Thursday, December 23, 2010

36 Hours in Berkeley, Calif.

This week I found myself in Berkeley with a day and a half to kill between my family visit to Los Angeles and the start of the Hazon Food Conference in Sonoma County. I love the Bay Area but hadn’t spent much time in East Bay and was told that was the place to be if there was a chance of seeing sun. After weeks of rain, first in Seattle, then Durham, then Los Angeles, I would settle for partly cloudy skies.

Berkeley didn’t disappoint. From the moment I arrived not a drop of rain hit my head, though it did precipitate while I slept through the night. Armed with an empty belly, a few personal agenda items and a yoga mat, I made the most of my time in this foodie haven.


6 p.m.


After sitting through rain-induced flight delays at LAX and a (quick) flight to SFO I was ready to make use of the yoga mat I was lugging around California. To be fair, Leigh and I had experienced three different yoga instructors in the week I spent in Santa Monica. But to make it worthwhile I was determined to get in as much yoga as possible. I found Yoga Mandala, a studio nearby, and popped into a Vinyasa 2-3 class, a bit more advanced than I’m used to. The instructor was fantastic and made fun of us wannabe yogis in a sarcastic manner that I was not used to but it made me laugh and helped me get through the class. I felt long and limber when I left and purchased a beginner pass that would entitle me to 3 classes altogether, for a total of $30.

8 p.m.


After yoga I was fairly hungry and it seemed appropriate to get some Indian food. I was tired too so I decided to stay local and walked to Royal Indian Cuisine. I’d planned to sit there but was a bit intimidated when I saw no other patrons and all of the owners and wait staff standing by the door. So I asked if they offered takeout and placed an order. I’d forgotten how much I loved Indian takeout, how it had been part of an old routine I’d developed in NYU. But when I tasted my dish I remembered the disadvantage to takeout – you can’t send your meal back when it’s too spicy.

10 p.m.


While working on my presentation for the food conference I logged in to my boyfriend’s Netflix account to watch Julie & Julia, the mediocre movie based on the poorly written book based on the clever blog that I’d read years ago. The story of two strong and determined women who cook their way to personal, professional and financial success and freedom seemed like an inspired selection.


9 a.m.


With less than two days to use a 3-class yoga pass I was determined to start my day with another stretching session at Yoga Mandala. This class, taught by the pregnant studio owner, was much more forgiving and involved a good deal of relaxation. I left invigorated and ready to start my day.

11 a.m.


Though my time in Berkeley did not coincide with a farmer’s market day, I was excited to experience Berkeley Bowl. I satisfied my supermarket fetish by spending nearly an hour wandering up and down every single aisle, drooling over the produce displays, gawking at row after row of bulk bins and ended up purchasing far more than I could ever eat in the next few days.

3 p.m.


After a few hours of working on my conference materials, I put on my running shoes and headed toward UC Berkeley. The campus was fairly quiet since it was winter break and I imagine running there might be more challenging when classes are in session. I made my way up the hill toward the stadium, which was under construction and completely gutted with only a few random chairs remaining. From there I enjoyed a clear view of downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

4 p.m.


When I run in unfamiliar places I always take a credit card in case of emergency. Or in case I find some funky shoes on sale, as I happened on this particular day. Trying on the black and white T-strapped heels while wearing my running shorts accentuated how lengthy my legs could look in high-heeled shoes, which I hardly ever wear. But since I would be starting a clinic shift in just under two weeks I rationalized that this pair would be highly functional and far more professional looking than most of my shoes. I then continued my way back to the hotel but got distracted by Moe’s Books where I giddily basked in the used books section before making a few pointed purchases.

6 p.m.


After a quick shower I headed out to the Gourmet Ghetto, as North Berkeley is known, to see what all the fuss was about. I followed my nose right into The Cheese Board Cooperative, where the live music was only outdone by the enticing aroma of their signature pizza. I continued up Shattuck Avenue and was amused by the awning that asked “What Are You Grateful For?” I’d read about Café Gratitude, which reminded me of my beloved Chaco Canyon Café, though infinitely more laughable with menu items such as "I Am Thriving" and "I Am Sensational." If I’d had more time I would’ve eaten there but instead I headed toward Chez Panisse to read the day’s menu, an impressive literary if not culinary feat. I stopped for gelato at Lush in the Epicurious Garden and made my way down to a copy center where I printed my conference papers.

8 p.m.


I put my name on this list at Gather, a seasonal and “thoughtful” restaurant catering to both vegetarians and omnivores. With an eye-catching design and a central location, Gather is perfectly poised to appeal to everyone – which it clearly does, given the 45 minute wait for a table on a Wednesday night. Flying solo, I opted for a seat at the bar and read over the menu to learn that Gather offers gourmet dining without the pretension of other foodie establishments. I started with a glass of Syrah and then, on a whim, I ordered the Vegan “charcuterie” and it was truly a revelation, and the first time I understood how one could be completely satisfied – though far from full - with a relatively small portion of food. I did not want another taste to cross my palate, lest I lose the rich, deep flavor of the meal that had preceded. Satiated and content I walked back to my hotel and contemplated another movie. In keeping with the theme of the day, perhaps Big Night?

12 a.m.


I spent the evening catching up on phone calls, emails and blogging. Tomorrow morning I plan to take a third yoga class. Then pack and catch my ride up to Petaluma, where I will be out of contact until late on Sunday. Hopefully next time I will have more than just 36 hours to spend here. There are many more delectable meals to be enjoyed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Travel Bug

Sometime during the past few weeks, while traveling between Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Minneapolis and Raleigh, I developed a sniffle. This was not surprising, given the time of year, the amount of time I’ve spent on airplanes, the exposure to pathogens shared by my fellow passengers and the lack of sleep from early flights. But a greater threat to my health was presented by the poor food options available to someone who finds herself in the airport day after day. As immunity decreases and sugar consumption increases the body becomes increasingly vulnerable so I was trying my hardest to avoid the great white offender. But it kept sneaking up on me and was hard to avoid while spending time in airports and hotels. Here are some of the situations I encountered:

In-flight beverages

On Thanksgiving day I had a 6am flight down to San Diego. I generally do not order anything on planes but after I finished drinking the bottle of water I had brought on board, I found myself thirsty and a bit hungry as well. I knew I’d be eating a large dinner early in the afternoon but thought I might satisfy my appetite with some cranberry juice, an apt Thanksgiving beverage. But what the flight attendant handed me was something called “cranberry drink” with very little trace of actual cranberries at all. The ingredients were corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, water, apple and grape juice, with a hint of cranberry at the end of the list. I returned the full can to the puzzled flight attendant and thanked her anyway.

