Hunger: The other side of the coin

Let's talk about hunger, shall we?

As a nation, Americans certainly spend enough time talking about food, about diets, about sizes. What about hunger?

I find it interesting that the "food community" -- those magazines, books, blogs and television shows devoted to producing and consuming food -- says so little about hunger, ostensibly the drive behind it all. What would a food article look like, I wonder, if we rated the experience of eating the same meal while ravenous versus only pleasantly peaked? Would a meal at Per Se when one is only mildly hungry still be rated above a scrappy meal-from-a-can consumed by one who is starving? The context of what and how we eat changes our experience of that meal -- and by this I am not referring to ambiance, or the color of the tablecloth, or the lighting, or the manners of one's waiter, or the rarity of the vintage. More than these things, hunger can determine how we experience a meal. And I'm not just talking about "big-time" hunger, the kind studied by epidemiologists, economists, and doctors: protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), though that certainly has a place in our consciousness (albeit most Americans would have to go back a few generations to understand that kind of hunger). I'm also referring to the bodily hunger that we feel in the hour before dinner, when we refrain from nibbling on leftovers because we know that food is coming, and will taste all the better when our hunger has some edge to it. This daily hunger accompanies our daily bread, or should, because without it food becomes a mere accoutrement, a sign of virtuous intentions or fashion sense. Hunger signals our bodily connection to our food, to the fact that food is, on some deep, intrinsic level, about fuel. Food = fuel = life. Our lives. What would they be without food? Without hunger to remind us to eat? Without desire and fullness and knowing when to stop?

A re-released segment that I recently heard on The Splendid Table glanced on some of these issues when Lynn Rossetto Kaspar interviewed David Plotnikoff, a reporter who hiked the Pacific Coast Trail and wrote an article about eating on the trail for Saveur in July 2007 (unfortunately, his article is not available online). The daily task of hiking 20 or so miles had inspired in him a devout appreciation for food that he had never felt before, Plotnikoff said in his radio interview. I admire Saveur's publication of this kind of article about food-for-fuel's sake, because the foodie world seems to only grudgingly, and on rare occasion, admit to our raw physical need for food -- our hunger. This reluctance to talk about hunger may be a throwback to the table manners of our grandparents, to a time when showing too much eagerness to eat was considered gauche.

Interestingly, if one cannot be bothered to put a napkin on one's lap, it might be because other concerns -- such as the act of consuming the food itself -- may take greater priority. Hunger thus becomes something shameful, a sign of poverty manifested in too great an eagerness for food. Seen in this light, just as the bourgeouis sought a pale complexion in contrast with a worker's hearty tan, so restraint at the table, and attention to proper rituals, might have been seen in earlier times as a sign of ascension in the world. To have enough food to be able to devote one's time at the table to observing social graces must surely be evidence of social superiority, ne c'est pas? And so we set up a dichotomy between the hunger of workers and the feasts of kings and burgers -- to great ironic effect.

What use has a feast without the spice of hunger? And what purpose does hunger serve, if not to remind us to eat? In this light, food and hunger seem inseperable, and yet they are so rarely addressed together, at least by the above-mentioned "food community". Conversely, I could also point to the "hunger community" of dieters and people with eating disorders, so obsessed by the impossibility of ending their own hunger that they cannot take any joy in food or its creation. It seems that these two groups might have much to say to each other, but I know of few places where such dialogues are taking place.

I want this blog to be such a place, where I can jump-start some conversations about food and hunger -- and, most importantly, to consider the hours that we spend when we're not thinking about food or hoping to quell our hunger. Those are the times that, ultimately, we need to live for, the moments that give meaning to our lives beyond our bellies and our waistlines.

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