FOOD FREEDOM

It seems to me that there are too many fallacies, taboos, and superstitions connected with food. I think that there is so much of this irrational nonsense, that people have lost sight of the true purposes of food: to satisfy our hunger; to delight us with gratifying tastes and aromas; and to enhance the occasions when people meet to socialize or confer or celebrate, or simply to dine or picnic.

Religion interferes by ordaining ritual eating, and by imposing pointless dietary laws. Ethnic custom interferes by determining which foods, and what manner of eating them, are appropriate. Convention interferes by determining which foods, and what manner of eating them, are respectable. Parents interfere by using mealtime as an opportunity to discipline their children. As if all this were not enough, political correctness interferes by dictating what is "healthy."

I am not subject to any of the above interventions, nor are my eating habits circumscribed by any of the above decrees. Yet in spite of my independence, my pleasure in food is not unalloyed. Life has been cruel to me in this way, and has deprived me, and still deprives me, of some of the joys of dining. It has been partly my own fault, because I chose to live in a kibbutz, but there have been other things as well.

In my childhood, food was always a bone of contention. My mother was a total failure as a cook, but she knew how to make a fuss about food. She was not really religious, but she had been well brainwashed, so she had a pathological horror of non-kosher food. She insisted that the rationale of the Jewish dietary laws is not ritual, but hygienic. She was convinced that if you mixed milk with meat, or (God forbid!) ate pork, it would make you sick.

In addition, my mother was equipped with a generous supply of whims and foibles. Where she got these ideas I will never know, but she defended them obstinately.
     She believed that fried or grilled food is harmful; that the best way to cook anything is to boil it in water (usually unsalted). Her only exception was to braise beef to make pot-roast, which she deemed watery enough to be edible.
     She believed that eggs should always be soft-boiled. In the face of vociferous resistance, she would allow hard-boiled eggs -- but never fried.
     She believed that canned salmon is fit for human consumption, but canned tuna ia only fit for non-Jews, who will eat any disgusting thing.
     She believed that if you drink any liquid after eating fruit, you will become dangerously bloated.
     She believed that spices and condiments are poison. She used salt very sparingly, if at all. The very presence of pepper in the house would constitute a dangerous pollution.

My mother would not allow me to eat in peace. She would sit beside me, watching me like a hawk and giving instructions. Not only did my plate contain both meat and vegetables; she insisted that I eat them together. The watery meat was more to my taste than the watery vegetables, so I would eat the vegetables first (to avert the inevitable lecture) and then try to eat the meat alone -- but she would immediately put more vegetables on my plate. When I objected, there was a screaming match.

When I was a child I was thin as a rail. I had a healthy appetite, but I never gained weight. My mother was sure that this was the symptom of some fearful malady. She continually asked the family doctor about it. The doctor knew that he could never convince her that she was wrong, so finally, to silence her, he prescribed a treatment. Whenever the fancy struck me, I was to go to a soda fountain and consume a chocolate malted -- doctor's orders! I was well pleased, but also bemused by the craziness of it all.

Occasionally, as a special treat, we would eat at the Automat. There, for some reason, I was allowed to choose for myself and eat in peace. It was there that I first encountered real food, simple but well cooked and well seasoned. My fond memories of the Automat include my first initiation into the delights of spaghetti with bolognese sauce, fried chicken, clam chowder, and cole slaw.

I
n my teens I had more opportunities to eat away from home. It was only then that I discovered what a magical thing is black pepper. Only then could I explore the wonders of diners, chinese restaurants, and pizzerias.

My beloved wife Laura was a marvelous cook, and even in her teens knew the way to a man's heart. She first attracted me by maneuvering me into her home and cooking spaghetti with cheese sauce for me. After that, I was her abject slave. A rich friend lent us his summer house for our honeymoon, so we could spend what money we had on food. It was an orgy composed of equal amounts of love-making and fine dining.

In Israel we were trainees in kibbutzim, and then participated in the founding and development of our own kibbutz. Those were good years, full of idealism, happy family life, comradeship, pioneering, and my successes as a pianist. But one of the prices I had to pay for this happiness was, that I was obliged to eat institutional food for something like 40 years. My wife ran the communal kitchen for a while, but rarely had the opportunity to cook for me.

It was truly said that the communal dining hall was the heart of a kibbutz. We all met there at mealtimes, but it was also our assembly room, our hall to celebrate holidays and weddings, our auditorium, our ballroom, and our weekly movie theater. But the food was institutional food.

The budget for food was always stingy; first of necessity and then as a matter of principle. When the infant state of Israel was on short rations, we ate fish paste labeled "Sardines and Other Fish" or "Salmon and Other Fish" etc. (which we called ""other-fish"), tiny triangles of processed cheese, powdered eggs, black bread, and tea. Even later, when times were better, the kibbutz bought the rejected chickens from the slaughterhouse, the cheapest cuts of meat, margarine instead of butter. No one went hungry, but asking for more than the standard serving was frowned upon.