Stress food

I had the misfortune to connect in Minneapolis in mid-December on the very same weekend as the second largest snowstorm in the city’s history. The airport had closed for a day, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and unable to reach their destination. My flight was scheduled for the very next day and needless to say the seats were overbooked and highly coveted. I was concerned that my flight would be delayed and I would miss my connection so I tried to get on an earlier flight. In line I met a woman desperately trying to reach her hospitalized mother who had just had a heart attack. As we stood and waited to be helped she ate a large cookie, a bottle of Pepsi and then proceeded to take out a king size package of Twizzlers from her bag. She offered me some “stress food,” as she called it. “I never eat this crap but I’m very stressed out.”

(A Minneapolis attraction)

Meal vouchers

After missing my connection in Minneapolis by five minutes, the airline agent handed me vouchers for a hotel and for meals, presumably to cover the time until my rebooked flight at 11:30 the next morning. I examined the vouchers. She had given me two vouchers for $6 each. I remember back in 2003 when I’d been in a similar situation after missing a connection and had received $15 meal vouchers. How times have changed. When I got to the hotel I asked how I could use to the voucher. The front desk staff said they were intended for use at hotels with restaurants. This one did not have a restaurant. But, he offered, the Chili’s across the street would accept them, if they hadn’t already closed for the night. Which was just as well because I was not equipped to walk more than five steps in the 4-degree weather.

It turned out the hotel we stayed out had a small market, but its merchandise consisted of only chips, candy bars, soda and ice cream. Thankfully I always carry snacks and so for dinner I had an apple and polished off the Trader Joe’s trail mix I’d been eating for days, paired with some rice cakes and what remained of my Theo’s Orange Dark Chocolate bar. In the morning when I arrived at the airport again to fly standby I used my vouchers for breakfast. And it was a good thing I had not used either of them on dinner because the bowl of oatmeal I ordered used up both of them.

These were just a few of the hurdles I faced over the past few weeks in which I’ve departed SeaTac on four separate occasions. I made strong efforts to satisfy my hunger and not get sick and to avoid sugar like the devil. Still, I wasn’t sure this was enough. Determined to avoid the debilitating head cold I usually fall victim to over winter break, I launched a pre-emptive strike of my own. The secret weapon: black elderberry syrup. It is sweet and delicious, generally sold in honey, it packs vitamin C and antioxidants and has been studied for its alimentary effects. Whether or not it is potent enough to get me through the winter remains to be seen. In the meantime, with two more flights scheduled in the next two weeks, I hope to get plenty of sleep, fluids and exercise so I can avoid catching a winter cold.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Watching Weight Watchers

On this fifth night of the Festival of Latkes, I mean Lights, I'm feeling a bit like a French fry. After hosting a Hanukkah party on night #2 where we served zucchini and curried sweet potato latkes, my home still smells more like McDonald's than I'm comfortable admitting. As a result I will probably abstain from latkes for the next few days. And now so might many Weight Watchers clients.

This week the popular weight loss and management program unveiled its new PointsPlus system, a major overhaul of the widely popular and successful Points system eating plan started in 1997. For years WW had allotted each member a number of daily points that they could reach by carefully calculating the point values of their chosen meals and snacks. Under the plan point values were based solely on calories with slight considerations for fat and fiber. But with emerging trends in nutrition emphasizing the importance of foods for reasons beyond simply caloric content, WW went back to the drawing board to create a system that encouraged greater consumption of fruit and vegetables (all now worth zero points) recognizing that the body digests and metabolizes foods differently. And that's how PointsPlus was born, reintroducing bananas (which were 2 points under the old plan) into the diets of many clients who had long sworn them off. A serving of potato latkes, on the other hand, is now worth a whopping 7 points, according to a recent New York Times article.

WW is not for everyone. It's all about counting points and carefully tracking food and snacks in a way will appeal to some more than others. I've known many people who were very successful at losing weight under the WW plan and the Times article suggests that some followers of the original Points plan have no desire to change what is already working for them. The real significance of the new PointsPlus program is in its bold and daring move to once again change how we think about food. For over a decade WW had been advocating a certain calculated way to relate to food by calorie rather than nutrient content and they are suddenly presenting a very different model to millions of members worldwide. How well that new system is accepted and integrated by the public could provide some basis for the effectiveness of instituting new policies and asserting radical new public health positions that take into account our shifting attitudes toward food and nutrition. And that is worth waiting and watching.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Double Standards

Today was a hard day for me. In the midst of my last week of classes, with finals on the horizon and several independent projects in the works, I am also planning a big Hanukkah party for my classmates to celebrate the end of fall quarter. I'd been cruising along West Coast style - sure, I'm fine, I'm cool, got it all under control - and then it hit me suddenly and I was overwhelmed and pressed for time and caught in traffic with no sleep and little appetite and no time to eat or exercise or even shower. Yes, it was one of those days when my entire meal came out of my grocery bag from Trader Joe's (what one of my instructors calls a "faux health food store"). Lunch consisted of an entire chocolate bar (fair trade ... I still have my standards) and dinner was a bag of salty rice chips with a package of dried fruit on the side. I did not eat a single vegetable. There, I said it.

Today's food intake reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago on the subject of my nutrition-student diet. As the recent blustery Seattle weather has driven me to focus more on indoor workouts, after work one evening I went to the gym and met with a membership representative to discuss my account. We made small talk and when I happened to mention that I am studying nutrition, the membership rep's ears perked up. "Are you doing the RD track?" When I told him that I was, he said he'd considered it but was discouraged by the required internship that seemed impossible to obtain (more on this later). After I completed all the paperwork he turned to me. "Can I just ask you, do you follow everything you learn? I mean, I work at a gym and I know lots of exercises that I should be doing to work different muscles and I don't do them," he said. As I looked at the chiseled body around which his fitted red polo shirt was draped I wondered what more he could possibly be doing. I proceeded to tell him a little bit about my diet: I don't eat fast food. I cook and prepare most of my own meals. I focus on fruits and vegetables. I told him for a healthy person most foods are fine in moderation. I eat what I believe to be healthful though if I have a problem area it's probably that I eat too much, at least more than I need. (Studying nutrition can lead to slightly absurd rationalizations: eg. I know that my brain needs glucose to function better so I really need to be eating chocolate while I study.)

