ON BREAKING BREAD – and the meaning of food.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on December 19, 2011

Yes this post is about food. Tis’ the time for merry making and this often involves food, and also potential excess. It got me thinking about food and what it means to us. It got me thinking that the way we use and consume food says a great deal about us. It got me thinking that food is a daily source of potential projection that holds and contains more than its nutritive value. Along with the imagined qualities that we may assign to food, our use of it literally carries ingested parts of our history, our relationships and our physical and emotional development. The holiday season just makes it more obvious because  festivities usually involve the breaking of bread together.

Think of the words ‘comfort food’ and its’ associated meanings. Some food is literally comforting to us, and this has less to do with what it does for our stomach than what it does for our sense of ourselves. Some food just makes us feel good because it reminds us of something or someone that made us feel, well comforted. The particular kind of food varies with the individual according to what that something or that someone was.

Think of the sensual characteristics of food. There is of course its taste and the multiple flavors and spices which get our digestive and creative juices flowing. There is the aroma of food calling forth the smells and perfumes of childhood. There is the color of food and its presentation, which appeals to our visually oriented self and invites us to the table. And then there is the actual taste of food, its texture and feel. Food invites all of our senses to be present, and as such, it accesses our most personal bodily and psychological experiences because it speaks in a sensual language. Food is a shortcut to implicit memory and experience. A shortcut to what we know deep inside but perhaps never articulate and instead it comes alive when we eat. Although this post is not about eating disorders, you can see how they might be forms of speaking the unspeakable – of restricting because of having had too much of something or of binging and overeating as an antidote for not having had enough of it.

In a wonderful novel that speaks to this most primal element of food – Like Water for Chocolate– the author, Laura Esquivel develops the notion that food, and its preparation and ingestion carries emotional meaning and significance. Tita, the protagonist, is a young woman who has survived a life full of trauma- not knowing her father, a sadistic mother, the loss of her lover to her older sister – and has poured herself into cooking. Her dishes involve her intimately with her emotions and the food that she prepares communicates them to those that eat it. Thus when she prepares something with love, her dinner guests literally are overcome with love and passion, when she is sad and cries into the wedding cake she is baking, her guests become tearful and depressed. And when she prepares something while upset and angry her dinner guests become ill. You get the idea. Beyond its nutrient value, food speaks directly to our emotions because it accesses them in a primal way.

But it is more complicated than that. Because food is involved in all manner of interpersonal relations we  invest meaning to it accordingly. Elaborate preparation of food often carries the spirit and generosity of the chef preparing it. In this instance food becomes a way of sharing oneself and caring for others, of celebrating connection through home made culinary delights. In my experience it is always the people who love to cook who make the best chefs, and that is because their experience and love of food is communicated to others through their preparations. The overabundance or under-abundance of food, its excess and waste or restriction, speak to a particular use of it based on emotional experiences which wrap themselves up in food. This is how food becomes a way of providing for whatever we lack, or a way of “self-discipline” which wipes out any traces of hunger or need. As a direct link to our implicit self, food is marinated in emotions that determine how and what we eat, as well as the joy (or lack of it) that it might bring us.

While food is something that we need to live, like water and sleep and exercise, its emotional range resonates through generations. It echoes of the love in my grandma’s gnocchi and my mother’s tagliatelle, and resonates deeply every time I am at the stove and make a meal for those that I love. There is a communion of more than our bodies when we eat  and break bread together. To my mind, it is a communion that activates our lived experience directly and emotionally and connects us to each other  from the inside.

The great M.F.K. Fisher says it best:

“Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…”

M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Erika Schwartz, MD December 20, 2011 at 7:36 AM

Food!!! We are only scratching the surface of the relationship between what we eat and how it affects who we are, what we are, how food affects our mental and physical health.
The more you think about it, the more complex the role of food becomes.
As you said, this is a perfect time to “take some personal space” and look at what food means to you. It’s Holiday time and food cannot or should not be overlooked.
Personally, I think your blogs are like a wonderful cornetto I enjoy when in Rome!!
Happy Holidays and happy eating !!!


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