Archive for the ‘Food/Philosophy?’ category

Make Time to Have Lunch

October 15, 2007

One of the many reasons I decided not to become a teacher?  Honestly?  The fact that most teachers I met didn’t seem to have time to eat lunch.  Untasted cups of tea sat quietly steaming away during break as teachers hurriedly checked important ‘A’ level essays; sandwiches were sadly and unselfishly pushed aside to run lunchtime activities or supervise detentions; chips were noshed in famished desperation at the pub after school to make up for those missed meals. 


I, as a training teacher, often did escape to the staffroom which had the luxury of a sink, fridge and microwave.  I felt quite guilty for wanting to savour my midday meal uninterrupted by frequent knocks at the English office door and the startling slams of lockers being tipped over in the corridor.  As an observant fellow staff-room user correctly pointed out – the making of my lunch was a special ritual involving little tupperwares of the correct amount of seeds and seasonings, tiny bottles of homemade dressings and sauces, and boxes cleverly sectioned to keep various ingredients separate and fresh.  Another teacher pointed out, awestruck, that I had the best-looking salad ever.  She was possibly right. 

Simple pleasures are what I live for.  And the joy of lunch is non-negotiable.


Coffee Shops: Renting a Refuge from London

October 12, 2007


I truly realised that I was a Londoner the other day, as I flicked idly through a copy of Time Out magazine.  In ‘The Big Smoke’ section at the front of the magazine they always have a photo of some aspect of London life sent in by a member of the public, and in issue No.1930 this was of a homeless man sitting outside a Starbucks.  The photo is entitled ‘Inside and Outside’ and effectively uses the glass shop-front to illustrate the divide between the smartly suited man inside enjoying an over-priced extra-tall latté, and the ragged man outside falling asleep over an empty paper cup.  It occurred to me as I looked at it  that I knew exactly which Starbucks it was, and also exactly which homeless man (granted, he’s got tattoos on his face so he is fairly recognisable, but still…).  This hit me with an odd sense of belonging here – after spending two and a half years feeling like a newbie, I ought to embrace my status as a Londoner, dammit. The other thing that occurred to me is how so much of the population of a modern city do rely on coffee shops to get them off the streets, into a quieter place where they can think, relax, meet friends, or get some work done.  Coffee shops in cities are so ubiquitous we now take having one on every corner totally for granted – we expect it.  I adore the treat of good cup of coffee, but I rarely go out simply to get one of those: I can certainly make a better cup at home for a fraction of the price, with coffee I know to be fair trade, etc.  What I go to a coffee shop for, personally, is the sensation of being part of the city life, yet released from the hectic streets and in a position to watch life in all forms as it passes, to be inspired by it – but not directly involved in it.  The price of my coffee is the price I pay for a little corner of London to contemplate in.

Suki Kirai wa Damae desu yo. Or, To Like or Dislike is Not Allowed

October 10, 2007

How I wish that I had photocopied, or otherwise gathered evidence of, the sign with the above motto that I saw plastered up around a Japanese elementary school.  Underneath the motto was a cartoon of two children eating their school dinners.  One of them was visibly baulking at a food item included in the dinner, or kyushoku; the offending piece of food hovering mid-way from tray to mouth; a sour look playing on the child’s face.  The other child was happily eating up all of their own food, and reminding the picky child that to like or dislike is not allowed!  With friends like that… 

My point is that this demonstrates something very important about the Japanese psyche, which clashes with our Western outlook entirely.  In the West, people now define themselves by their likes and dislikes.  ‘Allergies’ and intolerances abound – proven and unproven.  In Japan, these are virtually non-existent.  All students and teachers eat exactly the same kyushoku – which is dished out in classrooms by the children who take it in turns to don the protective white pinafores and face-masks to ladle the food onto their classmates’ plastic trays, and distribute the milk.  There are no lunch staff – the teachers eat with their classes.  The kids are hungry by lunch-time, properly so, as they are not allowed to bring any money of snacks to school – so they are very ready for lunch when it finally comes around.   

I visited fifteen elementary schools and seven middle schools over a period of three years, and only once did I see a teacher eating something other than the school dinner.  I never saw a student decline to eat it, as of course that was not allowed.  I enjoyed the school lunch myself, most of all when it was something traditionally Japanese.  It often was: things like hijiki seaweed salad, fried salmon, miso soup, kare-risu (rice with curry), nikujaga meat with potatoes, etc.  It was lovely.  I could see why the children were healthy, with shining eyes, bushy tails… and why there is a very low incidence of obesity.   

The students in Japan do genuinely love the school lunch.  As I sat on a tiny chair next to a tiny girl in 1st grade one day for lunch, I asked her if she was enjoying the natto (a hideous fermented bean dish that deserves its own entry) that she was delicately devouring with her tiny chopsticks. “Hai” (yes) she declared, not missing a beat.  “Really?” I further queried, “I don’t like natto myself.  Is it delicious?”  At this she cocked her head and pursed her lips and made a thinking noise.  “Amari,” she admitted (not so) “demo, karada ni ii yo” (but, it’s good for you). 

