As a follow up to my first article "What is Food?" I think the next logical question is "Why do we need to eat?". This is a question that I use to begin public lectures when I am with a group for the first time, it gets people involved, breaks the ice and actually makes people think. After a moment of uncomfortable silence I can usually get some replies. The first replies are always very general and vague and I need to clarify that we are looking for specific clear reasons, not just “we need to eat to live”. The answers are invariably as follows.
- For energy - food is our fuel source, it allows us to be active and move around.
- For creating structure - I often have to solicit this reply by asking people what mothers say to their children when they are small "eat so you can .....? Become big and strong - right?
- For pleasure as well as for social, religious, romantic and family occasions. This is the category that includes all non-biological roles of food.
That is where the answers dry up except for various expressions of the same three concepts. At this point I tell the following story:
Escape from Tibet
One of the frequent clients at our restaurant with whom we have become good friends is a woman who for many years was the main organizer for a group of Tibetan Buddhists who created a center in the mountains near Lago Maggiore in the north of Italy. This community of Buddhists is led by a Lama of great renown for his healing skills. People come from all over the world to study with him and to meditate and practice at the center. One day our friend told me that the Lama would like to see me to talk about food and since the community is only about an hour from Milan I immediately accepted - when the Lama calls, you go.
The Lama was interested in food because when he and his monks escaped from the advancing Chinese in Tibet they went to India and found a new climate and new ways of eating. In Tibet they live at 4000 meters with little heating and a rigorous way of life, these living conditions have created food traditions which include a lot of fat. They eat grains beans and vegetables like all cultures but they add meat, cheese and butter everywhere because animal fat helps to heat the body. In India they eat mainly grains, beans and vegetables but they add strong spice everywhere because it helps to cool off the body and allows people to live more comfortably in the hot humid environment.
Many of the Tibetan monks who made the journey to India remained very fond of their fatty Tibetan food and continued to follow their traditional diet as much as possible. What happened was what created the Lama's interest in the power and role of food in our lives. A number of these monks died. They developed extremely high levels of cholesterol, creating circulatory problems and ultimately heart failure.
What is the point of this story relative to why we need to eat?
We need to add a fourth point.
- To create balance with our environment and lifestyle. It can be a matter of life and death.
I think this way of beginning my lectures is useful not only for the reasons I have already stated but because it gets us away from the solely molecular, biochemical view of food and opens peoples mind to a new way of evaluating what they eat.
The nutritionistdietician view of food starts with the question: What is this food made of, what molecules are present? Proteins, fats, calcium, iron etc.
This Tibetan story invites a new question when you evaluate a food: What does this food do in my body? Does it heat me up or cool me down? Does it create or eliminate moisture? Does it create tension or does it relax me? And many other similar considerations.
At this point the group is ready to explore a more energetic view of food and to understand how closely linked our health is to the environmental factors around us.
From Tibet to Milan
You don't need to go to Tibet or consult a Lama to see how food traditions reflect the environment, all you need is a little understanding of Italian geography and the main regional differences in their food. Italian cooking is very regional with important differences in the use of condiments, cooking styles and basic ingredients.
To begin with the north of Italy is much more humid than the south which is very dry. The north also gets much colder and in the Po Valley where the great northern cities are mostly situated there is often fog and the humidity reaches swamp like proportions. The cold and damp of the north have given rise to the famous fatty dishes so loved in America and Great Britain; lasagne, parmigiano, prosciutto, cream based sauces etc.. Each region has its own famous fatty dish usually with pork as a prominent ingredient. The truth about these dishes is that they were used for special occasions; holidays, weddings and when they might slaughter the animal – once a year this was a kind of an Italian thanksgiving. In the north olive oil was not a traditional condiment and rice was eaten more than bread or pasta.
My wife's family comes from the south in Puglia (the heel of the boot) where butter is unknown in the cooking and animal food centers more around fish and more fresh dairy foods than the salty aged ones of the north. Beans and legumes of all kinds are used daily in the south but much less in the north (recently in particular). Puglia is the land of big families, Durham wheat and olive oil so pasta dishes abound. They eat pasta with almost anything, as long as there is good olive oil, sea salt and some herbs almost any vegetable or bean will do. Great Italian cooking can accomplish a lot with few ingredients.
Naturally things have changed enormously in the last 50 to 60 years and although regional dishes and character are still present, people are eating more animal food everywhere (from an average of 13 kilos of meat per person per year in 1950 to 90 kilos per person now with similar tendencies for dairy food) and sugar has become the main source of carbohydrates, far surpassing the consumption of pasta or rice. People eat more and more tropical foods from chocolate do bananas, and fast food chains are everywhere. The most lamentable statistic is that Italy is leading the world in childhood obesity.
I must say that you can still find very high quality ingredients in Italy and many people are discovering their true culinary roots, but the march of the industrialized society and the biochemical view of food is an invasion similar to the Chinese in Tibet. There is however an ever growing movement towards a more sane way of eating and 10% of the Italian public declares itself vegetarian. Our school is part of that renaissance (rinascimento) in food culture and together with many friends we might even be able to help people outside of this lovely peninsula to learn to satisfy all four criteria for eating in a most delicious and balanced way.