It later occurred to me that the gym rep's question wasn't so much about my eating habits - he knew all about micronutrients, he asked me about my thoughts on whey protein (for the record, I don't use it) and whispered to me that most people can't admit that sugar is as addictive as cocaine (which reminded me of Mark Hyman's piece a month ago in The Huffington Post). He had plenty of nutrition knowledge but he wasn't a nutritionist so it was okay for him not to live by it. But what about me?

After our meeting I went to work out and mounted the elliptical machine with an old issue of JADA to catch up on but I kept coming back to his question. Why is it so hard for humans to live by the things we believe in? I remembered grappling with this while studying rationalist philosophy in college. My professor used to ask, "would you see a doctor if you knew that he/she was smoker?" What he meant was, would you trust the medical expertise of someone who doesn't adhere to the generally accepted standards for healthy behavior. During my first year graduate counseling class I remember a classmate raising a similar question: how would patients feel if they were seeing a dietician who was heavy or overweight?

Skimming through the contents of the Journal, a preliminary report on the government mandated restaurant menu labeling (as per the health care act) caught my eye. It was focusing on the ways in which nutritional information will have to be clearly displayed to the public in restaurant chains around the country. Perhaps the most interesting part of the report was the section reviewing the various studies that have been conducted over the years, most of which conclude that simply listing the number of calories or saturated fat an item contains does little in determining what people will order. The only exception was when the consumers were first educated on what they should be eating - how many calories they needed, the maximum fat to consume, etc - and were then presented with nutritional labels on menus that they seemed to consume fewer calories and make more deliberate food choices. The difference between the two situations is that in the first, the consumers have information, in the latter they have information and an understanding of what it means, what relevance it has to their lives. Maybe it's that extra level of understanding that enables us to integrate the knowledge we have into our lives and our beings.

But sometimes knowledge is not enough. At the end of the day eating is more nuanced an activity and isn't just about good and bad, healthy or unhealthy. Having studied nutrition for two years now I can tell you that beyond all the biochemical reasons to ingest vitamins and minerals and nutrients, food choices are more often based on rituals, social settings, emotions, celebrations, religions, ethics, values and other considerations that make it especially difficult to point fingers and judge. And there's a lesson in that for developing empathy, for granting the benefit of the doubt, for recognizing too that a heavier person's diet may be healthier than a thin person's, that things aren't always as they seem. That people choose to eat or not eat for a whole mess of reasons that may or may not have anything to do with health or weight or appearance. And that learning is a process of critical thinking, considering and questioning. I chose to study nutrition because I have grappled with - and continue to struggle with - these issues and I find them compelling and endlessly fascinating. If I can help others realize the complex issues surrounding their relationships to food and health and society then I will be very satisfied in my career.

If you were to meet me today you might think I'd make the worst nutritionist in the world. But tomorrow I will probably go back to my usual routine - exercising in the morning and eating a diet of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts and beans - and I can look a client in the face, someone who comes to me stressed out and tired and overwhelmed and I can empathize and feel the challenge of their situation. So eating that convenience store, low nutrient, high sugar, high salt plastic wrapped diet today might just make me a better nutritionist after all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kosher Conscience

Today's Tablet Magazine featured this interview with Sue Fishkoff, author of the new release, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America's Foods Answer to a Higher Authority. Raised in a kosher home, the piece confirmed much of what I already knew, but I'm always interested in the greater sociological implications of the expanding kosher market around the country, especially since I am often asked to explain what makes food kosher. Case in point: I recently found myself pointing out that my food science textbook misstates what constitutes a kosher animal. (The book says that an animal must chew its cud and cannot have split hooves. Actually, a kosher animal both chews its cud and has split hooves.) So I thought it was worth sharing this piece that presents a short primer on kosher food in America.

One of the interesting points the interview hit upon is the creation of kosher versions of non-kosher foods: kosher bacon, kosher cheeseburgers, etc. Fishkoff points out that kashrut (ie. the laws of what is kosher) was not intended to deprive Jews of certain foods, though it does teach restraint and discipline. She mentions that some rabbis believe Jews should not eat these faux-treif foods precisely for that reason. As she explained this I thought of my own experience living gluten-free. When I changed my diet (for health reasons, not just for kicks) I did feel a weight of limitation that I had not experienced for a long time. But I soon adapted to the confines of what was permissible and found I still had plenty of options. I also found that I didn't like faux-gluten foods - fake bagels and breads and cakes made with rice and tapioca and bean flours and potato starch (think Passover...) - all these items parading around as the real thing. I'd rather stick with gluten-free food that actually tastes good and I realized that I'm okay with fewer food options. I remember meeting another Jewish gluten-free friend for dinner years ago who said she didn't find it as big of a struggle as she expected. Having grown up kosher she'd always had foods that were off limits; gluten was simply an added dimension. Funny how on the one hand we lament the omnivore's dilemma (ie. with so many options, what should we eat?), and on the other the limited-vore dilemma (ie. with so many restrictions, what should we eat?). I like the attitude of a neighbor who recently invited me to dinner and, when she learned of my dietary restrictions, expressed excitement rather than horror at the challenge of preparing such a meal.

It's an interesting point to consider this time of year. The New York Times has been bracing its eaters for alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving meal for weeks. With pieces on vegan Thanksgiving, gluten-free Thanksgiving and of course, the requisite Minimalist Thanksgiving, everyone seems to be concerned about making sure to get the holiday meal just right, given dietary concerns, food sensitivities or simply time constraints. But missing are the articles about how to make a Thanksgiving meal on a budget (increasingly relevant) or even on the choice of bird. You don't have to be a vegan to harbor ethical concerns about the holiday's centerpiece, yet most people seem far more concerned with finding a stuffing recipe that is not wheat-based. (For an in-depth look at the Thanksgiving turkey question, see Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals.)

This brings me back to the kashrut question. Kosher food is not blessed by a rabbi or consecrated in any way. In its purest form it is simply deemed fit by trusted supervision of every step from farm (to factory) to table, bringing a level of consciousness and awareness to the otherwise mundane act of eating. And if that were the reason Americans were embracing kosher food, we would truly have reason to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 5, 2010

From Candy to Cali

It's been an absolutely gorgeous week in Seattle. Yesterday was so clear that I got caught in traffic leaving my house and was late for school. As I inched up the block I wondered what the deal was - an accident? a stalled car? As I inched along toward the top of the street I saw what it was that was distracting drivers - a perfect view of Mt. Rainier surrounded by the rainbow hues cast by the rising sun along the horizon. A very good reason to take pause.

