Toward Balance

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Cannelloni Au Gratin

After passing a tiny toddling bambino yesterday (there are so many babies in Bra), combing the street with his mamma, wrapped head to toe in winter gear, my classmate said to me matter-of-factly: “Children are like little drunk adults.” I found this comparison to be accurate and amusing.

When was the last time you fell? I’m willing to bet that you can’t remember, or that it has been a long time. When you were a child, however, you fell hard and often, becoming an expert in finding the nearest person’s facial expression to gauge if you were hurt or hilarious.

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Truffles on display at Tartufi & Co. (Alba, Italy)

I haven’t taken any stumbles on the Italian cobblestone (yet), but have been playing around with balance, not unlike a child testing their limits on how fast they can run or how many times they can spin. I am saturated with newness, and finding my footing is an act of trial and adjustment. When kids are working to find their balance, they explore how their bodies work; begrudgingly practice the art of turn taking; become expert at deciphering which of mom’s “no’s” mean that you can keep doing whatever you’re doing for at least 15 more minutes, and which “no” means to stop right now. From a young age, we play a consistent game of checks and balances to keep ourselves happy and safe, and a new situation brings out this primary state of exploration.

Not surprisingly, I have been continuing my balancing act with the joy and necessity of eating. You might share my inquisitiveness is asking: What’s healthy? What’s bad for me? What’s pleasurable (and good for me)? What’s pleasurable (and bad for me)? Is this too much? Is this not enough? Is this OK? Do I want this? We are constantly calculating moves when it comes to food – hovering over certain decisions for mere seconds, pondering others for weeks, while often working on autopilot because certain choices have been taught to us from a young age, engrained in our  familial culture.

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Bread and Jam for Zoe

In our molecular basis of taste class last week, our teacher told us that we choose what we eat based on many things, including, but not limited to taste (as in taste buds). We could choose healthy foods because we know we’re supposed to; organic because it’s the right thing for the environment and our body; small artisan products because they deserve more of our money; potato chips to satisfy our salt craving; steak to celebrate a promotion; ginger ale for an upset stomach. We tend to gravitate toward what makes us feel good. But that’s not the only influence for choice, and happiness is completely individual. Put a different way, Jonathan Safran Foer says in his book, Eating Animals: “Food ethics are so complex because food is bound to both taste buds and taste, to individual biographies and social histories.”

My taste is that I don’t eat meat. On the other side of this scale, it’s one of the Italian (and American, for that matter) staples. This has proved to be another act of learning to balance my beliefs in a pork region, and a class culture with new friends who dive into cured meat tastings, eat rabbit, and swear they would kill an animal with the intent to eat it (some already having done so). I have been preparing and eating a primarily vegan diet for the past year (and have been vegetarian for the past five). I’m the only vegetarian in my class. This influences many of my experiences here, but I don’t see myself straying from my choice.

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Cakes and cookies on display at Caffe Torino (Turin, Italy)

Needless to say, Italy offers many other pleasurable food options beyond meat. I’ve been tempted by glass cases of beautiful cream-filled pastries, hazelnut cakes, mandarin orange cookies, silky chocolate, salty focaccia, and restaurants and cafes offering bottles of red spicy wine, rich cheese, crusty white bread, and creamy pasta. I’ve imbibed, pulled back, jumped in again, swam back up. I keep checking myself to see how far I can push this, while ensuring that I don’t fall into the giant vat of Italian fat.

My mind and my body know each other well, and this weekend they discussed how they were going to handle the bombardment. My mind wanted me to be careful, take it slow, hold on to everything I had learned about a vegetable-intense diet, while still allowing my body to taste all of the rich things that gave my mind such pleasure.

My body had another plan: it got sick. Snotty nose, stuffy blows, sneezy pants sick. The white carbs and wine I had been ingesting without limitation tore my immune system to pieces.  Picturing myself on a tiny, teetering scale, I realized I had run too fast toward the side clearly marked, in flashing lights, Pleasure! Pleasure! Pleasure!…until it toppled and I fell on my butt (or, in this case, into my bed) like a little drunk adult. I lost my balance.

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Improvised version of zuppa rustica

When your body talks like that, you are strongly and urgently encouraged find balance again. The day after the topple, I made myself the things I knew to be good for my body: soup with lots of veggies (the ones that were in my refrigerator – no waste!), and hot water with lemon. My body breathed a sigh of relief, and I felt pleasure here too! So perhaps balance is a straddle of the scale; you can’t have your whole body on only one side.

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Food. People. Peace.

I’ve been writing about my food reality – and many of yours. However, this reality doesn’t belong to everyone. The more I learn about the world of food, the more I see how individually and collectively we test and tip the scale. Dichotomies abound: hunger and obesity, omnivorous and vegetarian, pleasure and discipline, 5-star restaurants and fast food chains. This world of food is both fascinating and frustrating. My personal interest into what I put into my own body is becoming more infused with concern of how our global food system is affecting us as societies. I came to this university with the mission of learning as much as I can about food, so that I can work toward making sure everyone has access to enough and of the most nourishing and culturally appropriate things. So I can work toward balance.

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