Mindfully Yours: Saving Fat for Explosives or Eating for Peace?

“When practiced to its fullest, mindful eating turns a simple meal into a spiritual experience, giving us a deep appreciation of all that went into the meal’s creation as well as a deep understanding of the relationship between the food on our table, our own health, and our planet’s health.” ~ Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh

Saying Goodbye!

Saying Goodbye!

I recall from my childhood a radio slogan, geared to WWII-era women at home behind their kitchen stoves and sinks: “Bye-bye, buy bonds, save chicken fat, and DO join the WACS!” In Asheville, North Carolina, trolley tracks that had been buried beneath the streets were ripped up and used as scrap for military production. Western NC women were urged to save fat and greases to return them to butchers. The butcher would pay for the fat and sell it to rendering plants to be processed into explosives. Since meats, oils, and butter were all rationed, patriotic women were re-using fat for frying as often as possible before collecting it in a can and turning it in.

The 50s brought us such insurrectionist inventions as automats in ‘The Big Apple’ and innovative foods like Spaghettios, and the ever-popular canned peas, as well as overdone roasts and limp, gravy-sodden carrots on Sunday at 2:00 after church. Kiwis didn’t exist. Once in while on a Friday night, Dad would come home from the corner bar with mouth-watering deep-fried fish and chips in greasy white butcher’s paper. Our choices at the grocery store were Soviet compared to today’s array of fresh greens and exotic fruits and veggies and international fare, as well as grass-fed beef and organic meats and eggs that have multiplied sequentially in the last six decades.

As a newlywed in the mid-sixties, my weekly shopping budget for the two of us was $15, besides which I saved Green Stamps and Betty Crocker coupons, and collected willow ware plates and cups at the A&P, one a week. The plates are now collector’s items. In 2015, our total average weekly household grocery expenses in the U.S. were $100.81.

We’ve moved from grocery stores to supermarkets to hypermarkets to fast foods to the ubiquitous Starbucks ‘perfect oatmeal’ breakfast, and from sitting down as a family at the dining room table to grazing. In the last fifty years the way we shop and consume has changed more quickly than at any other time in human history.

Grocery shopping no longer means shopping at a ‘primary store.’ Shoppers choose faux butter on sale from one grocer, frozen ready-made dinners from a discount chain, and they might stop on their way home in a health food store or farmer’s market for their fresh organic produce. Mainstream grocery retailers face strong competition from more specialized stores. Mom is no longer the family’s sole shopper. Everyone gets a turn. What planning meant to food shoppers in the past has vacillated wildly; the selections are so abundant and various that meal planning often happens spontaneously, depending on what looks good in the produce aisle of a Wal-Mart Super Store. Or what’s on sale at Hopey’s or the local Co-op. Thanks to the flood of available data on what constitutes healthy eating, shoppers are more conscious about their food choices. Our preferences are determined by what’s the freshest berry and where do I find today’s blemish-free pears and palest celery hearts. Consumers seek experts behind the produce counters and small artisan shops to help them navigate our vast world of food and wellness.

It is possible now to put in a digital order at your food store and have the food ready for pickup or even delivered. But most people prefer to look at/handle the food to feel its freshness before buying. Kids have more of a voice now about what goes on the shopping list, as family food decisions have become more democratic. Ironically, though, to the extent that we are more involved with the food we eat, we are less apt to cook it and more apt to opt for restaurant fare, another foodie platform which has exploded. Brand loyalty is a thing of the past. We expect far more from our food and the companies that grow and sell it. And it is easier to switch brands now. Consumer behavior has changed courtesy of commercial television and the Internet revolution. So while consumers are more engaged and powerful, still they are cooking less.

I’m not sure when mindful eating came into its own in Western North Carolina. Perhaps some time in the last couple of decades. Mindful eating – consisting of watching our breathing (in-out/in-out) as we chew, chewing the food slowly and savoring each morsel – is another kind of revolution. Each meal, even each green bean, becomes a meditation. We name the food and think of all the people it took to get it to our table. My mother used to inhale her food; in fact she did so until she died at age 94. I never knew whether she was chewing it or not, but how could such a tiny woman swallow that amount of chicken without chewing? I thought perhaps it was because her dentures weren’t working so well.

My grandmother, on the other hand, was my first mindfulness teacher, always exhorting me as a child to sit up straight and “masticate properly” so that the digestive juices could be released by my saliva. She saw the digestive system as a marvel. It was she who sent me out in the back yard to hear, see, touch, smell and feel all l could in a silent three-minute walk, and then requested I write it all down without talking. She was probably sick of hearing my jabber mouth, but in the repeated process of getting five minutes of peace for herself, she turned me into a writer with great posture – also a mindful eater. My teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I met in the early nineties, finished the job. He encourages us to eat less meat and more plant-based foods – slowly, mindfully, consciously – for the very sake of our dear planet. After all, peace within ourselves fosters peace in the world.

Judith Toy will be moving this coming May to a rural teaching community and Earth Literacy Center called Narrow Ridge, in Washburn, Tennessee. (See her March, 2016, column in WNC Woman.) Most Narrow Ridge houses are off the grid. Residents teach and practice sustainable living. This is her last column for WNC Woman. She expresses her deep thanks to her “lovely savvy editor,” Sandi Tomlin-Sutker, and gratitude to her many friends, in and out of the mindfulness community that gathered around Judith and her late husband, Philip Toy, in Black Mountain, at Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living, for the past 17 years.

Written by Judith Toy