The view of Rainier from Tolmie Peak, July 2010.

On days like this I am grateful to be in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest, nestled between the Cascades and the Olympics, Mt. Baker to the north, Rainier to the south. I try to remember this when the rain is cold and relentless, the sky gray and unforgiving. I also try to remember this when stupid things happen, like the passage of Initiative 1107: the repeal of the soda-candy tax this past week. The tax, which was implemented this past June, taxed soft drinks and candy produced by Washington state companies in the amount of about two cents per can of soda. The revenue was deposited into a general fund, intended for no specific programs, but to generate funds for education, human services and corrections, areas at risk for budget cuts. The groups rallying against this tax found enough signatures to make its way to the ballot and, with the financial support of the American Beverage Association, created an apparently effective tv ad campaign making outrageous claims about the tax raising prices of groceries and affecting local growers. For my first time voting in a Washington state election it was a bit of a letdown.

Meanwhile the city of San Francisco made news with it "ban" on the Happy Meal. Technically the meal itself wasn't banned, but specific nutritional guidelines were voted into place for meals that offer an "incentive item" to children and not surprisingly the signature McDonald's meal does not meet them. They could theoretically reformulate the meal to adhere to the guidelines, which require that the meal have less than 600 calories (!!!) but NPR reports that: The fast-food chain says research shows the proposal is "unrealistic" because kids aren't likely to eat the sorts of meals stipulated by the ordinance.

Inspired by San Francisco's initiative I've decided to abandon Seattle and head south for the to Cali!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kitchen Magic

As a kid my school offered after-school activities like aerobics, karate and recorder and one year my sister signed up for a class called "Kitchen Magic." Each week she would bring home a new creation - nothing extravagant, mostly simple snacks like peanut butter balls or ants on a log. At the time I thought it was lame. Who wanted to spend time in the kitchen? I wanted to play sports or create art. If I was hungry I grabbed a bowl of cereal and returned to my preferred activity.

Fast forward twenty years. When I moved to Seattle I used to tell people that I did not know how to cook. Sure I knew how to boil water, scramble an egg or bake a lasagna, but was terrified to stretch beyond my kitchen comfort zone. I distinctly remember my first visit to the Ballard Farmer's Market, amazed at how many stalls were set up and overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar produce on display. I decided that each weekend I would commit to trying a recipe with a new ingredient and see what happened.

The results were pretty discouraging. I only owned two pots and I consistently burned them. Fiercely scrubbing my cooking tools with steel wool, I felt defeated but the next weekend I would recommit my resolve to learn to cook and tried again. I spent the winter experimenting with new beans, the spring and summer with new vegetables and the following winter making soups. I realized that I was burning my pots by setting the flame (in this case, electric burners) too high. I initially believed that increasing the heat would speed up cooking time but I learned instead that, as in life, patience is a virtue in the kitchen (a lesson also learned from repeatedly burning my tongue). I began to notice that I burned dishes when I would leave the kitchen to go do schoolwork, check my email or hop in the shower. Cooking required not only my time but also attention and presence.

There are many lessons to learn in the kitchen. Recently the New York Times featured a piece focused on a cooking as science class at Harvard. (As a side note it sounds just like the food science course I am taking this quarter - a fairly standard required course for any nutrition student.) Cooking is not typically seen as an application of science, though any baker will tell you that it requires precise use of ratios. Understanding the relationship between heat and pressure will significantly affect cooking times and outcomes, as I learned when I tried to cook for my friend at a high altitude in Boulder, CO. The kitchen, in some ways, is the perfect lab. Armed with Harold McGee's magnum opus, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, you can enter this space with hypotheses about outcomes, relying upon materials and apparatus and careful measurements. Eventually, though, with time and confidence the kitchen becomes more than just a science lab, food more than just an experiment, as I learned by trial and error by burning pots in my own kitchen. Since then I've successfully cooked many delicious meals. I've tried different spice combinations, played with Thai, Indian and Japanese flavors, and made new grains like amaranth and millet, tested greens and fish and braised and poached and roasted and blanched. With time I finally came to a place where I feel comfortable in the kitchen.

That said, this morning as I was getting ready for school I decided to throw some quinoa and lentils in a pot so I would have a decent lunch. Then, as I went about my morning tasks the disturbingly familiar smell of burnt food wafted up to my room. In my attempts at multitasking I had forgotten that I was cooking and was back at square one with yet another burnt pot. While I may now feel confident in my culinary abilities - I know how to cook and can even teach basic cooking classes - it seems that I still have a lot to learn from the kitchen.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Aha! Halakhah

Generally during the school year I have little time for reading novels. But this past week I made an exception for Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which recently won the Booker Prize. Ever since I began reading it, though, its characters' preoccupation with Jewish identity have spilled over into my life in some unusual ways. Like in Food Science class.

Let me explain.

When I graduated from elementary school I received an award for dinim, or halakhah, also known as Jewish law (literally, "the way"). At the time we had spent a year studying the laws of Shabbat and I'd grown a bit obsessed with memorizing the 39 melachot or actions one is prohibited from performing on the sabbath according to Jewish law. Traditionally understood as "work," the melachot actually correspond to actions required for the service in and construction of the Tabernacle. Odd as it may sound, I was reminded of this in my Food Science class during a lecture on cereals and grains. Sitting there I realized that everything I needed to know about the process of bread-making, from start to finish (ie. seed to table), I learned in my 8th grade dinim class. Here's why: the first eleven melachot prohibited on Shabbat are the steps necessary to bake bread (since bread was an essential component in the Tabernacle). I tore out a piece of looseleaf paper and tried to jot down all the Hebrew words for ones I could remember: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, etc... (During a break in lecture I had to Google the rest.)

Then late tonight, awake and alert after drinking too much green tea I was perusing Tuesday's Health section of the NY Times and came across this question: does lying on your left side calm heartburn? Instinctively I assumed the answer would be yes. Why? Because part of the Passover seder requires reclining to the left as was the custom for royalty in ancient times. Eating while reclining to the left, I'd been taught, was optimal for digestion. Lest you think this was just the creative explanation of a Jewish day school teacher, the hypothesis was considered by a more credible source and appeared in Nature as well. Another aha! halakhic moment.

