Eat, drink & be merry

Whatever our cultural, spiritual or religious heritage, this time of year is one of celebration for many people around the world. How we celebrate depends on where we live, our resources and the traditions we have inherited or created for ourselves, but those celebrations almost always include food and, often, food shared with others.

The meal(s) we enjoy with family and friends may be simple or elaborate, may be one person’s creation or a potluck, may be the same thing every year or change from year to year.

Over the past two years, most of us have had to adapt how we celebrate; in particular, scaling back on the number of people we put around our tables, but the concept of food as part of celebration has remained important.

Abhijit Banerjee, a 2019 economics Nobel recipient for his work to alleviate global poverty, is a man of many talents. Cooking to Save Your Life, published this year, offers readers:

“suggestions on what to serve your enemy and what to serve dear friends when you have forgotten that they are about to visit you and you have very little time to whip something up to impress them.”

In a recent New York Times essay, Banerjee wrote:

“[E]ating something special is a source of great excitement.  . . . Standing at the end of this very dark and disappointing year, almost two years into a pandemic, we all need the joy of a feast – whether actual or metaphorical.”

But not if you’re poor

I remember stumbling over an article in a magazine when I was in my early 20s that sharply criticized “the poor” for using their limited resources to buy junk food. By way of example, the author carefully set out the cost and nutritional value of a pound of potatoes compared to a bag of potato chips.

It wasn’t rocket science; anyone could have figured out that the pound of potatoes gave better value in terms of both money spent and nutrition.

What the article neglected to explore were the many reasons beyond mere physical sustenance that we eat food. The delight to our palate of that crisp, salty potato chip. The joy of savouring the sweetness of a chocolate bar. The energy bounce from a sip of pop The ease on a busy day of ordering takeout.

In North America, those forbidden pleasures are equally seductive whether we have lots of money to spend on food or have to scrimp to make our food budget last to the end of the month.

American research shows that, regardless of household income, people spend about 40 percent of their grocery dollars on basics like meat, fruit, vegetables milk and eggs, another 40 percent on dry goods, including prepared foods, bean, rice and pasta, and about 20 percent on what could be called junk food: chips, pop and candy.

This has not stopped lawmakers from trying to limit what people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, can purchase. On the prohibited list: alcohol and cigarettes — no surprise there — but also vitamins, supplements, food that is hot “at the point of sale” (ie. takeout food) and pet food. Not presently prohibited, but a frequent topic of debate among legislators: snack foods and non-alcoholic beverages.

Rationing as social control

Of course, the notion of limiting access to certain foods is not a new concept. During WWII, for example, Canada rationed sugar, coffee, tea, butter and meat. However, there was no class divide about who got what: everyone had the same ration book.

The End of Men, by Christina Sweeney-Baird, not a book about a gang of fed-up feminists who decide to knock off all the men on the planet, but a novel about a global pandemic that only kills men is well worth reading for many reasons.

Towards the end of the novel, those with the responsibility to implement a food ration program in England struggle with the question of whether or not people should be allowed to use a portion of their rations for treats. The discussion is a passionate and intelligent one that also looks at how to address the needs of people with food allergies and spiritual prohibitions and requirements about certain foods. No spoilers here: you will have to read the book to learn how the discussion ends.

Living in the land of plenty

All our complaining about early-pandemic shortages and hoarding aside, most of us don’t spend a lot of time worrying about where our next meal is coming from. We are fortunate to be able to, for the most part, take food for granted. I have never gone to bed hungry or woken up wondering if there would be any breakfast.

Even so, I have felt the need to feast more in the past two years than ever before. Banerjee’s essay made me feel better about this. As he wrote:

“An occasional splurge on something delicious, a meal that excites the mouth, makes it easier to keep going. This feasting season, that momentary joy is likely to feel especially essential. . . . There’s a widespread need to reconnect to all the things that make life worth living, and what better moment than now? What better way than with a feast?”

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