Years ago, I dined with a surgeon friend who ordered a meal that was a favorite from his childhood. I was curious as I watched him dig into his fat-laden meal. Finally, I had to ask him, “How can you — a medical doctor — eat food that you know is unhealthy for you?”
Almost like he was christening his coronaries with the sludge he was ingesting, he calmly answered, “As a physician, most of the time I eat food to feed my body. But I also know that sometimes I need to feed my soul.”
After that meal, I thought a lot about the idea of feeding the soul, and I came to the conclusion that it involves more than just the food on my plate.
Most of the time, our relationship with food is elementary and we eat food to feed our bodies. But tapping into how food feeds our souls elevates a common necessity (eating) to a rite that lends meaning and purpose to our lives.
Examples of how food feeds the soul abound — in religion, family tradition, geographical identity, socialization, and by connecting us to nature.
In religious observances, food is intended to nourish the soul. Some examples that come to mind are Christianity’s Holy Communion, Judaism’s Passover Seder, and Islam’s Ramadan.
Religion also incorporates abstention from food into its rituals and liturgy. Forgoing food can enhance its sacredness. When food is removed from our table, we tend to turn inward for sustenance. After a fasting period, food has more meaning and vibrancy. The process of fasting and then eating again reawakens the both the senses and the soul.
As to family tradition, food can touch our earliest memories. Just as my surgeon friend fed his soul with a favorite dish from his childhood, people often associate foods from childhood with feelings of comfort, security, and love. We all inherited food traditions from our families — mom’s peanut butter cookies, Sunday pancake breakfasts, hot dogs from the ballpark when we went to games with dad.
We can pass on these familial treasures or we can build new food associations with being safe and loved. Whether it is a monthly meal at a favorite restaurant or a home-cooked dinner, we can start family traditions with our children, parents, or siblings.
Anthony Bourdain’s television series “Parts Unknown” does an excellent job of highlighting how food feeds the soul of people’s geographical identities. From Paraguay and Thailand to the Bronx and the Mississippi Delta, every week Bourdain takes his viewers on a cultural excursion with food as the centerpiece. To feel the soul of a location, it’s important to eat foods that are emblematic of the culture.
Indigenous foods speak to the soul of people all over the world. Tahitian vanilla bean, Irish black pudding, Maryland crab, New Zealand lamb — every place has a food, a crop, or a dish with which they especially identify. Food from the homeland feeds our souls because it elicits feelings of comfort, pride, and familiarity, much like our family traditions do.
Socialization often revolves around food as well. We break bread with others and socialize over meals. On a primitive level, eating a meal with someone signifies trust, intimacy, and generosity.
The mere fact that archeologists suggest that food sharing goes back to prehistoric times speaks to our collective conscience. If humankind has a collective soul, I believe it can be found at the dinner table we share with our prehistoric ancestors.
Lastly, feeding our souls connects us to nature, just as nature connects us to our souls.
It’s a near-spiritual experience to eat an entire meal aware of how food engages your senses. Behold the rainbow of colors, patterns, and composition of the foods; taste the varying flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, spicy); smell the scents (pungent, flowery, fruity); feel the temperatures and textures of the food against the tongue and roof of your mouth.
When we are acutely aware of our food, we honor not only the bounty of Mother Nature but the breathtaking fact that we possess the ability to experience it through our senses.
Reminding ourselves of these things helps us to appreciate the delicious and readily available food we eat. And when we recognize that food does much more than just feed our bodies, we satisfy not just our hunger but our souls.