced diet, bar one too many sweet treats and the odd craving for a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

Slowly, as the years went by, I absorbed more and more information about food and nutrition. It’s hard to avoid it, once you start reading magazines and newspapers and cooking your own meals. And as my knowledge grew, I began to discover things that made me feel uncomfortable. Factory farming, artificial flavours, ingredients I couldn’t pronounce.

But, I pushed these things to the back of my mind. I didn’t want to think about them, so I didn’t. I actively chose to ignore inconvenient truths, than to investigate them further. I still do, in many situations.

Recently, however, these inconvenient truths have been harder to ignore. The more I learn about food, the more I question what I eat and why.

What special diet is Jess on now?

My exploration of food has become a bit of a running joke in my family. Recently I caught up with my father and stepmother. They live an 8-hour drive away, so we usually have a lot of ground to cover. After the typical conversation topics – siblings, work, hobbies – my stepmother asked something along the lines of: “So Jess, what are you eating at the moment? Any special diets we need to know about?”

I grinned sheepishly and Tom helpfully interjected: “Well, this week Jess is vegetarian.” (What he really means is that I’m currently going through an existential crisis and I have belatedly realised that beef is actually cow and that cows have beating hearts and minds and I’m not sure how I feel about eating them and other previously sentient beings for dinner).

Anyway.

Not long ago my stepmother’s question may have made me feel defensive or self-conscious, but I know myself well enough now to realise it comes from a place of kindness and genuine curiosity. And of course, humour.

In the past year alone, I have been gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, sugar-free and Paleo – sometimes all at once.

I can see how my family finds this amusing. Especially as I have a tendency to get a bit carried away whenever I start a new health-kick. At the beginning of my gluten-free journey, I was convinced cutting out that pesky little protein was going to revolutionise my life and I would all of a sudden have boundless energy and vitality. I lasted six months before I decided my life was just that much brighter when it included pizza dough and Vogel’s toast.

I also get lazy and overwhelmed and lapse between caring deeply about what I eat and just wanting to enjoy food and focus on the positives.

I want to make one thing clear: I am not experimenting with what I eat to lose weight, although that would be a nice added benefit. My constant exploration of food comes from a much deeper place. For me, food is a question of philosophy and identity. Eating is a choice we make three times a day, if not more. How do my choices reflect my beliefs?  How do my choices reflect the person I want to be, or the world I want to be part of?

Health, ethics and everything in between

My journey to better understand food probably began in earnest when I discovered I had an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. This is a big fancy word for ‘underactive thyroid’. I have had an underactive thyroid since I was 12, but it wasn’t until just last year when I went for a routine check-up that I realised what this actually meant.

My thyroid is slow and does not produce enough thyroxine (crude explanation: the hormone that governs metabolism) on its own. I therefore have to take a synthetic hormone daily. I never questioned why my thyroid was slow – I just accepted that it needed a little bit of help and TLC.

But then a doctor in London informed me that my thyroid was slow because my body was systematically attacking it. For a reason I am yet to understand, my immune system thinks my thyroid is a foreign invader, a threat that needs to be dealt with. So it tries to protect me by destroying it.

Other autoimmune conditions include Type 1 Diabetes, Crohn’s Disease, Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

This revelation shook me. Why would my body attack itself? How can I have so little control over this process? Surely there must be something I can do to improve my health and give my body a chance to recalibrate?

Hello, Dr Google. I spent hours and hours reading about Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and obsessing over ways to improve my wellbeing. I hated the thought of my body attacking my own tissues, and wanted to give it as much support as possible.

But what I uncovered through researching about autoimmune conditions is that being healthy is no longer as simple as eating more fruit and vegetables and getting plenty of sleep.

The more I researched about food and health, the more I realised how flawed the modern food industry is. What are we eating? How can we possibly nourish our bodies when food is sprayed with pesticides and meat is pumped with antibiotics? And where do ethics even come into it?

Food: fuel or fear?

I have been known to have the occasional mental breakdown in a supermarket. The sheer choice of products overwhelms me, as does the fact that each different brand is claiming to be better than the other. I become paralysed with anxiety as I read the backs of labels and try to make the best decision for my health, my wallet and the environment.

All the anxieties I have about food tend to converge into one big panicky mess when I am in a supermarket. To give you an insight into my brain at these moments, here is a list (in no particular order) of what I am thinking about when I am trying to buy food.

  • Fat content/good fats vs bad fats
  • Sugar content/dental health/waistline
  • Artificial flavours/colours/sweeteners
  • Animal welfare/factory farming/death
  • Antibiotics/additives/preservatives
  • Packaging/plastic/landfills/waste
  • Protein content
  • Carbohydrate content/bloating/weight gain
  • Chemicals/pesticides
  • Health/digestion/energy
  • Calorie count
  • Price
  • Convenience
  • Cancer/heart disease/illness
  • Freshness

And probably more. Is this what eating has become? A source of anxiety and fear? Is diet the difference between heart disease and heart health? Will eating processed sausage meat give me cancer? Is there mercury in my tuna?

It all starts with food

I care about social issues, and lately I have been unable to separate the problems of the world from the way I eat.

