Eating for Fuel vs Eating for Fun

I used to have a friend back in New Orleans whose father lived somewhere in the Upper Midwest. I remember him complaining once that his father was coming down for a visit and that, while my friend liked to enjoy his meals while taking advantage of the incredible dining options in New Orleans, his father did not take pleasure in eating. He told me something to the effect of: “My dad’s never eaten a meal for fun. He says food is for fuel.”

My friend’s utilitarian father is not wrong. Nor is my friend, the slightly-more-hedonistic son. Food (and the eating thereof) occupies a unique space in human existence, wherein it is a simple biological need at its most basic, while also being understood across cultures as a source of pleasure and tradition*.

I. Food as Fun

I’ve always loved eating. When I was a kid (and into my early teens) I could eat forever. I could eat six burgers in a sitting. In elementary school I infamously ate large jar of apple sauce at our church minister’s house — one small bowl at a time — which my parents were embarrassed to learn when they picked up my sister and I. After soccer practice my mom and I would sometimes go to Taco Bell and I would order ALL of the tacos. (Always soft tacos, of course.) I could eat an entire tray of lasagna, and I loved every bite of it.

As an adult, I’ve worked in restaurants, in addition to writing for two years for Eater. In that role, I celebrated the restaurants and cuisines that made New Orleans and New York great eating towns. I’ve always been intensely opposed to the equation of eating to sex — see the footnote below — but I’ve also always really, really enjoyed being around food and thinking about food and reading about food and watching TV shows about food.

Restaurants are our finest cultural institutions. (And also some of our worst.) The kitchen is the best room in any house. The best part of traveling is experiencing new foods and dining rituals. Put simply, food is fun. Eating for fun is one of life’s great pleasures.

The origins of this approach to eating are not hard to understand. It’s partly biological: Our taste buds developed to give us a favorable reaction to highly nutritious food. Food is fuel for our bodies, but some food is better fuel. More calorific foodstuffs generally taste better, while foods that are hard to digest taste worse. Other flavors, like sourness or bitterness, are associated with poisonous or otherwise harmful foods and so taste bad to us. (Without proper adaptation, of course. Coffee and Sour Patch Kids are delicious.)

It’s also cultural. Eating requires effort. Once upon a time (and sometimes still), it required tracking, killing, and dressing game or fish. Or it required foraging for fruits and vegetables, growing and processing crops, or raising, slaughtering and dressing livestock. More recently, it’s involved the effort of going to a market (super-, farmer’s or other) to use money — acquired through one’s own effort — to purchase food that other people have made the effort to prepare. And all of that is before you even put in the effort of cooking the meal.

It takes work to get food, is what I’m saying.

Effort creates ritual, which gives it importance. You need to eat to stay alive and you want to eat certain things because they give you the most fuel, and since you’ve put in that effort to get your meal it becomes an Important Thing. Let’s enjoy it.

II. Food as Fuel

In high school, at the height of my “I’ll eat anything and everything in sight” phase, I played sports constantly. Between soccer, marching band and more soccer, I was incredibly active. Also I was a high school boy. I’ve recently begun being able to eat like that again, after I started running regularly in December 2013. Two marathons, three half-marathons and two months of summer laziness later, I’m training for my next race, the California International Marathon in December.

In my previous training cycles, I’ve generally allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted. I enjoy eating so much — and I regularly burn 1,500 or more calories per run — that pretty much anything goes. It was all about making sure I had enough energy for the next run, and replenishing calories from the run I just went on.

And since the highest calorie items are delicious things like pizza, gummy bears and beer, I’d eat (and drink) plenty!

This time around, I’m more conscious than ever about the quality of the food I’m using to re-stock my internal stores. I’m thinking realistically about the next morning’s run and determining what I need to ensure I perform at my best. It’s not simply about replacing calories; over-worked muscles and lungs need smart calories. That requires a very deliberate approach to planning what I’m going to consume — and then sticking with it.

III. Putting Them Together

I’m not a Michael Pollan- or Alice Waters-esque slow food fanatic, but I do believe that the state of our modern food system is one of our greatest and potentially most destructive mistakes**. The engineering of foods to trick our biological processes into thinking they’re good for us — as with hyper-sweet candies and fast food, both of which trigger a basic positive reaction to high-calorie foods — is extraordinarily bad for us as individuals and as a society. This is taking the joy of eating and perverting it, often for great financial gain.

And don’t even get me started on the elitism and frequent cultural appropriation of today’s foodie crowd.

In the face of those forces, to truly enjoy dining, cooking and food in general requires a special sort of mindfulness. Not a squishy, back-to-the-soil, “I can pickle that” sort of elite mindfulness, but a mindfulness nonetheless. The specifics are a little fuzzy to me right now. Maybe it can come from cooking more at home and being aware of the effort put into it, or maybe it can come from buying better, less environmentally destructive meat and becoming aware of the true cost of our foods, or maybe those are both still too rooted in elitism and it’s something else.

Most likely, though, it means something different to everybody. For me, that mindfulness in part comes from those two things, but it also comes, surprisingly, from running. My very specific (and very great) energy needs force me to consider food in its most basic, as a source of the fuel my body needs to continue operating at this level. And that’s led me to look at what I’m putting into body in a new, and more positive, way.

*There are few things as annoying as when people equate dining with sex, but this is one way in which the two are similar. I can’t think of any other basic biological needs or functions that are also (almost) universally exercised for pleasure. Click here to return to where you left off.

**I really, really want to stress that my beliefs in this realm are different from those types. Our world is so heavily populated that, without things like pesticides and agricultural engineering, we simply could not feed everyone in this world. (And yes, I’m including genetically modified foods in “agricultural engineering.” The anti-GMO movement is based in absolute nonsense.) As it stands now, we’re not feeding everyone anyway, but much of that has to do with the fact that those of us who can afford food waste entirely too much. Click here to return to where you left off.

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