Happy Easter. This week my brother and his family are visiting from Washington. It is so wonderful to be together.
But just yesterday my aunt Alicia died. She had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I feel so fortunate that I was able to share a week with her in her place by the ocean last January. I think it was the last week she was OK before she started having the crisis that ended yesterday. My first letter to you was about my feelings during that trip. I feel angry because smoking caused her to die so early (she was only 72). Damn addiction, damn cigarettes.
I had started writing to you about food last weekend and today I thought I needed to change my letter and talk about … I really don’t know. I’m sad. She was such a lively person. She loved a good life. She was social and loved art and good things. And food is a good thing. A good smell is a good thing. I want to keep breathing in the smell of our orange trees’ flowers at night. Aaaah! it’s magical. Why is a damn cigarette a thing that someone wants to inhale and savor? I don’t know. Being with my brother and his family now is helping with the pain. We have a good time together, especially when we sit at the table to enjoy a good meal. Food is such a magnet, the soul of the party, or simply… life. But I imagine that when my aunt would smoke a cigarette she enjoyed the moment too. Enjoying what we drink or eat is good but evidently we need to think about it. And as this is a time for families to get together around here in Latin America and therefore a time for eating and also for fasting for some people, I had been thinking about food as a way to live more fully, not the opposite.
I read the other day: I eat, therefore I am. It should obviously be I am, therefore I eat: it is about survival. But it is so much more, of course. And yet, not eating is a very important practice for some. This is a time of fasting for Christians. Fasting for penitence or for spiritual growth. What I understand is that refraining from basic desires like food and sex is supposed to show us the spiritual realm of our existence. We are body and spirit, but spirit is what truly matters. Fasting can be dangerous, though. I remember one day we went looking for my Turkish friend Tolga. We went to his room and knocked on the door. He took a while to answer; looked pale. He said hello and then fainted. He had been fasting for Ramadan and had been working in the hot Florida sun during the day. But fasting is prescribed by Islam, so he had to do it despite the hard work he had to do in the field. What can fasting do for a non-believer? I imagine that it can make a person stronger by gaining endurance, more joyful by showing the fragility of life, more disciplined and more modest. I think that Epicurus would be against it. He claimed that we should pursue positive pleasures, like fine food and friendship. I agree. But now that I am missing my aunt and I feel so sad because something that made her feel good made her die so young, I think that by not eating we could, first, learn about the damage we can cause our body with what we ingest, and second, make us see the urgency of living better lives.
However, I suggest that if eating is such a basic necessity, eating should bring us closer to our spirit, and I mean self-knowledge. We can pay attention to what we eat, how we eat it and how it makes us feel, think about where the food comes from, read about it, so many ways to learn and enjoy. We could learn to empathize with the struggle of the land, the animals and the people who are involved in the production of food served at the table. Here at our little farm we produce coffee, citrus fruits, vegetables, tropical fruits like mangoes, passion fruit, bananas, soursop (guanábana). We have chickens but no space for cows or pigs. It is truly great to be able to grow and care for what we eat. When I cook and serve the food we grow I feel so happy. It could be the simplest of dishes and I enjoy it to my heart. Seeing the process of growth and harvest makes me appreciate food very much. Do you cook sometimes? I cook lunch everyday. Sometimes it gets boring because the same recipes are prepared over and over. So I try to be creative.
Seeing “Noma: My Perfect Storm” was inspiring. It is food for thought. It is not that it inspires people to become professional chefs like René Redzepi, but that it shows how amazing the human spirit of innovation is. And this is a spirit we all share, so it is possible for everyone. The thing is that we can have fun and honor life by doing art with food. Start with the cutting of vegetables. I am sure we can play and find fun ways to cut a carrot or green beans. I recently discovered how to French-cut green beans. The difference at the table was amazing! The green beans even seemed to taste better! Everyone was smiling. Kids should also be an inspiration. Most kids don’t like vegetables. It could be evolution and the need to feed on meat to get protein or simply that kids are taught to eat junk food and feel good about it. It is a challenge. To make them like vegetables is a fun project and we have to get creative about flavor and presentation. A little bit of gastronomic education can help them (and all of us) to gain appreciation for food. My aunt loved good food and drink, but one thing is taste and the immediate pleasure you feel as you ingest, and another how you feel in the long term. We need to be careful and mindful. We’ve better love our lungs, our esophagus, our intestines, our colon, our stomach, our teeth, our mouth and listen for what they have to say.