I keep thinking about hunger, and want to write more (always more! -- that's what hunger is about, isn't it?). But for today, I'll focus on moderation, which caught the attention of the ancient Greeks and the Buddha, who both spoke of the value of moderation, or the middle path, for one's health and happiness and the practice of the good life.
The Buddha also said (and I don't know about the Greeks on this point) that his students shouldn't take his word for everything, and he encouraged them to try out his teachings for themselves, to see if they were valid. And so I have, in a sense.
These last four years have been an exercise for me in moderation of appetite. A rather successful experiment, by the look of things.
If hunger makes food taste all the better, then it has been the act of allowing hunger back into my life -- of not fearing an empty belly, of contenting myself with less -- that has allowed me to become an eater. I take more pleasure in food now than I ever did when I was worried about fat and calories and my size, and it's not because I've managed to pull a fast one on my own nervous mind to convince myself that those things don't matter. They still do matter, to some extent, but they matter less and less as I find other things to take their place.
Ironically, one thing that does take the place of food worries is learning to eat well. I cannot stuff myself silly if I have just spent three hours cooking a meal for my husband and friends. Nor can I wantonly waste food if I know how hard it was to procure and prepare, having done so myself. Putting more effort into my food and more attention, instead of less, has made all the difference for me.
Though all of these efforts around food (it's just food, after all) might seem immoderate, I think it is quite natural to spend our time worrying about the next meal. After all, it is what our ancestors spent most of their time doing. I am reminded of this point here in Italy, where almost every tree in our valley has been planted for food cultivation. Down any lane you'll find grape vines, olive trees, and any number of fruiting trees, such as apricots, plums, figs, and cherries. No tree seems ornamental or accidental -- every one has a purpose, and nine times out of ten that purpose is to produce food for humans. It surprised me at first to discover that trees here weren't just oversize hedgerows, but in fact occupy an important role in the local food economy and culture. Now it seems eminently sensible: keep your food near you, and you'll never have to depend on others for your daily bread.
I am from one of the world's great food-producing regions -- the corn belt of the U.S., where the abundant loam of the prairies has been turned into rich soil for the U.S. agro-economy. Yet this notion of a "farm" is so different from the Italian azienda as for them to be almost mutually unrecognizable. In Umbria, a farm isn't something that happens "out there," where the exurbs end: instead, fields and houses intermingle, and to surprisingly good effect. For example, we can't overlook our dinner when it comes from right beyond the door, as our chard and tomatoes did last night. Nor can we forget that there's a season to all things when we learn that yesterday's cherries won't be back for another year. Where's the immoderation in that? There's no excess here, only the simple acknowledgment that real food comes with an expiration date, and obeys greater cycles than those determined by the supermarket aisle.
It has only been in the last one hundred years, in the wealthier countries of the world, that people have had the luxury to devote most of their waking hours to activities not consisting of food gathering or food preparation. But is it really such a luxury, I ask, to be able to ignore one's food? If food is one of life's greatest pleasures, then might we not deny ourselves some aspect of that pleasure by outsourcing our food preparation to others? I am thinking, again, of the sort of pleasure that can be had from the crafts of cooking, hunting, gathering, and gardening, and moreover, the satisfaction to be found in these activities beyond the products that they bring to us. This is real work, with immediate and substantial effects that we can judge for ourselves and be proud of.
I venture a guess that, in isolating ourselves from this kind of work, we make it hard for ourselves to take any satisfaction in food that is not degustatory, and thus we set ourselves up for thinking that act of eating food -- and not its provenance or its purpose -- is the only thing that matters. I strive to tip the scale in the other direction, away from the act of eating and towards the acts of finding and preparing food. Oh, how much pleasure there is to be had in knowing that an olive tree can produce oil! -- or seeing one's beans boil away contentedly on the stove, or planning next week's supper before it even occurs. For me, these are the paths towards alimentary moderation.