Unfortunately, kyushoku is not always karada ni ii.  When the hard-pressed kitchen staff tried to produce a Western-style dinner, things often went awry.  Sometimes we were served a large pile of white or pink artificial cream with pieces of canned pineapple, madarin and peach in, plus some white bread to make a sandwich with it!  I tried to stop school lunches after being served one day: a bowl of creamy seafood stew, a large white bread roll deep-fried and rolled in sugar and cocoa, some boiled spinach with bonito fish flakes, jam, and milk with a sugary flavouring powder to stir in.  I asked the Board of Education for which I worked if I could take my own lunch in the future, as the kyushoku frequently had too many empty calories for a grown woman and it was making me fat. No, they said.  Eating school lunch with the children is part of your responsibility as a teacher.   

If the kyushoku were indeed always totally healthy, I’d be tempted to infer that in the West we are actually doing our children a grave injustice by allowing them to feast on whatever fried, fatty, sugary foods they wish, and we should impose kyushoku universally right away.  Indeed, more and more, we do try to limit their access to said health-damaging foods.  Yet, Japanese-style school dinners could never be enforced here, they are against our love of the freedom of choice.  However, I believe that all of society (government, schools, parents) is responsible for providing a choice of healthy lunch options for children, and to assist children in losing their attachment to continually consuming foods that they particularly like and always avoiding foods they think that they dislike, thus widening both their palate and their possible sources of nutrition. 

Dealing with a Sweet Tooth

October 5, 2007

Some people claim not to have a sweet tooth at all, but I suspect they are lying.  Tito and I have great big sweet teeth.  Tito gets his from his mum’s side.  I’ll always remember giving Glavis a glass of very dry wine and then catching her covertly stirring teaspoons full of sugar into it: ingenious (the thought would have never occurred to me) but very, very naughty.    

The trick, I have discovered, to dealing with a sweet tooth is not to feed it.  Of course, you must have dessert and chocolate when you feel like it, and really enjoy it.  But why feed your desire for sugar by trickling in a constant stream of it in your breakfast cereal, your tea or coffee, squash, fizzy drinks and juice?  Let alone biscuits, sweets, etc.  Lose the addiction that your body has to receiving a certain amount of sugar everyday. I now enjoy tea and coffee with or without sugar, with or without milk.  I’m easy.  I usually just drink herbal tea which doesn’t require sugar or milk.  So, throughout the day my body not only doesn’t have to deal with sugar, but it also doesn’t have to process lactose or caffeine either.  I absolutely adore herbal tea now… but more on tea in another post! 

It’s easy to change a small habit when you get into the right frame of mind.  Allen Carr, of ‘Easy Way to Stop Smoking’ fame also wrote a book called ‘Easy Weigh to Lose Weight’.  The main precept that stands out from this book is that what you believe to be your favourite foods tend to be the ones you eat the most.  Conversely, Allen argues, if you eat more of something, you will tend to develop a taste for it, and you can thus re-educate your taste buds.  Likewise, self-improvement guru Steve Pavlina touches on this idea in his excellent post ‘How to Stop Complaining’: “Consider how the foods you eat condition your body.  You aren’t really going to become the next meal you eat, but that meal is going to influence your physiology, and if you keep eating the same meals over and over, they’ll have a major impact on your body over time.  Your body will crave and expect those same foods.” 

Steve’s point is regarding the pattern of negative thinking, and thus complaining.  “If you keep holding negative thoughts, you condition your mind to expect and even crave those continued inputs.”  Allen’s point about food (and smoking!) is essentially the same – we condition ourselves to expect certain foods.  To give something up which is bad for us should cause elation, not a sense of deprivation.   

I believe that we need to change constantly in order to evolve.  It’s actually really enjoyable to just change a small thing, like your sugar consumption, and find that it wasn’t such a small thing after all.

Life is Like a Menu

October 3, 2007

I love perusing menus.  It’s thrilling to scan the list of available dishes, and linger on the tasty, steaming images the words bring.  The anticipation is fabulous.  The problem is I am so utterly indecisive.  Although I savour the language of menus, I definitely prefer a short menu to a long – it’s much easier to use the process of elimination.  Plus if the menu is extremely lengthy I am always a little bit suspicious:  how on earth can they provide so many things all of the same high quality?  Do they have some kind of food replicator in there, or what? 

Ordering in restaurants causes me excruciating part.  I just dread when the long-suffering waiter again approaches the table with vain hopes of taking the order – just a few minutes more please – and the mind again races desperately over the menu.  I quite fancy the steak – but what if it’s chewy?  Oo, sardines!  Fish would be healthier.  Can I manage a starter?  NO, I shouldn’t… what’s for dessert?  I never know whether to try something new or stick with an old favourite. So, when it comes to ordering… my pleasure of the restaurant experience ceases entirely for that breath-taking moment. My heart beats in my throat as I pick something randomly from the endless options I had considered, not knowing if it will live up to expectations… or surpass them.

Life, it seems to me, puts us in the same position.  There are so many choices.  How do you know that it would be better to do what you’re doing, and not what your friend is?  Even if you choose based on someone else’s recommendations, you still may find it’s not to your taste.  Exciting though it may be to look at all the options of what’s available, you eventually have to choose.  If you delay, you may miss out, there may not be enough, or it may have gone cold.  The selection you make is often purely arbitrary and the result unpredictable.  After all, who could have known that the ramen would be so poor and the tempura so good until they tried it?

The key is to try it.  You can’t know what something is like until you’ve tried it, no matter what you’ve been told or what it appears to be like.  To live fully, try absolutley everything on the menu at least once, I say.