As Michael Pollan elaborates on in his book In Defense of Food, culture is really just a fancy word for your mother, and represents our cumulative knowledge passed on from generation to generation that teaches us far more about what to eat than this more recent notion of “nutritionism” which refers to fallible scientists and food marketers who happily exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus and “partner” with government to construct a belief system based on the ideas that nutrients matter more than food, only scientists can tell us what to eat, and the purpose of eating is to promote a limited concept of physical well-being.
Yet of course food represents far more than the sum of the nutrients it composes, but also pleasure, community, companionship, our relationship to the world, and a means to express our own identity. While the mass production of food has freed up our time and resources to be spent in other areas and liberated us from the kitchen, we have become more separated from the social bonds and resulting health benefits that the culture of the shared meal fosters. According to a study from the Public Library of Science , a nonprofit publisher and advocate of open access research, “the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.”
I really started thinking more about this connection between health and social bonds while having breakfast at Local Root in Streeterville (a great place with a focus on sourcing from local farms) with Alaina Gemelas, a doctor who leads Functional Medicine and Clinical Nutrition at Aligned Modern Health’s Streeterville, Lincoln Square, Southport, and Wicker Park locations. She explained how there was actual scientific evidence of health benefits brought on by sharing meals, which led me to ask the questions: Why have I never heard of a doctor preaching the benefits of maintaining healthy social relationships, and what effect might community dining have on our health care system? However, even with her unique insights and exceptional background of chiropractic medicine, holistic nutrition, and traditional Chinese medicine, what really stood out to me was what she shared about the language of the Greek culture while we were discussing one of my favorite books Less Than Words Can Say – The Underground Grammarian by Professor Richard Mitchell, who nearly 30 years ago presciently explained how the imprecise use of language brought on by compulsory public education has turned us into a nation of confused, inept, frustrated, and ultimately violent people who can’t manage our lives because lacking the power of language, we can’t think.
Dr. Gemelas informed me that Greeks have more precise words for community, a vague word we often use without thinking of its meaning, thereby leaving us unable to clarify our values. One is parea, a word used to describe a “group of friends who regularly gather together to share their experiences about life, their philosophies, values, and ideas. The Parea is really a venue for the growth of the human spirit, the development of friendships and the exploration of ideas to enrich our quality of life that is all too brief in time. In Greece, the Parea is a long-lasting circle and cycle of life nourished by the people who participate.” Another is kefi, “a social activity that engages the relationship between self and collectivity”, and a word which has been described by various Greeks as meaning the spirit of joy, passion, enthusiasm, high spirits, or frenzy.
As Professor Mitchell stated in his book in reference to what we learn in school:
There is no need, of course, to ferrret out the fact that the schools are in the business of teaching “values” at the expense of reading, writing, and ciphering. They boast of it publicly.
So. We have traded skill in language and number for ethical behavior, personal philosophy, moral commitment, and emotional health (vague values instilled with imprecise language resulting in an ability to make distinctions or think clearly). Not at all a bad deal. But wait. What has become of those millions of young people deeply schooled in morality? These are the “areas” the schools have been “emphasizing” for decades now. How is that Earth is not yet fair and all men glad and wise? How is it that creativity and emotional health lead to the beating of teachers and the destruction of file cabinets? What personal philosophy calls for the smashing of toilet bowls with sledgehammers?
Children are much smarter than we think. They when they are being deceived and defrauded. Unless they can utter what they know, however, they know it only in part and imperfectly. If we do not give them the language and thought in which they might genuinely clarify some values, they will do their clarifying with sledgehammers. Noe of the lofty goals named above can be approached without the skillful practice of language and thought, and to “emphasize” those “areas” in the absence of that practice is to promulgate thought control rather than the control of thought.”
Stanford psychology professor Lena Boroditsky expressed similar sentiments:
“Patterns in language offer a window on a culture’s dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we’ve found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?
One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too.”
Learning about the power that words can have on our lives and the development of our culture made me realize what community dining could be. What would our health care system look like if the medical profession began to incorporate precise words like Parea and Kefi when treating their patients and/or practice members? What would our lives be like and how might they differ if we actually had precise words to describe the value of social relationships? Could a mere club I started as a result of an inability to sleep which spurred an interest in health, wellness, and nutrition and learning more about where my food is coming from and how it’s produced lead to something much greater? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but sometimes it’s best to ask questions that don’t have an answer. And engaging in activities where you can your imagination is just more fun.
In fact, Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. I agree and for this reason have begun to imagine community dining clubs in each Chicago neighborhood (and eventually other areas) and every doctor’s office, yoga studio, and exercise facility offering their patients and/or members the opportunity to build meaningful social relationships, share their life experiences, and develop their “parea” and “kefi” through community dining. I’ve also been imagining how sharing knowledge about our food system through community dining will lead to increased consumer demand for more humanely treated and healthier animals, an understanding of the connection between factory medicine and factory farming, an interest in reading speeches like University of Missouri farm economics professor John Ikerd’s speech on the economics of sustainable farming and books like Dr. Daphne Miller’s Farmacology, Chef Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, and Organic Farmer Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal and Everything I Want to do is Illegal, and a desire to develop a deeper connection to our food and environment.
What do you imagine community dining will become?