I'm not suggesting that everything I need to know I learned in Jewish day school (though I'm sure I could make that argument, much like in film school when I wrote a paper on documentary entitled, Everything I Need to Know About Ethnographic Film I Learned from Nanook [of the North] based upon the premise of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten). But reflecting on the ways Jewish tradition informs my understanding of so many concepts - whether baking bread or sleeping on the left side - I chose to write about this not because I think that Judaism, or any other religion, culture or heritage, for that matter, contains all the answers, but, in a much broader sense, I recognize the value of these personal experiences and of the many lessons we absorb and retain over the years from engaging with the communities around us. And that seemed worth sharing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Food and Film

"It's an exciting time to be interested in food!" Marion Nestle opened her talk at the University of Washington's Food: Eating Your Environment lecture series this past week with these words, a burst of energy and a satisfied grin. Suddenly many of our global concerns seems to be connected to food in some way. Major public health issues such as hunger, malnutrition and obesity are related to nutrition which is tied to food and linked back to agriculture and the land. And everyone who is anyone is jumping aboard the new food movement, visiting farmer's markets, joining CSAs, cooking, gardening, canning, fermenting and composting. Yes, it is an exciting time to be interested in food.

It is also completely overwhelming. Trying to say well informed, to keep abreast of all the goings on around the country is exhausting. With access to information only as limited as your internet connection, it can be maddeningly time consuming to keep track, especially since the nature of the movement is so grassroots that it is often highly fragmented. Proponents of the locavore movement consider this a good thing: a more organic way for communities to decide what is best to address their unique circumstances. A refusal to wait for change to come from above, instead fueled by individuals aimed at targeting smaller groups in more effective ways (perhaps a D.I.Y. food revolution, not unlike the D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution outlined this week by Nicholas Kristof) is the hallmark of this movement.

Certainly the food movement isn't without allies in the government. Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign proves an exception to the rule, and she has gained lots of cred with her White House garden. And during the President's visit to Seattle this past week he may have sampled a local favorite Top Pot doughnut, but also sent the public health message "you can't eat these everyday." Potatoes, on the other hand, apparently can be eaten every day, or so says the Executive Director of the WA State Potato Commission who is a third of the way into his 20 potatoes a day diet. It's too bad too, because he's missing out on Seattle Restaurant Week. But his "cause" only underscores the democratic nature of the food movement. Everyone eats so everyone has a say.

I have a say as well. Whether or not my opinion carries more weight because I'm studying food and nutrition is beside the point. I'm fascinated by these stories, of people and food and diets and causes and movements and as the list of food-related items I hope to blog about continues to grow, I am reminded of my days studying film. I had fallen into cinema studies by accident, but fell in love - infatuation really - with the idea that the greatest appreciation of film required an understanding of just about everything else: politics, economics, history, aesthetics. Film, I romantically believed, could provide (or perhaps more accurately, reflect) a theory of everything. But I also learned that over-consumption of culture and media can leave one feeling just as gorged and empty as bingeing on chips and cookies. And that's when it was time to take a step back and assess what was really important. What I've found is that my interest in human narrative persists and was easily transferable from one field to the next. Both film and food provide fertile ground for exploration of the human condition and can be vehicles for social change and empowerment. And with that I begin another week in this foodie paradise that is the Northwest. It's an exciting time indeed!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Food Question

Earlier this month, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg made his latest move in his anti-obesity campaign by requesting permission from the USDA to ban food stamp use toward the purchase of soda and sugar drinks. The news has generated public outcry from the beverage industry and from some less likely critics, including an expert from the Center for Science in the Public Interest who cautioned against stigmatizing the poor. (On the organization's blog, however, they do advocate for a "sin tax" on soda and such items.) Today's Week in Review section of the Times focuses on another group of critics: anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates.

The Food Stamp Act was intended to bridge the gap between farm surplus and undernourished city dwellers. It was passed in 1964 under LBJ and according to the Times:

Food stamps were designed to enlarge the choices of poor and hungry people, rather than to limit them to the most nutritious items. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco were banned. But otherwise, the stamps were to be used to buy “almost any ordinary food,” according to news accounts at the time.

The result was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, run by the USDA to which Bloomberg has appealed. Groups opposing the ban seem to be concerned over what they perceive as the federal government's attempt to further control individual behavior. As a nation built on the principle of personal liberty, perceived threats cause great alarm. Bloomberg is no stranger to this type of criticism, having defined his mayoral career on public health initiatives that banned the use of trans fats, prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants and required food establishments to label calories. But what makes the food stamp question different is what some believe to be a prescription for what poor people may or may not eat. But at the heart of the matter is the question of food. Food stamps should be extended toward the acquisition of food, but what qualifies as food?

The answer is not so clear. Is food anything that may be eaten or consumed? One might argue that this broad definition is in fact what constitutes food. But the Webster dictionary defines food as something much more specific: "material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy." If we use this definition, then food becomes far more limited to those substances that provide nourishment, energy and nutritional value. Regardless of the merit of current research on soda and its link to obesity, and the increasing health care costs associated with obesity and diabetes, soda - under this definition - is only partly considered food. It contains calories for energy, but that is all. If we were a society in which our most vulnerable members were underweight and malnourished then perhaps soda's empty calories might could arguably minimal benefits. But considering that 57% of adults and 40% of children in NYC are overweight or obese and that 1 in 8 adults in the city has diabetes, soda is not only unnecessary, but should be discouraged. The ban would not go that far and remove soda from store shelves. In an Op-Ed piece by the New York City and New York State health commissioners, both emphasized that people are free to purchase soda if they choose but food stamps should not cover the cost. And this seems to be more in line with the spirit of the food stamp program's goals. The USDA's tagline for SNAP (a nutrition assistance program) claims, "We help put healthy food on the table for over 40 million people each month." In this light Bloomberg isn't trying to change the nature of the food stamp program, he's simply aiming to enforce it.

Food is more than just nutrients: carbs, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals. But a program that is meant to provide access to "food" should provide these things at the very least.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

This week the entire NYTimes Magazine was devoted to "Eating Together." As I read about the various communal dining experiences highlighted - Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, top-rated potluck recipes, group cooking in cob ovens Berkeley - I realized that the Times had finally caught on to one of the biggest lessons I learned after I left New York: there are never too many cooks in the kitchen.

When I first arrived in Seattle I was surprised by how many potluck meals I was invited to attend. Insecure about my cooking skills I often opted to bring a bottle of wine instead. But the invitations continued. Some weekends I was invited to several, so that I found myself in the kitchen, preparing the equivalent of an entire meal in order to be a guest at other peoples' homes. This seemed outrageous to me at the time. In New York I would have thought it terribly rude to be invited to someone's home and asked to bring a dish. Seattle was different.

