We say nothing essential about the cathedral when we speak of its stones. ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 – 1944)
It was Aldous Huxley who described the brain as a “reducing valve”.[i] The mind, exposed to a theoretically infinite number of experiences, breaks down and synthesizes chunks of the infinite into intelligible thoughts, words, and memories. In fact, the central function of the brain, purported Huxley, was not to expand consciousness, but to keep it from spinning off into limitlessness by reducing its awareness into much smaller, more manageable fragments. The brain, therefore, is not that which makes expansive consciousness possible, but rather that which limits it.
And so, we distill a piece of this infinity — lest we be swallowed and digested by it — into an ego, whose main role, is to deny that we are more than this illusion of finitude. Humans, perched both preeminently and precariously on top of the food chain, must reduce other things, or be reduced by other organisms. Digest or be digested;dominate or be dominated. These laws of survival infuse cultural patterns with unnecessary and misdirected behaviors, however.
One of these behaviors is the routine atomization of our food into its nutritional components. The soul is in the whole. However, we lose the soul when we destroy the whole in favor of a list of constituents. We take strange comfort in creating formulas for our physical health without considering our emotional health. These formulas borrow from labels.
They borrow from lists of vitamin C super-foods and not from the experience of squeezing just picked oranges into a glass of fresh, bright juice; from omega 3/omega 6 ratio statistics and not from the anticipation of a dinner of roasted, nut-crusted wild salmon; from so-called recommended daily intakes of grams of protein and not in the elegance of a resolutely fluffy mushroom omelet. We focus on the parts and consequently we lose the soul. Inhabiting the soul is the healing and the pleasure of food – the very results we seek. Tragically, we lose those too.
In an article published recently on greenmedinfo.com, Margie King talks about the whole food being more than the sum of its parts.[ii] She draws from the research of Dr. Annemarie Colbin, author ofFood and Healing who purports that when we consume fragments of a whole food, our bodies feel the absence of the missing parts and proceed to seek them.[iii]
The USDA’s ‘Nutrition Facts’[iv] profile on apples illustrates the inanity of the reductionist approach taken to its extreme. According to this interpretation, the apple, despite its place as the most famously iconic of all health foods appears to be nothing more than a sugar-rich, nutritionally empty, dummy food!
Apples, Raw, with Skin, USDA
This reduction of food into aggregations of elements does not even acknowledge the benefit of the whole ingredient, let alone in a combination of ingredients. Pesto is a Genovese specialty that has become a prolific North American condiment. Filtered through the nutritional reductionist’s lens, this would be abbreviated to merely basil and pine nuts and their respective nutritional contributions. According to the USDA nutrition data base, basil has 6% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. Pine nuts are rich in omega 3 fats.
But isn’t this traditional, versatile food with its countless variations more than a couple of micronutrients piled atop pasta? A more holistic approach would consider that even strictly nutritionally speaking, pesto is at the very least an ensemble piece and not a pair of individual characters monologuing at opposite ends of the stage. For example, the fat in pine nuts would make more bio-available the fat soluble vitamin A in the basil. The basil’s volatile essential oil fraction would prevent rancidity in the fat of the pine nut. Ingredients can save one another, make each other the best renditions of themselves. This synergy – this magic if you will – is significant. Yet our reducing valve persists, keeping our minds wrapped tightly around the finite, denying us the magic.
More magic is lost as we sanitize the libidinal origins out of the experience of eating and ignore the therapeutic value in the mindful and deliberate preparation of our food. We fixate on fast and easy. We forget that perhaps twenty minutes spent compiling a lettuce wrap filled with favorite foods affords us an opportunity to meditate that the ten spent warming a product constructed by a stranger in a sterilized kitchen does not. We consider only adjunct the setting in which we eat when it is central to the healing power of our food believing that eating from packages – not plates – is more practical. Cooking for and serving the beloved people in one’s community seems to be impractical when in fact it is only slightly less convenient but boundlessly more rewarding than eating alone.
Reduction of whole things into parts of things is a process our consciousness has perfected. It has helped put us here in this moment right now and, as such, must have some value. The reduction of our experience of food into ingredients and – further – into mono-chemicals teased out from the plumbless background of complex chemistries however, fails us. The perpetual objective of simplifying when applied to food and eating robs us of the real healing.
We were meant to eat whole foods, not supplements extracted from the real thing. We were meant to prepare food with and for others and enjoy and consider those preparations in community. We were meant to eat without layers of plastic or paper interrupting our sensory journey. At our current post-modern pace and with our penchant for the instantaneous and the distilled, this propensity for diminution not only steals the joy from our food, it may eventually do us in.