In spending a few weeks with my family in Germany this June, I realized again, how deeply rooted Europe's culinary traditions really are: four family meals a day with family sitting together, beautiful table linens, silverware and porcelain. Food is freshly cooked from scratch … although the last two generations have become aware of quicker, faster processed alternatives, but perhaps not to the extent we see in many US homes. The truth is that no culture can escape modern life with less time for everything because there are so many new things to do! 100 or even 50 years ago it was not uncommon for one person to spend half the day preparing meals (including setting tables, washing dishes, ironing table cloths…) and still spend a good amount time of the day working in the fields, tending cattle—all activities that found industrial replacements so we could spend more time … working.
Yes, there is a definitive and fashionable trend to cook more from scratch, to source your foods from seasonal, reputable and non-industrial sources close to our homes. There is also a new trend to cook foods from scratch—although the trend to watch cooking shows far exceeds the actual amount of time spent cooking at home. We love the idea of cooking, recipes, fresh food and cultural connectivity, but many of us did not grow up actually doing it.
In the same context, there has always been an enormous culture around food: dishes, linen, table rituals, table settings, table decorations, etc. My family has always treasured beautiful chinaware and various sets of delicate porcelain find their way onto the table for different occasions: a roast goose may call for the green Herend, while afternoon tea on a stormy day would invite the indigo, white and gold Imperial Russian tea service in which to serve Darjeeling with a freshly baked berry tart. My father just recently contemplated that even in Germany people take less and less time to eat at home but family meals with fine dishes, linen and that special ambiance simply cannot be replicates by dining out or ordering in. He complained that “all this beautiful porcelain” is becoming obsolete.
This made me think. This is not just about obsolescence of beautiful things geared around food culture, but very much about losing the time and leisure, the preparation and the slowing down the eating process. And those are functions that are very much about health. How? Let’s have a look.
Slowing down the dining process significantly increases how food benefits our body. We are not what we eat, but what we digest. Not rushing through meals significantly improves the entire digestive process. Spending time before a meal preparing it, smelling it while you set the table gets your mind into the mode of eating. You salivate, which increases salivary amylase in your mouth (which you need to digest carbohydrates) which prepares your stomach to release digestive juices, which, in turn, prepares your stomach, gall gladder, pancreas and small intestines to break down proteins, fats and more carbohydrates. This process needs time, and by rushing through meals, the body simply does not get the time to get ready. Moreover, we often eat stressed, leading to a situation which shuts down your digestive functions altogether. You end by filling your systems with food that is never properly digested, making you feel full and bloated without ever nourishing your cells—which is the point of eating in the first place.
Preparing meals the old-fashioned way, smelling the food as it slowly cooks in the kitchen, sitting down and appreciating a carefully set table and enjoying foods served over several courses naturally slows down the process of eating and is therefore an extremely valuable part of our culture no matter how little time we perceive to have these days. Read my second feature on The Art of Savoring, which looks at why foods taste better if you pay more attention to them.
A nice thumb rule is to spend 8 hours each day sleeping, 8 hours working, 4 hours exercising and relaxing (as much as possible in fresh air) and 4 hours cooking and eating. I know, it’s a tight schedule and we’re not living the lives of our grandparents … but, let’s look at how we spend the precious hours in our day. Maybe we can take a relaxing walk before lunch and spend time relaxing with our family while cooking dinner? Perhaps we can involve the kids and spouses and focus on simple wholesome meals that are a joy to cook together? Bring out that heirloom china and the cloth napkins. Turn off your TV—and on a warm summer night, eat outside in your garden and savor your food!