How we are hungry

This week, I made the sweet potato soup I made last week again, this time with pre-cubed sweet potatoes. Even though this soup is not terribly time-consuming, it takes a good 45 minutes before I’m sitting down to eat. By then, I’m so hungry that I scarf it down, usually while I read. I started thinking then about the dichotomy between the amount of time I spend cooking versus the amount of time spent actually eating and enjoying the food.

Ours is a culture of speed—everything is instant: communication, information, entertainment, food—and anything that is not done quickly is left behind, a waste of time. (I’ll text you, but I’ll never answer your voicemail. A 30-minute wait at the restaurant? Let’s just get Jimmy Johns. The movie’s not On Demand? Let’s do something else instead.) Even with this blog, when I spend a great deal of time planning, thinking about, cooking, and writing about food, the time spent with the food itself is minimal. I’m done eating in 15 minutes at the most. All the time spend hungering, not much fulfilling.

I’m not going to say that I should spend more time enjoying my food, eating more slowly, really tasting it, both for the health and emotional benefits, blah blah—that point’s been made. My point is that, for me (and for many of you too, I’m guessing), food itself has become a stressor. When am I going to find time to go grocery shopping? What can I cook that’s as fast as possible? Most of my posts on The F Word are meant to be easy, fast things to cook—because who has time for anything else?

Europeans do. When I studied in Santander, on the north coast of Spain, I lived with a host family. And let me tell you—siesta is not made up. Families go home in the middle of the day, cook a gigantic meal, and take a fucking nap. The whole process takes at least two hours. Shops and restaurants downtown close at random hours because the employees go home for their siesta. People sometimes have to work a little later to accommodate the siesta, but after a two-hour nap, I’m for it. Why rush through lunch just to go home at five and rush through dinner? For what?

And let me also tell you: the people there are SKINNY. After a few weeks, I realized I hadn’t seen anyone who was overweight. So I started counting. The entire two months I was there, I only saw three obese people. THREE. (There are other factors, obviously, like the fact that the city is very hilly and everyone walks everywhere, but you see my point.) My class schedule didn’t allow me to come home the long siesta and lunch, but once I came home to drop off some books and interrupted my family’s lunch. My host mom, host dad, and their son and one of their daughters were all eating in the tiny nook in the kitchen. My host sister was 28. My host brother was 30. But they still came home to eat together.

Instead of the big lunch, my host mother made me dinner every night. But more importantly, she always sat at the table with me, even though she had already eaten. These were some of my favorite moments of my time there, and it wasn’t about the food at all. The food was great, even though I often had no idea what I was eating (and, after learning that one of my friends ate HORSE MEAT at home, didn’t always want to ask), but that wasn’t the point. The thing I loved most was the companionship. My host mom was a busy woman, but for a few hours every night, we spent time just talking. In the course of a normal conversation, she gave me excellent advice like “Don’t ever stop practicing anything,” and “You never stop being shy; you just get better at hiding it.”

Spanish people are much better conversationalists than Americans. I’m going to go ahead and make a ridiculously unscientific claim that a large reason for that is the way they eat. Spanish people eat a lot of tapas—small bites of many different dishes. It’s atypical to go to a restaurant and order a single entrée. You pick many different things from the menu, and each person has a few bites of each. Tapas are way more conducive to conversation than digging into a gigantic plate of fettuccini alfredo, a chef salad, or a burger and fries.


© Beth Kolongowski 2008

We learned that this lingering over a meal is called a sobremesa, which means something like “around the table.” That’s the essential part of the meal, not the eating itself. One day, two of my friends and I took a ferry to a tiny island across the bay and had lunch. I had a tortilla bocadillo, which is basically an omelette sandwich. It was incredibly tasty and carby, but that wasn’t the point. The three of us sat in the plastic deck chairs on the patio talking for more than three hours. It remains one of my favorite days.

But I’m not Spanish. I’m an American. I’m guilty of fetishizing food—I love reading menus almost as much as reading books, think about my next meal before my current one has ended, and drool over this or that treat (oh god Pinkberry frozen yogurt). But, like my friend Anna has said on her blog The Entry Blank, food is just food. We should enjoy it, but also, we really just need it to live.

I think I need to change my attitude about food. While it provides nourishment and it should be healthy and I should enjoy it, the food itself shouldn’t be the goal. It should be the vehicle for companionship or for time by myself, depending. When I eat, I’m going to try occasionally to eat without the TV or a book. (Reading while eating is one of my favorite things, I can’t completely give it up.) This includes lunch at work.

Next I’ll decide whether it’s worth disciplinary action at work to go home and take a siesta or go ahead and take one at my desk. Girl needs her naps. Decision pending.

*My thanks and apologies to Dave Eggers for borrowing this column’s title from his story collection of the same name.

6 Responses to “How we are hungry”
  1. Anna says:

    Yeah, I totes agree. Sometimes I think the stress deciding about food can become too overwhelming, and it’s even worse when you discover that you have some weird emotional attachment to it. I hate macaroni and cheese almost daily for an entire summer because I thought it was making me feel less homesick, but the real result was that I gained 20 pounds and felt fat and unhealthy instead.

    One of the hardest things for me is finding a good balance for times to eat during the day. I know that when Jack spends an hour and a half making a really awesome dinner that I’ll enjoy it even more than usual, but half the time I’m so hungry that the wait just makes me sullen.

    I do think, though…that sometimes using food as a means to conversation/relationship can also backfire. I agree that people should eat without TV and other distraction less (I am SO GUILTY OF THIS) but I also think that it would be easy for me to start eating just because that’s what I would do to have a conversation. This is why one of my fave convo methods is to go running or walking with another person (as you know).

    PS I love your column.

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      Thanks, friend! I completely agree with you–sometimes, going out to eat is the only way I can think of to hang out with people. Or even going for coffee or drinks. It’s always something that’s used as a crutch (and sometimes overused when one drink becomes four plus fries and dessert).

      That being said, I’ve really been craving Olive Garden. Let’s go for a run together and then get Olive Garden next time I’m home. Deal? <3

  2. Kate says:

    Great post! I think the work/office culture that encourages eating alone at your desk as much as it encourages social drinking causes a lot of my food stress. I buy food based on how quickly it can be packed for work and how easily I can eat it at my desk. Bananas and other “hand fruit” are thus the ultimate food followed closely by chips of any kind. Just kidding, I hate chips.

  3. cd says:

    That photo brought tears to my eyes. It is one of my favorite memories. If only we could eat and sleep at the same time, that would save time and combine my most nourishing habits. However, what would be the point! Just kidding!

  4. Beth says:

    But no thanks to me for the tapas picture?

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