Okay, that might sound a little dramatic. But let me explain. Long gone are the days when food was simply fuel or sustenance. Food is now a commodity. Food is big business. Food is social, cultural, political, profitable.

And because food is something I consume more often than anything else, I feel it is important that I carefully consider the implications of what I eat not only on my own health, but on the environment and the world as a whole.

I can’t change the world, but I can change my own personal habits. I can make a conscience effort to eat, act and live in a way that aligns with my personal values.

Because I have so much choice, I feel my consumer dollar counts – where will I invest it? What will I choose to eat? And how will I choose to eat?

Will I eat purely for pleasure and enjoyment? Will I eat simply for personal nutrition? Will I let morals enter into the equation? Price, convenience, seasonality?

It would be different if I had no choice, then these concerns would go out of the window and I would eat whatever I could in order to survive.

But I’m not living within that framework, so I must take responsibility for my choices.

This might come across as virtuous and brave, but actually I am writing about it because it exhausts me and terrifies me. I don’t know what’s worse: spending so much time worrying about food, or not worrying about food at all?

Should I adopt the attitude that life is short and just try to enjoy it, even if that means eating chicken pumped with antibiotics or food sprayed with harmful chemicals? Or should I rise above my taste buds and primal desires and try to eat in a way that is healthy and ethical and not destroying life on this planet?

As always, when I am feeling uncertain and confused, I turn to books. I am halfway through reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, a book I have kept at arm’s length for years as I was warned everyone who reads it comes out the other side a vegan.

I don’t really want to be a vegan. I don’t want to be an ‘anything’. I don’t want to have to label what I eat, or follow any rules, or fit in a certain category. I don’t want to be that awkward guest at the dinner table who has weird eating habits. I don’t want to have to say no to trying local specialities when I travel. And most of all, I don’t want to be judged.

I just want to eat in a way that doesn’t harm my body, the environment or other sentient beings.

Why does this feel so difficult and daunting? Is it just me? Do you also worry about these things, or am I overthinking to the extreme?

Writing usually leads me towards some kind of solution, or at least a personal reconciliation. But all I have are questions, questions and more questions.

Does anyone have some answers?

On saying Grace

Homemade gluten free bread

“Isn’t it strange that saying Grace – or thanks, or whatever phrase you wish to use – has become something associated with religion rather than genuine gratitude?”

It’s 11am and I have just eaten breakfast. For the past two weeks I have been working from home, spending the day writing in bed in my pajamas – yes, fulfilling the freelance stereotype down to a tee.

When I get in the zone, hunger often waits. Just one more article, just one more word! So when I finally peel myself away from the screen to eat, I try to stay away from my computer until I’ve finished every bite. Otherwise ‘eating’ will turn into typing a million miles an hour while occasionally shovelling food into my gob. Not attractive, or enjoyable.

So this morning, as I ate my porridge topped with yoghurt and berries, I tried to really concentrate on the taste and texture of the food in front of me.

And I found myself saying Grace.

Not in your traditional way – I wasn’t speaking out loud, and I didn’t have anyone’s hand to hold – but just to myself.  In my head I expressed gratitude for the bowl of deliciousness before me and I felt this moment of intense peace and happiness.

Who was I speaking to? I’m not really sure I would call him (or her!) God. Maybe life, or the universe, or the many souls that contributed to preparing the oats, yoghurt and berries in front of me.

Thank you farmers, delivery drivers, supermarket cashiers, factory workers for allowing me to exchange a small amount of money for priceless nourishment. Thank you weather, life, nature for providing the conditions for food to grow so I don’t go hungry. Thank you cows for giving me milk. Thank you universe for giving me the luck to be born into a safe and harmonious environment, where food is never scarce.

Thank you.

Saying Grace came so naturally to me I was surprised. I didn’t grow up in a religious household, I rarely went to church. I remember staying with relatives and feeling like an outsider when they said Grace because I didn’t know the right words or what to do.

But really, saying thank you for your food, for the life on your plate, should be the most natural thing in the world. Isn’t it strange that saying Grace – or thanks, or whatever phrase you wish to use – has become something associated with religion rather than genuine gratitude?

It has dawned on me lately how much in this life we take for granted. How food has become a source of anxiety for people rather than a gift. Without food and fresh water, we cannot survive.

So I think the least we can do is say thanks.

“London owns you now”: a brief encounter at Borough Market

Birds eye view of London Bridge and river Thames

“This was London, in all its filth and glory. Nostalgic for the past, while yearning to cast off the chains of bygone ages and step forward into the bright utopia of the future.” – Marie Brennan, With Fate Conspire

It’s bitterly cold. I’m wearing double socks, double jumpers, gloves, a scarf, a hat and a thick coat. My feet are numb, my hands frozen. I feel fantastic.

Holding a fresh baguette to go with my recently purchased mushroom paté, I’m trudging through Borough Markets with my godmother Nicola and soaking up the smells. Giant fry pans filled to the brim with Spanish paella bubble before me. A few steps over is a vat of Thai chicken curry, bright orange like the sunset. The oil has risen to the top and formed a glossy red film. It looks delicious.