The cooking was mass cooking. What else was possible when 300 people had to be served with something, never mind what? The kibbutz was secular, but the cheapest food available was kosher, which meant bloodless tough stringy over-salted meat. The chicken was usually watery; we called it "laundered chicken." Meat balls were mostly made of bread and onions. Once a week we ate fake "gefilte fish" patties made of flour and powdered eggs, and called (believe it or not) "vegetarian fish." The head cook had her own foibles: jam was always diluted with water; sour cream was always diluted with yogurt; tomato sauce was red-colored water that refused to stick to the (grey-colored) pasta.

The ambience was no better than the food. The dining hall was crowded and noisy. In addition to the clamor of hundreds of voices, there was usually a radio screaming pop music. At first we sat on benches, later on uncomfortable plastic chairs. Seating was haphazard, and one was not always able to choose congenial companions. On each table there was a container for discarded scraps, a sort of interim garbage pail. Dog owners would paw through them while we ate, looking for food for their pets.

Nobody wanted to work in the dining hall. Those who worked there had been coerced, and that determined their attitude. The hours when meals were served were short and inflexible. If you came early, you would be urged to finish and clear out to make room for others; if you came late, you would be urged to finish and clear out so that they could mop up and go home. The main meal was lunch, while supper was a light snack that did not require cooking. The unwilling drudges refused to work in the evening, so everyone else had to take turns serving a scanty, meager supper.

When I went to army reserve duty, the meals were also institutional, only worse. When I was in a hospital, the meals were also institutional, only worse. When I studied or taught at a university, the meals were also institutional, only worse. When I traveled to a kibbutz to gave a recital, I could stop off in a city for lunch, but I had very little money. I made do with the middle-eastern version of the "greasy spoon": little hole-in-the-wall cheap restaurants that served humus and shishlik.

Even if I had had enough money, I would not have eaten in restaurants. I dislike restaurants. When invited by others, I suspend my prejudice, I am grateful and amiable, and I may even be pleasantly surprised. But I would not ordinarily choose to enter a restaurant alone. It is usually dark and noisy and uncomfortable, and the prices are astronomical. There is endless waiting at every stage, but bread and butter are served without delay. They know that you are hungry and will not be able to resist. By the time the meal itself arrives, you are partially satiated, so you will be satisfied with smaller portions. The worst thing is the enigmatic fact that I am invisible to waiters. Other people need only raise their heads and glance, but no matter what I do, waiters do not see or hear me. When I am with others, I can leave it to them to summon a waiter. If I were alone, I would be ignored forever.

However, all things come to he who waits. The kibbutz became less communal and more privatized. The dining hall was closed, and I achieved a degree of food freedom. Laura was no longer able to cook, but she taught me well, and we ate at home in peace. Now that she is gone, I cook for myself, and I enjoy every minute of it. I eat alone, and that is somewhat sad, but I eat what I like, when I want it, cooked the way I like it, and nobody skimps to economize at my expense. I eat well, and I believe wisely. I eat a balanced diet that includes everything in moderation. I shun ready-made foods contaminated with chemicals to prolong their shelf life. Instead of limiting the kinds of food I eat, I limit the amount I eat. I never allow myself to eat because I am bored or upset, but only when I am truly hungry.

In spite of all this, I am still a member of a beleaguered minority. Most of my family and friends are devotees of the fallacies, taboos, and superstitions.that bedevil the eaters of food. I call them "food freaks" or "foodies" so as not to insult them with what I think is the correct term: "food fascists." They subscribe to a new world-wide religion in which the sacred name of their god is "healthy."

When christians celebrate the mass, they partake of the body and blood of Christ; when "foodies" partake of food they "eat healthy." If they cannot tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb, why do they think they know the difference between healthful and unhealthful foods? Actually, for them it is not a matter of health, but of virtue and sin. Virtuous foods are preferably made from soybeans, and low-fat or non-fat. "Healthy" fodder in colorful packages is labeled "no-guilt" and ""fitness." Sinful foods are almost anything that is good to eat, which they disapprovingly call "comfort foods." They never ask if something is tasty, only if it is healthy. They choose foods as if they were dosing themselves with medicine. Does it contain anti-oxidants, pro-biotics, vitamins? Does it reduce the danger of cancer, diabetes, infertility, Alzheimer, schizophrenia?

It requires courage to navigate among these zealots. The television is infested with fanatics declaring that meat is poison, eggs are poison, butter and cheese are poison. I am told that if I eat tofu and granola I will find happiness. Every time I come near a doctor, he tells me that I am overweight and refers me to a dietician (but I never go). Militants argue that sinners who refuse to "eat healthy" should pay a fine for their sins, because their unwholesome habits will eventually make them sick, and then the righteous will have to pay for their treatment. So far, the zealots have been prevented from actually making it illegal to eat good food, but who knows how long we can hold them off?

No gastronomy without autonomy! No gourmandization without emancipation! The freedom of food shall be the food of freedom! Amen.