Two years later I regularly host large potluck meals and am consistently amazed at the variety of ingredients and flavors and courses that my friends come together to create. Without having to police my guestlist, I never have too many quinoa dishes or too few desserts or not enough wine. If I were to measure my success at building community here by the quality of my potlucks, I would be quite impressed. And in fact, I am. The only greater satisfaction comes from preparing and cooking a meal with others, something I could have never done in New York if for no other reason than that the kitchens are too small. Because a meal cooked with others is, I believe, the most gratifying kind.

My first experience is communal cooking was in Whole Foods Production class during my first year at Bastyr. Sharing a kitchen station with three classmates, we divided up the weekly tasks of chopping, mincing, sauteeing, braising and searing. We then gathered around a table to enjoy the meal together, commenting on the flavors and colors, noting what was surprising, what could be done differently next time. We would share the cleaning responsibilities and part ways, off to class or work. But something about that time spent cooking together, swapping stories and ideas, forged a closeness that would be hard to create otherwise. I've had the fortune of taking several cooking classes since then and have found that experience replicated each time. That's why Michael Pollan's description in today's magazine strongly resonated with me.
It is a long, loquacious and delicious dinner, made more special by the fact that virtually everyone at the table had a hand in preparing it. I feel as if I’ve already learned a lot cooking with this crew, especially about working together and trading ideas. Each dish might have a lead cook, but other cooks will contribute a technique or flavoring — dozens of tasting spoons have been passed around — so that the final product becomes something more or less new, even to its author. Already I’m better acquainted with everyone in the easy way that seems to happen when people work together, especially at tasks, like kitchen prep, that leave plenty of mental space for talking. The flow of conversation has been desultory, drifting from summer plans to the World Cup (playing earlier in the living room), kids, other meals, the work at hand. But it is the working together at less-than-all-consuming tasks that seems to be forging our motley crew (far flung in age and background) into something that feels like a community. Sometimes getting to know people is easier done side by side than it is face to face.

This is nothing new. Having read and seen Like Water for Chocolate I recognized that this existed in other cultures, but American kitchens seemed different. Just a few years ago I remember reading a very different piece in the New York Times, one that described the alpha cook. Based on restaurant models, the term referred to the person who gives the orders, who bullies around the others in the kitchen. A restaurant owner and alpha chef interviewed in the piece stated that "Couples cooking together is probably the second leading cause of divorce next to home renovations.”

Communal cooking is different. It requires flexibility and room for individual autonomy. It is something I have grown to love and live on a regular basis. I knew I wanted to date my now boyfriend after we spent a night baking together. For my birthday I spontaneously invited some friends to bring the random and rather scant contents of their fridges over after a yoga class and we somehow managed to create a magnificent spread that amazed us all. I still have the opportunity to cook meals with classmates at school, but have expanded to working with volunteers for Teen Feed and with homeless youth at Street Youth Ministries as well.

I am just like everyone else, often too tired to prepare a meal and would more likely grab a quick snack. I find that I am more inclined to cook with others. Dividing up the work the process goes faster, and with some conversation or music the experience is more enjoyable. And when there are multiple chefs in the kitchen I am certain that the food tastes better too.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Back to the Bubble

Last week was back to school week for me. Time away from the "Bastyr Bubble" was much needed but it's great to be back in a place that gives me constant food for thought, not to mention amusing blogworthy fodder. Here are some of the things that have entertained me this week and some of the reasons I'm happy to be back on campus:

1. Chard cards, our clever new school ID and cash cards. If you don't know what chard is, well, you probably don't go to Bastyr.
2. Neuro drinks. Someone left an empty bottle of this laying around in the hallway and I had to find out more. Turns out it's a line of functional energy drinks that supposedly enhance sexual health, mental health, and aid with sleep, weight loss and depression. I did read a review of these drinks that touted some real effects, which honestly seemed like reason for concern. But the effects seem to be short-lived: just long enough for you to develop an unhealthy addiction to these sweetened drinks. I guess the real issue is this - you want to make sure not to mistakenly drink a bottle of NeuroGasm instead of NeuroSonic before a big exam. (I strongly recommend spending some time on their website for some amusing videos.)
3. Lunchtime garden sales. My school has a magnificent garden that grows medicinal herbs and vegetables. Many of the herbs are used in botanical medicine and cooking classes. Some of the produce is donated to a local food bank, while some is sold during lunch. Coming home with bright green collard greens is better than just coming home with a whole lot of homework.

4. Food for Fines. Before the summer I took out Oliver Sack's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat from the school library. Then I traveled and forgot to return it for quite some time. I found a notice from the library in my box letting me know that I can pay off my overdue fines by bringing in non-perishable food items to be donated.

5. Class! I am very excited to be taking some really cool classes this quarter, including Contemporary Nutrition: Global/Ecological Aspects, a fascinating class that I think may steer this blog in another direction, and The Art of Eating, a joyful class about the life and work of M.F.K. Fisher, a renowned food writer. In a few weeks I may change my tune, but that would likely be under the duress of a heavy workload. In the meantime I will celebrate the intellectual stimulation that this quarter promises to deliver.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Apple A Day

I could see the glimmer in my mother's eyes when I started taking nutrition prereq a few years ago. I enjoyed the dreaded organic chemistry and biochemistry classes and I knew what she was thinking - hoping what every cliche tells us a Jewish mother wishes for her child - that I would become a doctor. I told her and anyone else who suggested it that I would not become a doctor. I need my sleep, I faint every time I give blood and though I do not seem to be in a hurry to finish school, I was not about to embark on the long, demanding road to medical school. Nutrition would suffice. As though I were settling. In fact it was a very calculated decision - perhaps the most reasonable and rational one I've made to date. I wanted to change the face of public health and quality of life in the easiest, most basic way possible through an understanding of how the body works in order to address the root problem of most preventable illness while still allowed to maintain my own health and sanity. Well, most of the time. I figured that if everybody eats there would always be a need for health care providers to guide those eating decisions.

No, mom I will not be a doctor. I have not studied anatomy and physiology in the same detail, I have not focused as much time and attention on pathologies and diagnoses (though sometimes watching House I pretend). But I do know a good deal about food, cooking and nutrition and according to a recent article in The New York Times, most doctors cannot say the same. Though there is increasing recognition in the medical community that diet is linked to health, few doctors are equipped to discuss this with patients. This is where dietitians and nutritionists should be acknowledged as filling in the crucial missing link in preventative medicine and chronic disease management.