Around the corner and I stumble across a saucisson vendor slicing thin pieces of cured meat with extraordinary care. “Made with local ingredients!” says the seller in a thick French accent. “Three for ten pounds! A bargain!” I can’t justify the purchase but I try a slice. Rich and flavoursome, it melts in my mouth and takes me right back to France. A few stalls over and there’s five different cheesemongers. The smell is so thick I can almost taste the cheese. Comté, blue vein, emmental. Then there are the butchers, exchanging game for cash as pheasants hanging over their stalls, feathers still fresh. Slabs of meat resting in chillers. Fat roast chickens glistening on spits.

Then meat is replaced with chickpeas, raw vege salads, the bright colours of beetroots, courgettes, carrots. At a fruit and vege stall Nicola picks up a bulb of garlic so huge it’ll cost her more than a cup of excellent coffee; she chooses coffee. Around another corner and you have stacks of brownies waiting to be devoured, artisan handmade chocolate sold by the ‘chunk’, moist gluten-free fig and orange cake, marshmallows, fudge, ice cream, sweets galore.

Whatever you feel like eating, you can find it here. Vendors battle for customers by trying to make their food look and smell as appetising as possible. You can try before you buy. But what you see is usually what you get – no walking away feeling bitterly disappointed with your purchase, the food really is as good as it looks. A stall selling melted Raclette and potatoes wins my six pounds. A new market assistant is being trained. A man in his early fifties, his hands are shaking slightly as he places half a giant wheel of Raclette directly under the grill. The inside of the wheel – where the knife sliced the circle in half – faces the heat, resting in a special metal holder. Slowly it melts and once the top is golden brown and bubbling, he takes it out. Carefully, holding the entire semi-circle of cheese, he scrapes the melted layer over potatoes under the careful guidance of his manager. It’s an intricate process and he needs a few tries. The end result is pale yellow slop on a white paper plate, topped with a few gherkins and a sprinkle of salt. Simple, unpretentious and utterly divine.

Nicola orders a roast duck wrap and chicken gyozas topped with chilli oil and we sit in the sun outside Southwark Church enjoying every last bite. The sun is warm but the air is cold; our bums go numb against the concrete bench. In weather like this, the hot food feels nourishing and fulfilling – not just for our bellies, but for our soul. I’m not a Londoner. Yet.  I’m homesick most days, yearning for views of Rangitoto Island and the sight of the sea. The beauty of New Zealand cannot compete with London’s mish mash of historic buildings and littered streets, grand walkways and dark alleys. Much of the city is dirty and brown and brick. But it’s full of life.

And in places like Borough Markets, where people don hats and gloves and brave the winter to banter with local shopkeepers and devour delightful food, you can’t help but see beauty everywhere you look. It’s in the faces of those who turn up in the cold, day after day, to urge people to taste their fresh goat’s cheese or to sell just one more stick of chorizo. It’s in the faces of the visitors, the tourists snapping photos with their big SLR cameras, and in the locals who purchase the same thing from the same vendor every week. But mostly it’s in the food – the bright colours, the smells, the presentation. It’s in the way food brings people together.  No matter how cold it is outside, how bitter the wind or grey the sky, there doesn’t seem to be anything a hot meal can’t cure.

After finishing our food we pop into Southwark Church for a quick reprieve. One minute we are in the thick of the markets surrounded by people; the next we are in a breathtakingly beautiful building with walls dating back to the 12th century. This is London – the contrast between now and then, the coexistence of the modern with the ancient, the hustle and bustle alongside the serious. Eventually we leave and wander back through the markets.

Satiated after our meals we manage to resist further temptation and instead find ourselves admiring a stall selling aprons and bags. Out from behind the counter comes a large, balding man with reddish skin and a faint scar on his right cheek. He has cheerful eyes and a cheeky presence. I couldn’t understand the words that tumbled out of his mouth at first, his accent was so thick. But Nicola was hooting with laughter. He smiled at my confused face and asked where I was from. New Zealand. He chuckles. “Ahh, London owns you now,” he said. “Yer never gonna leave. I’m from Liverpool, I came to London for a little while, I thought. I’ve been living in London for 25 years.”

Before I can protest that Liverpool is not quite New Zealand, he continues. “Soon from now, maybe in 12 months, yer gonna go back home to New Zealand, and yer gonna be in a lovely cafe and yer gonna be talking to someone. And all they’re gonna want to talk abou’ is their sister’s leg operation. And yer gonna start thinking about London, and it’s music, it’s theatre, it’s food. And yer gonna be back. London owns you now.” He goes on for a bit and I enjoy listening to him talk, seeing London through his eyes. This red-faced market man with a gruff exterior and a cheeky spirit, addicted to the life and energy of the city. And of course I’m sceptical – the thought of a place owning me is ridiculous. I own me.

But then a small part of me can see how it could happen. How the buzz and energy of London could pull you in and never spit you back out. I know I’ll never give up the blue sea and beaches of back home, the luxury of never living more than a short drive from the water. But maybe I’ll let the lure of London reel me in for now; in a city like this, the only way to enjoy the grit and brick is to fully surrender to its charms.