Speaking Out, Part One

{I’m away this week. In addition to the delights of being with family & friends, I had the opportunity to speak to a MOPS group in New Jersey. I’m going to share some of the talk with you here. If I get my tech stuff together, I might even go all fancy and post it as a podcast so you can hear my squeaky little voice.}

So, I’ve struggled with how to organize this talk because I feel like there are two sides of me that I bring together in my writing, and each one is the “real me.” The first side is the person who likes to tell stories and to find the humor in things. The second is the geeky side that likes to read and research things and find facts. Sometimes I’m able to strike a balance between the informing and fact finding and the story-telling, sometimes, I lean too far to one side or the other. So I hope that today our time together can have some of that balance.

What I would like to talk about today is food. Specifically, eating together as families. More specifically, how central and shaping and important that can be in your life and your child’s life. I happen to think that how we view food tells us a lot about how we view ourselves. How we relate to our families. Even how we relate to God.

I grew up a Christian, with a pastor for a dad to boot, but my mom is Jewish. And I don’t know how well you might know the Jewish stereotypes, but we are a people that have a notorious love for eating and for worrying. So, you know, the little gatherings of my mom and her best friends (Jews, too, by the way) involved bagels, and cream cheese, and lox, or Danish pastries and coffee, or Chinese food, or whatever, but it’s like, here are all these women, different sizes, different shapes–and they’re enjoying their food, but at the same time, they’re worrying. They’re like, punishing themselves for eating. Like, “this is great, but I shouldn’t be eating it, I’m fat” or “I’ll take JUST A SLIVER of that cheesecake” or eating two different kinds of cake while insisting on Sweet N Low and skim milk for their coffee–not because they like it that way, but because they’re “cutting calories.”

I was quite a thin child. And it wasn’t like I tried to be that way. Actually, I’ve always loved food. And I didn’t think of my body as something that I had “shaped” in anyway, because, you know, kids tend not really to think like that. But always, always, I was aware of one big thing: when you got to be a grownup (or at least, more grownup, you had to punish yourself over the food that you ate. Calories were BAD. Fat was BAD. Even seemingly harmless BREAD and PASTA became BAD. I would eat whatever I wanted, sure, and stayed thin, probably because that’s just how I was. But older women would tell me: “just you WAIT. when you get OLDER you won’t be able to EAT LIKE THAT.”

I began to think that I was something like a self-inflating life jacket. You know, the kind where you pull a valve or something on this flat thingy and slowly but surely it, you know, inflates? I was just kind of waiting for a valve to blow and suddenly I’d have a body that I’d hate, because pretty much all the grown up women I knew hated their bodies, or, at the very least, didn’t like them and beat themselves up over them and did weird things with food and diet. I mean, I even kind of wondered not whether but WHEN I would start going to Weight Watchers meetings myself. (My mom had been a lifetime member.)

What happened next is not that interesting, just because it’s the story of disorder that’s, sadly, more normal than abnormal in our culture. I began to fear food, began to overexercise, just generally developed an obsession. And it had a kind of religious significance, because the Christian diet plans were making their rounds in those days. So I felt like I had to be “Slim for Him,” that there needed to be “More of Jesus, Less of Me,” that I had to “listen for God” to tell me what and whether to eat, and so on. I counted calories and fasted and “did penance” for my indulgences with exercise and, you know, pretty much punished myself for everything I ate. I can remember many days in high school when I’d get by on an apple for breakfast, a banana for lunch, with diet cokes in between, and then only at the end of the day allow myself to eat dinner, and I’d still be anxiously counting calories and figuring out how many sit-ups I still needed to do before bed.

I have to condense the story here, but I want to tell you two things that helped me get to the place I am now, which, admittedly is not perfect, but which is undoubtedly a much, much happier place, a place where I can have the occasional chocolate croissant with a cup of coffee with cream and not feel “dirty” or like I need to go run 6 miles to “get rid of it.”

And for you readers, you’ll just have to return to get the rest of the story…

Film Review: “The Help” and The Supper of the Lamb

Last summer, I listened to the brilliant audiobook edition of The Help, and loved it so much that when I got to the end, I started again at the beginning.
So when I heard that a film version was in the works, I was terrified that it would be a disappointing botch-job of a book that moved me alternately to laughter and tears; stills and previews from the film made me fear that Hollywood would make the white woman (Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, no relation to me) the heroine in a story that, in so many ways, belongs to the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi. So often, film adaptations of books disappoint me by retaining a book’s external trappings and missing its spirit. (The Lord of the Rings, to me, does not capture the spirit of Tolkien’s books; by contrast, the Anne of Green Gables films change up L.M. Montgomery’s plot while retaining an essential Anne-ness.)

I was not disappointed. The filmmakers did a beautiful job of condensing all that I loved about The Help–no short novel at 544 pages–into two and a half hours of hilarity, heartbreak, and human drama. To my mind, a big part of what makes a successful adaptation is the degree to which the filmmakers are willing to take license with the story in order to tell it in a way that is particular to the medium of film. So instead of lengthy scenes demonstrating Skeeter’s deep relationship with the maid who raised her, Constantine (a remarkable Cicely Tyson), the film gives us brief glimpses–Constantine braiding Skeeter’s hair on the steps of her rundown house, Constantine’s old fingers touching the marks on her doorframe that have measured Skeeter’s growth over the years–visual impressions that powerfully evoke an intimate and loving relationship.