Ask most doctors why "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" and I wonder what they might say. Ask a nutrition expert and they'll tell you that apples are low in calories, a great source of fiber and they are naturally rich in phytochemicals like quercetin, one of the current darlings of the dietary supplement world. Eating apples can keep you healthy and hopefully out of the doctor's office. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that the AMA removed a focus on nutrition from med school curricula to keep patients sick and business booming (though a more cynical conspiracy theorist might make that argument). I imagine there is only so much time and over the years the emphasis has shifted to treating conditions rather than root causes. I think that doctors today are overworked and stuck in administrative and financial battles with insurance companies and have less and less time to spend with patients. And I think that they might appreciate a future nutritionist like me easing their patient load with little bits of advice like this: it's apple season (in WA and NY!) so do yourself a favor and go apple picking, make a salad or dip your apples in some honey or caramel and have a sweet year ahead!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tweets and Sweets, Fat and Friends

In college I loved sociology classes. Sociology of mass communication and pop culture, the American Jewish community, movies, religious fundamentalism. I took so many that I graduated with an obsessively critical mind and minor in sociology. If I were in college today I imagine I'd be registered for a course this fall on the sociology of social networking.

Social networking just barely existed when I was an undergraduate ten years ago. I first registered for Facebook as a graduate student at NYU when I learned that my sister Leigh's friend had posted pictures from Leigh's wedding on the site. I wanted to see them and I still had a .edu email address so I created an account. For the first six months I had about 5 friends, all college-age younger siblings of my real life friends. Then something changed. Maybe the right people had signed up and made it desirable and acceptable for skeptics and cynics to join or maybe it was when the site allowed non-students to sign up, but Facebook hit a tipping point. The initial excitement (I found my kindergarten crush! That guy who sat behind me in Spanish class! My friends from study abroad!) soon turned to public outcry (My mother joined Facebook! My boss, my teacher, my students!) The ongoing battle began - to secure privacy policies and allow access to a select few (hundred) people so that your potential employers did not come across your spring break photos from Cancun, 2003. The culture of Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, of Twitter has changed the way we live and the way we relate. It's not surprising then, that it has also affected our health.

This week an article in The New York Times addressed the use of social networks to tackle public health problems. do we extract information from existing social networks to improve public health?

One method is to identify social connectors, people who spend time with more friends than average — and are thus exposed to more germs and are more likely to be among the first to contract contagious diseases like the flu. If health officials could find and track those social butterflies, they could tap into an early-detection system for epidemics and figure out whom to vaccinate first in order to slow the spread of disease.

This suggests a way to use social networks for control of infectious disease. But what about other health conditions? Last year The New York Times magazine featured an article, "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?" The answer, they found, was not only are your friends making you fat, but so are your friends' friends. The Framingham Study, conducted by the National Heart Institute, began in 1948 and over the years ithas become an important longitudinal study of heart disease by assessing biometrics, risk factors and other confounding factors. It was noted that healthy participants influenced one another in a way that benefited weight and overall health. It turns out that obesity, smoking, happiness can all be contagious. And no system lends itself to social contagion quite like the internet, where information can go viral. So does that mean it's time to go through your 537 Facebook friends and unfriend the fat ones? Perhaps if they update their status every day with messages like: Blankety McSo-and-So had the most decadent and rich slow-churn homemade ice cream sundae and can still taste the hot fudge on my lips. Go to your freezer and indulge too!" or "Lazy Johnsondecided that staying home and a seven hour Glee marathon was a far better idea than getting any sort of physical activity. Singing along on the couch is exercise too, right?" If reading these posts will influence your own behavior, then maybe unfriending (or at least hiding them in your feed) is a good solution. Or try the diet that encourages participants to broadcast every calorie and morsel they ingest. It worked for these people. (For those not interested in disclosing their food habits publicly there is a calorie-counting iPhone app to track food intake.)

I'm thinking about this today as two old friends from New York arrive for a weekend visit. Last time they visited they were afraid that I would force them to eat kale. As we spent time together cooking and eating they were realized that I enjoyed food that tastes good. This time around they know the drill. One is excited to go hiking again, the other is eager to walk around the lake. "I think I lost weight when I came to you last time," one offered. The other recalls tasting quinoa for the first time, and loving it. As for me, I'm looking forward to taking time to talk and laugh with old friends...cuz laughter is contagious too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The "V" Word

Several months ago when I first started blogging a friend had suggested I read Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book, Eating Animals. At the time I was buried in schoolwork and could not fathom picking up a book for pleasure (is that what one might call a book about factory farming?) but earlier this month, with news of the author's impending visit to the Emerald City I decided it was time to use one of my Barnes and Noble giftcards to see what all the hype was about. When the cashier rang up my purchase she couldn't help but share her two cents. "I loved this book! After reading it I became a vegetarian. It made Natalie Portman vegetarian too. So you might want to go enjoy your last burger before you start reading it."

My last burger. I remember my last burger. It was ten years ago, eaten at a beach bbq in Southern California. At the time I was a counselor for a summer teen tour of the West Coast and there had been a major snafu with the kosher food for the trip. For six weeks I ate cereal and granola bars and pasta and by the end I was feeling sick and tired. At the end of the trip we arrived in Los Angeles where there were more kosher food options and the cook bought enough kosher meat to bbq for the group of 100. The only complication was that I was a vegetarian. I'd sworn off red meat years prior and so it had been nearly five years since my last burger. But here I was at this bbq with no vegetarian options, and I made the choice to eat a burger. Feeling guilty at first, I decided that this would be a one time deal, so I ate a burger and as I sank my teeth in I enjoyed it. Afterward I thought, am I no longer a vegetarian? Was this akin to breaking my fast on Yom Kippur? Was it all over? That all or nothing approach to eating animals is precisely the problem with using the word "vegetarian" and one of the reasons Jonathan Safran Foer deliberately avoided using it whenever possible during his reading and conversation last night at Town Hall. The "v" word (my term) creates a dichotomy (his term) of all or nothing, black and white that points to our obsession with hypocrisy. In light of his book, of learning of the evils and perils of the unsustainable and detrimental factory farming system, eating less meat is still a legitimate response, a way to engage with the issue.

