Finding More Purpose in Food

12/02/2011 10:18 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

Last week, I listened to a radio program about the need for more grocery stores in rural food deserts, as they are known. This, which occurs in dense inner-cities as well, can lead to a health crisis when the only food options are unhealthy restaurant meals or junk food. I've written before about this lack of "real" food, as many advocates are wont to describe fresh, organic, and unprocessed food such as from a farmers' market. Yet these terms can be slippery in a climate in which the tomato paste in ketchup or pizza is deemed a serving of vegetables in school lunch. There is another way of looking at the broad discrepancies in food options today in order to fight the injustices. And it's something that we all can benefit from every day. Perhaps it's not so much about identifying what's "real" or "fresh" food, but food that serves more purpose.

An oft-heard joke goes, "When is a door not a door?" The answer: "When it's ajar." The joke works because the word "ajar" sounds just like the speaker is enunciating "a jar," which is of course a completely different object than a door.

Likewise, we can encounter foods that may sound like, look like, and even taste like, say, juice. But it is instead water and high-fructose corn syrup with food coloring. The food may not supply sufficient Vitamin C, and its additives may even provoke undesirable effects, but it satisfies the illusion of juice, and that is its primary purpose. We clearly don't need more illusions in both food deserts as well as areas of plenty. What we need to come back to is a sense that food does serve a purpose, and to fashion our intake towards those we need most at any given time.

When is a soup not a soup, in my humble opinion? I would say when it's made with dehydrated crystals of vegetable, meat, and monosodium glutamate, in a packet or bouillon cube. This weakens the resulting soup to a mere substitute for the healthful tonic it can very well be. A soup is especially good for healing, since the hot, liquid nature makes for ready absorption of vitamins and minerals. That is, if there is ample nutrition to be found. Probably, it's made with the powdered stuff instead of steeping whole foods in broth because it's lighter, non-perishable, and easier to ship. Is this a purpose you'd like to support most when having some soup?

Next time you sit down to eat, ask yourself, what is the primary purpose by which this food was prepared? Was it to delight and entertain the palate? Was it to quickly stave off hunger, like a peanut butter and jelly slapped together before running out the door? Or was it to turn a quick profit at the consumer's expense? The answer has much to do with who was responsible for creating that food. If it was you, then you are in better control of making your meal purposeful. And most likely, you will.

At restaurants we see food that serves many purposes, but mostly they fall within the category of entertainment. They delight your palate; they look beautiful; they break creative boundaries; or they provoke wonder, as an intricately wrought plate of "modernist" cuisine might. If you go to a soup kitchen, of which there are many in New York, you'll see that the purpose of food there is very different. It's to feed and nourish, first and foremost. That alone is probably entertainment enough if you're in line. Let's take a moment, too, to consider that the purposes of entertainment can change over the years and be fickle; lobsters were once reserved to unhappy prisoners and indentured servants in Colonial New England, provoking a "lobster rebellion." Nowadays, the creature is destined for indulging only those who can afford a tasty meal. In other parts of the world, offal are delicacies, while in some, they're waste; purslane can grow wild and unnoticed on piles of compost, or be consumed as a trendy salad green. However, some purposes are more lasting no matter what the fashion may be. These, like providing omega-3 fatty acids to protect against heart disease which lobster and most seafood does, serve a greater purpose.

It is my belief that food can satisfy so many bigger purposes than delighting or making one feel full, we should exploit them as much as possible. And besides, the aforementioned two benefits easily come along with making food that serves more purpose, anyway. There is nothing wrong with enjoying food just for the taste or to become full. That's essentially what a cookie does. Perhaps you're looking to reward yourself or just celebrate -- so be it! Just remember that when cooking, sourcing, or just choosing what to eat, there lies a purpose that you, above anyone else, can decide. Every time.

Cross-posted from Not Eating Out In New York