By Lionel Binnie
At last month’s (August 2018) Association for Healthcare Foodservice conference in Minneapolis, I attended a talk by Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods fame. He’s a gifted chef, teacher and raconteur. His talk fluently threaded a series of tales about food, but really, about culture and life.
Zimmern said that food is more important to our emotional welfare than we might realize. He had worked with NASA to help them improve their nutrition offerings. The NASA psychologists had realized that control over their food choices, was more important to the astronaut’s comfort than anything else. Including talking to their family, and reading materials.
When you can’t control much of your life – as on a spacecraft – food makes all the difference. Consequently, NASA creates food customized for each astronaut; if they like hot sauce on their eggs, that’s how they get them in space – it’s that important.
In the same way, studies show that better food equates to improved behavior of prisoners in jail. When other choices are restricted, Zimmern said, food becomes ever more important to well-being. Sadly, much prison food is medieval in quality.
Bugs & Nuts
Then he went on to speak about an indigenous African tribe he lived with. This remote tribe, whose way of life has remained unchanged for 30,000 years, is protected from outside contact by the government.
This tribe was very strict about eating only what was in season. For a few weeks a certain type of bug and acorn were available, for example. So mashed insects and acorns were all they ate, during this time. Including Zimmern and his team. All during this time antelope were available, walking through the village. Zimmern and his team hankered for fresh antelope steak to no avail. Bugs and acorns were the only items on the menu.
He also learned an important lesson about not wasting resources. The tribe plaited grass ropes to make bird traps. After they had successfully trapped some birds Zimmern was helping dismantle the traps by cutting the ropes with his knife. His hosts were horrified that he was going to cut the rope that they had painstakingly made by hand, rather than untying them for later re-use.
Despite their 30,000-year traditions, the tribe was choosing, on their own terms, to assimilate into the larger society. They had begun to send their children to school and be educated about the larger culture and how to read and write.
And to Zimmern’s surprise they were accepting of a new dam being built to generate power. Even though it would affect the water supply to their cattle herds. They welcomed progress and the new way of life it would mean for their children.
When he first learned of the dam being built, Zimmern was horrified, assuming the dam would be harmful to their way of life. He assumed a good conservationist would oppose the dam. But on realizing that the tribe had made their own choice in the matter and welcomed the electricity and other benefits he understood that indigenous peoples must all make their own choices about whether and how quickly, to assimilate into ‘modern’ life.
Conclusion: Food – the Most Important Comfort
Zimmern closed by returning to the importance of food to our psychological well-being. And the importance of being able to select and enjoy our favorite foods. He related how poor the food was at the retirement home in Minneapolis that his mother had spent her last years at. He was frankly shocked and outraged at how poor the food was. And he said that especially when people have limited freedom to make choices; like on a spacecraft or in prison, in a hospital or a retirement home, paying close attention to producing the best possible food and flavors is how we show love and care for others – the purpose of life.