I agree with every argument in the book - it's hard not to. In fact, Safran Foer has said that during his book tour around the country he anticipated a lot of disagreement and opposition but has not found any because nothing he writes about is controversial. It is very clear that factory farming is harming our health, the animals and the environment on an unbelievably massive scale. And yet, reading Eating Animals did not make me a full blown "vegetarian." It did make me think a lot more seriously about where my food comes from, how I spend my money, what I value and how to engage in conversations about food.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Eating Animals is that it is not a manifesto. Safran Foer has no agenda for the reader, just as he did not preach to the audience last night. He does not tell people how they should eat but simply presents his personal journey in a compelling and intelligent prose, encouraging readers and eaters everywhere to consider what is on their plates and what it is worth. He doesn't talk politics or policy and admits that he doesn't know much about legislation and current issues. He is a writer not a journalist, a father concerned with what to feed his children. After years of research and reflection he reluctantly calls himself a vegetarian. And this is perhaps why so many people have been affected by the book: because it's about examining one's values and recognizing that sometimes personal compromise means losing one's self in the process. And that's not worth a 50 cent burger.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Despite a month-long blogging hiatus, I've never really stopped reading and thinking about food news, articles, ideas and politics. In fact, in some ways I've been more engaged than ever. Instead of sitting down to reflect and opine upon the latest trends, I dove deep into a reservoir of food-related information that continues to shock, impress, confound and inspire me.

So in case you've been busy with your summer reading (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, anyone?), one of the big stories I've been following, aside from the daily recalls of every food under the sun: Kids, advertising and junk food.

For years food corporations have targeted kids with their marketing campaigns. My own childhood memories are peppered with favorite cereals, eaten while watching cartoons that featured ads for those very same brands. Years later, it's not uncommon for me to sit around with a group of my friends and reminisce about the cereal ads of yore and then watch the old ads on Youtube. ("Gotta have my pops." "Brings out the tiger in you "Kid tested, mother approved." Google your personal favorites.)

Back in 2005, the Food and Nutrition Board and the Institute of Medicine conducted a report and published the findings in Food Marketing to children and Youth, a book that can be downloaded for free from their website. The report found that:
Children's dietary and related health patterns are shaped by the interplay of many factors their biologic affinities, their culture and values, their economic status, their physical and social environments, and their commercial media environments all of which, apart from their genetic predispositions, have undergone significant transformations during the past three decades. Among these environments, none have more rapidly assumed central socializing roles among children and youth than the media.
And yet, this report did little to galvanize legislators to introduce any industry marketing standards to protect kids. Fast forward to June of this year - a friend of mine posted this piece on Facebook. It cites recent research concluding that kids will choose food options that feature cartoon characters over foods that do not. Since I have yet to see a carrot or apple donning a recognizable Disney character, this bodes poorly for children's health. Then in late July, the New York Times reported that long overdue government intervention into the establishment of uniform health standards for children is being stalled due to - imagine this! - industry opposition. For years the FTC has "encouraged" the voluntary use of discretion when advertising to kids, but in April of this year it launched Admongo, a site designed to "ad-ucate" tweens in media literacy. As for the younger set, well, they're left to their own devices in order to decode the heavily researched marketing messages that ad agencies have carefully and calculatingly crafted to influence their consumer desires.

If you have any doubt about the power of advertising, spend a minute playing this alphabet game that I was introduced to this past week at the Washington State Food and Nutrition Council's annual conference. Can you name the product that each letter represents?


I hope sometime in the future there will come a day when the ABC's will represent Apples, Bananas and Carrots, rather than All, Bubblicious and Campbell's. I would even settle for "ABC" simply conjuring up a good Jackson 5 song.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Morning After

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day when Jews come out of the woodwork, flock to synagogue in droves, bang their chests to confess their sins and pray for the year ahead, all the while forgoing any and all food and beverage for a 25 hour fast. But why fast? Often in Jewish tradition, fasting is demanded at times of heightened spiritual reflection. The idea is to deny - or perhaps more accurately, transcend - one's physical needs and turn inward to recognize what is really important. The prophet Isaiah eloquently expresses the purpose of the fast in the portion read on Yom Kippur (58:5-7):
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Fasting, then is intended to encourage social justice, to arouse one to free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless. But from my own experience and that of others I've spoken to, this lesson of Yom Kippur is often obscured as we sit in services with dry mouths and rumbling stomachs. My goal is often to simply make it through the day, since I am unaccustomed to skipping a meal. In fact, you could say that I am fastidious about eating healthful, well balanced meals at fairly regular intervals. And while I find that fasting gets easier as I get older, I find it harder and harder to recover from long periods of hunger. Studying nutrition has taught me that biochemically there are major shifts in metabolism that occur over periods of time without food. Fasting has taught me that psychologically there are major shifts as well.

Last night as Yom Kippur ended, a sense of relief washed over everyone who had made it through the day. Where I was attending services, rather than race for food, many of us sang and danced and wished each other a happy new year. We then proceeded to drink some water and eat a modest break fast meal.

Then I woke up this morning. I can't quite describe my level of hunger - it was not quite ravenous but certainly insatiable. Instead of my usual oatmeal I dug out leftover quinoa with lentils, carrots, apples, and almond butter. I drank cup after cup of tea and, feeling full, left the house for an hour. When I returned I was again drawn to the kitchen - not from hunger, but from some other need to eat, to know that I had food, to feel the sensation of chewing, of swallowing, of being full and satiated and nourished, even if it was overly so. This was not a physical need but a psychological one. I had experienced only one day without eating and drinking and this had triggered survival mode food hoarding behavior. It gave me just the tiniest insight into what it means to really be hungry, to think about food in this way, without even regard for taste or satiety but as a more base desire and basic human need.

Last week I watched Ellen Gustafson's TED Talk linking obesity and hunger and was struck by one of her leading statements: "...when I'm hungry I'm really pissed off and I'm assuming that the rest of the world is too." I have certainly felt this way - my family will tell you that I'm not the most pleasant person when I haven't eaten - but more than that, when I'm hungry I think about food in an entirely different way. So while Gustafson takes a macro approach and links hunger and obesity to problems with global agricultural policies (which is true), I think there is also a more micro level relationship at play. I know, for example, that when I shop hungry I buy far more food than I need. I eat far more than I need. More broadly, skipping meals or eating irregularly triggers an altered relationship with food, leads to binges, to overeating, to obesity.

Yom Kippur may have ended last night, and traditionally that means that the heavenly gates have closed and my fate and the world's have been sealed for the coming year. But the lesson of Yom Kippur, of what it means to really fast, did not kick in until today. I may have eaten and bathed, but the food did not satiate my hunger, the shower did not wash away the empathy Yom Kippur generated for those who do not know what, when and where their next meal will be.