I recently spent a lovely week on the farm where I played out my childhood summers. Sitting in the kitchen, I was awash in memories of my grandmother stirring a pot of collard greens, putting up pickles, cutting peaches for a cobbler, shelling peas into the big tin pail that still hangs in the curtained pantry.
My cousins were there, and we spent our days as we had in childhood: riding down dirt roads on the tailgate of a pick-up truck, casting our lines into the local fishing hole and gathering around the kitchen table in eager, puppy-like anticipation of dinner. My most beloved aunt now took the place of my grandmother, but the meal was much the same.
As I was waxing poetic about the field peas and hot cornbread, one of my beloved cousins looked at me and said, with genuine curiosity, "I don't understand getting so worked up about food." When I nearly dropped my forkful of fried okra, she explained "I think eating is a nuisance. It annoys me that I have to stop what I'm doing because my physical body requires fuel."
I had to wonder: does it make sense to get worked up about food? Admittedly, my viewpoint is skewed. As a food writer and intuitive eating coach, I spend my days creating recipes, researching food, teaching cooking and nutrition classes, and helping people explore their eating habits. But still. I don't think I'm alone. As a whole, we're just generally all hot and bothered by food. We're seduced by it's loveliness, enraptured by its flavor and aroma, dazzled by its health-giving properties and wistfully smitten by its rumored ability to make us wrinkle-free, toned and lean, 10 pounds lighter by Labor Day and possibly immortal.
I went to the bookstore today, to browse the magazine racks. In the food section, the spreads were like centerfolds: lushly saturated with color, glossy with sauces, the food looked almost indolent. The cover lines read "Desserts to die for," and "Decadent dinners." Adjacent to this were the Healthy Living sections. These were the headlines on the magazines there: "Fat-loss formula." "Your weight minus eight" "Be thinner in 30 days." "Foods that fight fat." "The best cancer-fighting foods." "Blast fat." "Fat-melting foods." "Lose 10 pounds this month." "Glycemic index for weight loss." "Four-week slim down." "Drop two sizes." "Eat more, weigh less." Later that evening, when I fed our household animals, I noticed that the cat food box read "What cat wouldn't do anything to be set loose in a deli?"
For the most part, we Americans are just impossibly worked up on about food. It can "blast fat" and protect us from cancer, and a cheesecake is worth dying for. We are alternately tormented with food porn and then chastised for eating it. We would even sell our feline souls to have free run of a deli.
It wasn't like that for my grandmother. Stewing tomatoes and okra, chopping mustard greens, shucking corn -- she saw food as utilitarian stuff that just happened to taste good. She fed it to us children, so we would grow healthy and strong, and made blackberry pies because it was the best way to use the bucketfuls we'd collected during the day. There were no tangy pomegranate molasses glazes or pungent harissa sauces; it was good, solid food, fuel for the bodies working on the farm. As far as I knew, she never counted a calorie or tried to melt fat (except in her cast-iron skillet), and she hadn't a clue about the glycemic index of collard greens. But almost everything she ate came from the farm, and she lived to be 96, in robust good health until the very end.
I wonder what would happen if we stopped being so worked up about food? What if we stripped our meals, our clothing size and the numbers on our bathroom scale of their supposed power to extend our lives, fix our problems and make us thinner, happier or somehow better? I wonder if not getting worked up about food, and being more matter-of-fact about our meals, is one of the first steps on the way to eating intuitively.
Loving and enjoying food, truly appreciating the seductive pleasure of a well-crafted meal, is a vital part of life. But when we start obsessing about it, giving it disproportionate power over our health and happiness, that's when we disconnect.
When we're frustrated by the mundane troubles of our daily lives, food is the fastest, easiest, path to pleasure and gratification. It's always available, it never says "no," and it's instantaneous: who wants to spend an hour in quiet meditation, when five minutes at the pastry counter will yield the same results? Food is pleasurable, but it's not a spiritual experience. Whether you call yourself spiritual or not, there's a part in each of us that longs for a connection to something beyond ourselves that we can't name. And whether you see food as a nuisance or think a cheesecake is "to die for," it won't get you to that connection.
What's your relationship with food? Do you see it as an occasional necessity, a route to health and happiness, or a convenient companion on long, lonely nights? Be honest with yourself. And please comment; I'd love to hear what you have to say.
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