The Positive Emotions of Eating
Some of my most wonderful memories are of food. I remember the first meal that I cooked for my family when I was a boy. It was a steak salad. Just a simple salad of romaine lettuce topped artfully with cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced bits of steak I cooked myself and a bit of parmesan cheese. I did it all by myself, and I remember my brother telling me I had a talent for cooking, a talent I pursued for a few years as a line cook.
Restaurant kitchens set the scene for another collection of beautiful memories and experiences. Running the fryers at Ruby Tuesday in the Concord Mall in Wilmington, Delaware with Lucio and Fermin was where I first learned to speak Spanish, in addition to being my first restaurant job. My next job was at a Japanese restaurant, where I spoke my first words of Japanese, rolled a sushi roll, met more friends, and learned to cook foods most Westerners don’t get the chance to.
My last line cook job was at Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, when, after my aunt and uncle took me there for dinner and I asked George Perrier to see the kitchen, I volunteered to come and work on the weekends just to learn. It was a wild ride filled with the most complicated crab cake preparation in the world, green bean and mashed potato prep reduced to chemistry-lab-like exactitude, and lots of and lots of emotions. I can still remember the smells almost as if I can reach out and touch them: the fresh, peppery punch of the basil in the walk-in, the earthy and exotic aroma of the thyme that flavored almost all of the meats, and the ever-present rich aroma of butter which permeated the entire place. After all, things couldn’t be French without butter.
When I left Le Bec-Fin to finish my foreign language degree in a study-abroad program in Tokyo, one of my very first memories in Japan was the meal of simple cold soba salad I made for my new roommates the day we moved into the dormitory, strained with a blue plastic strainer I bought from the dollar store, topped with daikon sprouts and a soy and fish-stock-based sauce.
I held onto cooking as one of my most cherished hobbies in the close to seven years I lived in Tokyo, and when I eventually burned out from the salaryman lifestyle and too many hungover and strung-out mornings, it was one of the few things I had left when I came back to my parents house to get clean and start my life over. I remember the first few weeks of waking up sober and the pure joy of cooking and eating four scrambled eggs in the morning before starting the day building my first business and taking control of my life again.
After moving to a new home in Philadelphia to be closer to the kickboxing gym I loved, I found paleo, and that unlocked an entire new world of cooking and eating enjoyment. I found a wonderful old butcher in the Italian market who stocked some amazing meats, and I would invite all of my friends over and barbeque, cooking delicious paleo meals and spending time with the people close to me. Sharing a meal together is one of the most timelessly intimate emotional experiences in this world, and one that is decidedly positive.
The giant steak I ate at a Midtown steakhouse during my buddy’s graduation party, the brunch that my girlfriend and I enjoyed on our one-year anniversary at the same spot we ate on our first date and the beautiful dress she wore for me, the Italian water ice place that my father used to treat us to after a ride to the park with the golden retriever, Homer, on late summer evenings, the tiny soba stand tucked away from foreigners in a swirl of back alleys the heart of Tokyo, the aromatic mélange of the fresh herbs atop piping hot soup at a food stand on the side of the road in Bangkok…
Memories of food are so visceral, partly because they involve olfactory memory, which is the most resonant, but also because meals can be one of the few times of the day where we stop entirely, take in our surroundings, and nourish ourselves. When you share this act of nourishing with others, it becomes something very communal, an act of bonding which also nourishes the human spirit. Food, together with water and air, is one of our connections to physical life itself. Survival is inescapably emotional.
This is why when I see internet memes trying to tell me that “food is fuel,” and “don’t reward yourself with food; you’re not a dog,” and the universal generalization that “emotional eating” is a bad thing, it’s confusing for me.
Emotions are a part of life, and expressing emotions through our actions just as much so. How could something that any human being does multiple times a day be decoupled from our emotional process, particularly a thing which is, in and of itself, emotional by nature? It doesn’t stand to reason to me.
When I make my girlfriends lunch each night, it’s an act of love, perhaps the quintessential emotion. I put care into it, making sure it’s something that’s balanced, healthful for her, and something that she enjoys. It’s also one less thing she has to worry about in her busy life. It’s a way that I show I care for her.
When I buy nice cuts of meat on a special occasion to cook for us, it forms a memory of that occasion associated with something delicious and good for our bodies. What could possibly be wrong with rewarding yourself in a way that is nurturing and healthful, in addition to being memorable and special?
Like most things in life, I think the answer is “It depends.” Our actions only serve as an expression or realization of our emotions, so the important question is, what emotions are they acting as a vehicle for? In this case, what emotions are we acting out when we eat?
If something bad has happened in your life, that makes you sad. So, how do you deal with your sadness? Do you attempt to identify its cause, come to terms with it, and either make mental adjustments to counteract that sadness, or do you pick a self-destructive indulgence that is going to allow you to avoid coming to grips with those emotions for a time, only to return to that sadness later? To put that into concrete terms, if you get fired from work because you are too tired to do your job because you’re sitting up late at night drinking scotch and eating ice cream every night, do you run away from it by sitting up late at night drinking scotch and eating ice cream, or do you decide to go to the gym and then make yourself a recipe you saw on a paleo blog that is going to make you feel good and motivate you to continue to make better decisions? Thinking that food is at fault in destructive emotional eating is like blaming the car for not running without gas.
Food can be encouragement, celebration and self-care, just as easily as it can be binging, pity partying and self-abuse. The critical realization is that loving yourself is step one. If you care about yourself and want to feel good, you will care about what you put in your body. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing to say that what is nourishing cannot also be enjoyable. Enjoyment itself is nourishing. It’s ok to treat yourself. It’s also completely possible to do so in a way that is self-edifying and not self-destructive.
Emotional eating is no more wrong than emotions themselves are wrong. There is no right and wrong. They are simply part of the human experience. It’s which ones and how we cultivate them that matter. When you truly love yourself and place your own happiness and, by extension, health, first, that decision manifests itself in all of your actions, including the food you eat every day. Eating can and should be a happy thing, and what better emotion is there than happiness.