So much of the book (and the film) uses basic bodily functions to communicate both the shared humanity of and gulf of separation between blacks and whites in 1960s Mississippi. References to taming hair and clothes to meet societal expectations are pervasive, as are motifs and themes related to toilet functions. Present (but in the book, less emphasized) is the motif of food and the theme of shared eating. I’m particularly tuned in to food issues, of course, but there was no missing the way in which the film capitalized on images of shared and segregated eating and drinking. The black maids must take care of their physical needs furtively and shamefully–sneaking a bite of deviled egg on the sly–all the while pampering the appetites of their white employers. Hilly Holbrook (a smoothly hateful Bryce Dallas Howard), will gorge herself on the food cooked by her maid, Minnie (Octavia Spencer, who voiced the same character on the audiobook), but expects her to use a designated outdoor one–even during a tornado. The film portrays the shame and belittlement of this segregation in cinematic shorthand.

Octavia Spencer ("Minnie")

Where the film goes beyond the book (in its portrayal of food and eating), it aligns strikingly with my own understanding of a biblical theology of food. So much of food and eating, within the Bible, touches on issues of poverty, justice, community, and inclusion. In virtually every culture, sharing food non-ceremonially is an important indication of welcome and friendship; Jesus’ ministry emphasized the importance of eating with those who are different as a way of not just symbolizing—but, in fact actually practicing the kind of equality and unity that he proclaimed. Early Christian writers, too,  claimed that sharing life, including meals, with persons of different backgrounds was a “proof” of true Christian faith. So when the outcast “white trash” Celia Foote (an effervescent Jessica Chastain) drinks a cold Coca-Cola with Minnie, it’s a foretaste not only of the meals she’ll later insist on sharing with (and then cooking for) Minnie, but a foretaste, too, of the coming healing, reconciliation, and deep friendship that forms between Minnie and Celia, and Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen (a luminous Viola Davis).

And that’s a foretaste, too, of the heavenly banquet.

Jessica Chastain ("Celia Foote")

Living the gospel acknowledges our shared humanity and need for reconciliation with God and with each other. When we sit to eat together, we acknowledge our physical needs and that shared humanity (we all eat; we all excrete) while tasting just a bit of God’s graciousness. The Help reminds me again just how countercultural that Supper of the Lamb really is, and inspires me to look for ways to taste the firstfruits of that meal in my own life, right now. And that, as the preacher in the film says, takes self-sacrifice and a willingness to hear one anothers stories. But it’s also the only way to true relationships and genuine joy.

Fresco of an early church 'agape' (love) feast

Weekend Eating Reading

…the weekly weekend post!

Weekend Eating Reading briefly discusses at least one good book that’s somehow related to ‘joyful eating,’ and is, throughout the weekend, updated with links to notable or newsworthy articles on topics relevant to readers of this blog.

This week’s books:

Guess which is designed to make you eat more than you want to--carrots or carrot cake?

The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, MD

The British have a term for it–“more-ish.” It means a food that you WANT TO EAT MORE OF. Or, maybe more precisely, a food that makes YOU want to eat more of IT. If you’ve ever struggled with overeating, whether occasionally or chronically–and maybe even if you haven’t–you’ll want to read this book. It offers a staggering account of the science that goes into engineering foods to make them hyperpalatable–that is, to make them press all the right buttons in your body and brain to get you to want more, more, more, and more. This book is fascinating and disturbing. Read it! (or read more about it here, first.)

Oh! And this book:

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think by Brian Wansink, PhD

The picture’s extra big because that’s what American serving sizes are like–EXTRA BIG. And guess what? When packages are extra big, and you can’t get a good visual clue on what you’re eating, YOU EAT MORE, even if you don’t really like it. (!) And that’s just the way Big Food wants it.  This book’s also got some fascinating science, though it’s more psychological than bio- & neuro-chemical (as the other one is.) There’s lots of fun stuff to read about here.

More links will appear hear as the weekend goes on:

Chilling cartoon about widespread starvation in Somalia & US nonresponse HERE

HuffPo’s reporting on the ground turkey fiasco HERE

Cassie Green, remarkable food person! Read about her HERE

Enjoy it! And eat your food with JOY!

There is nothing to eat but the body of the Lord

The poet William Carlos Williams wrote the following lines, made famous by Wendell Berry:

There is nothing to eat

seek it where you will,

but the body of the Lord.

The blessed plants

and the sea, yield it

to the imagination


Jesus said, “I am the true manna.”

Remember the Sunday School story about the manna given to the Israelites?

It kept them alive, the story goes, even in a wilderness where nothing could grow. But, of course, eventually, everyone of that generation died.

So what is Jesus saying here (John 6)? He’s promising that he’ll sustain his followers throughout their lives–and beyond–“ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’ ” (v. 51).

He’s speaking metaphorically, of course. But it’s more than a metaphor, too.

Earlier in that same chapter, Jesus took one little boy’s lunch, fed five thousand people with it, and had some left over.  It’s only after feeding a crowd of hungry people that he makes a spiritual point. The feeding comes first.

Every time you eat, you are practicing–or, better, celebrating–communion. The food you put in your mouth is a symbol of true sustenance. That doesn’t make it any less real. It makes it more real.

There is nothing to eat

seek it where you will,

but the body of the Lord.

And so enjoy it with gratitude!

My Audrey Hepburn Problem

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad