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The Commons
Food and Drink

You are what you eat — and how you eat

The most valuable ingredient in the kitchen is the rarest — love

Originally published in The Commons issue #234 (Wednesday, December 25, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

WEST BRATTLEBORO—As the weather bites down hard and cold, another round of holidays has begun.

Our Crazybusy Culture is now heightened to a crescendo-like peak, as people cram cooking, baking, party-making, party-going, community-serving, fund-raising, church-attending, and merriment-expecting into their already gridlocked schedules.

Oddly, in a time when the landscape begins to hibernate — drawing its energy into its core and preparing for winter’s calm slumber — human inhabitants choose to trample over this natural cycle with mall-thronging, hymnal-howling, and a cocktail-sloshing, extroverted frenzy.

It is the time of year I desperately crave to live in another culture — one where they are not inundated with the religious panic and gun-point reparations that the U.S. claims as the “Season of Giving.” Americans consume most savagely — a materialistic school of piranhas — eating, drinking, partying, shopping, and yes, giving.

Now, I’m Jewish, so I might be a tad bitter. In my culture, I’ve often seen giving as a prudent and logical exchange offered within an obligatory barter system, as opposed to our soul’s joyous release: John gave me a check for $50 on my birthday, so I will gift him something with a value equal to but not exceeding $50.

If there were a cultural deity one could sue for punitive damages, I surely would. All I want is to experience the winter weeks until mid-January in peace and quiet. Instead, it’s louder and more cacophonic than the rest of the year, combined.

So, what’s a bitter Grinch to do? Challenge myself to focus on the true essence of the season. For you, a gift: the most important ingredient in the kitchen, as described in this excerpt from my book, The No Recipe Cookbook. Use it in every single meal during the holiday season.

* * *

When my son Sammy was born, I asked my midwife how many times a day he would nurse. She replied, ”About 50.”

I thought, “What the hell is she talking about? He’d be eating constantly (and I’d be nursing constantly)! What am I, an IV? She must’ve said 15.”

She didn’t. She said 50. And she was right; eat constantly, he did. Well, nurse constantly. As an infant, he relied on me as his sole (soul) nourishment, and nursing was the way he received it: food, touch, comfort, connection, communication ... in short, love.

Now we know about the “love drug,” oxytocin — a neurochemical released during nursing which promotes bonding and builds the immune system. Nursing also stimulates NGF — neural growth hormone — which initiates brain-cell growth (neurogenesis), regulates hormonal function, and repairs damaged or aged cells.

Science understands how we nourish with more than just nutrients. At the time, all I knew is that this child needed to eat love more than he needed to eat food.

The most valuable ingredient in the kitchen is the rarest. Cooking needs love.

Without it, cooking is a job, a thankless chore that merely wastes one’s time. With love, cooking is a ceremony, an act of concern and affection. Cooking becomes an art and a pleasure.

* * *

It is not only cooking that needs love. Eating is another lost art that used to be as much about gathering and sharing as consuming. Eating has taken on a more robotic and dismissive quality these days.

“Fast food,” “on the go,” “grab ’n’ gulp,” “in-and-out,” “convenience” — these are the phrases that describe our relationship to eating, which is all about nourishing, rebuilding, and rejuvenating. Our bad.

An image that sustains me is the European meal. Picture an Italian or French family gathering outside at a long wooden table with simple white linen. Trees surround the garden, kids run around the yard, people laugh and relax. Wine is poured, bread is broken, and toasts are made. Laughter is as much a part of the meal as the food itself.

Communal meals have earned praise by people who encourage quality time with family. Eating with others initiates conversation, resulting in slower eating. It’s a matter of parallel processing: One cannot chew, swallow, talk, and breathe at the same time (or one shouldn’t if one wants to avoid choking).

Psychology Today published an article, “A Palate for Pleasure,” that claimed: “Enjoyment of food affects the nutritional value of the food; the greater the pleasure, the more nutrients are absorbed.” Enjoyment of one’s meal initiates specific chemical releases that elevate mood, stimulate digestion, and promote immune health.

I like to think of this method of consuming our food as a modification to the saying, “You are what you eat.” Cooking and eating with love offer a twist: “You are how you eat.”

Reflecting on Japanese author Masaru Emoto’s fantastic discoveries in The Hidden Messages in Water, we observe how thoughts transmit energy waves that might affect water-crystal formation, both positively and negatively.

The profound influence on negative messages significantly deranged the crystals, whereas compassionate messages, such as “Thank you” and “I love you” produced symmetric, clear, and lovely crystals.

Eating in community offers another benefit. Eating slowly allows the hypothalamus — the part of the brain responsible for controlling our appetite — to signal that we are satiated.

It takes the hypothalamus about 20 minutes to initiate the chemical reaction necessary to deliver the signal. Crazybusy eating pays no mind to the meal or to the hypothalamus. Unaware and hurried, focusing on our next appointment or surfing through our phones, we ignore our brain’s signal. That translates into overeating, which leads to indigestion and obesity.

The simple act of eating with others at a relaxed pace can elevate and sustain one’s health. Beautiful. I love when health can be so logical.

* * *

When you cook with love, you give love. It is simply an extension of caring for your friends and family. Cooking food with love nourishes physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

More and more, science and spirituality are joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” in rapt agreement: Thoughts and intentions move waves, forming and flowing particles which, in turn, create our realities. Our thoughts and feelings affect our physical world. If you cook with love, you provide nourishment to the meal and everyone who eats it. That includes you, dear.

This holiday season, let your cooking delight you. Be grateful in your kitchen. Smile and enjoy yourself. As you cook for family and friends, embrace the act of cooking — that you have the power to create edible works of art — for your loved ones. If you are alone, “loved ones” are you and your spirit.

Cook with love, and you infuse love into your food. You ingest love, you digest, and assimilate love. How cool is that?

Fare well.

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