Caring about food, caring with food

For the inaugural blog post over at my executive director’s blog at The Food Connection, I shared my comments on the relationship between the work of The Food Connection, the science of neurogastronomy, and the ethical practice of care which I prepared for the third annual neurogastronomy culinary challenge.

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Physicians and Chefs (right) listening to a cancer survivor (left) talk about her experience of taste before, during, and after chemotherapy at the neurogastronomy culinary challenge in 2017.

What do we do here?

At the heart of our work at The Food Connection is a recognition of the responsibility of the University to contribute to the health of our commonwealth’s food system: its farmers, eaters, and landscape. Tying together all our efforts is the goal of translating of our highest ideals of what ‘good farming’ and ‘good eating’ should be into the mundane but essential practices of everyday life.

Along these lines, feminist scholars tell us that to acknowledge responsibility for something is to simultaneously recognize an obligation to care. They further argue that despite the way we typically evoke the word, care is not simply a mental state or a character trait. Sure, we say that “I care about such-and-such,” but care happens through action, not thoughts.  To quote Jane Toronto, care is “the concern of living, active humans engaged in the processes of everyday living.” Not simply the fulfillment of desire, but, in the words of Berniece Fisher, an “activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.”

Lumped within the broad feel of healthcare, in neurogastronomy the rational, calculating mind meets the soft, feeling, and remembering body  (which Mol refers to as our “fleshy, fragile, mortal bodies”). For the remainder of my remarks, I will draw our attention to the delicate and productive tension between those two worlds of knowing, and suggest that it is through embracing this tension between analysis and attunement that neurogastronomy’s practice of care emerges. I’ll conclude with the suggestion that networks of care that tie us all together as a human community, and in particular the work of caring for our food system.

“So that we can live as well as possible”

The central role of eating to our sense of self is underscored by the experiences of those who have lost their sense of taste. In a thoughtful memoir about his experience of throat cancer, David Wong Louie describes his journey from a self-described gourmand to a non-eater and the profound changes that happened to not only his body but his experience of himself and the world: “With the G-tube, I did not eat — I fed the tube….Goose in Hong Kong is a meal, not a feeding; the table is laid with utensils, not a syringe; one dines, not feeds.

Describing his post-cancer life as one who does not dine, he goes on to say “I can’t relate to the old, eater version of me. I don’t remember how it feels to be in the presence of food and crave it, want to own it, or how it feels to know its pleasure and anticipate having that pleasure again. I can’t relate to that kind of beauty anymore.” In David’s experience, we see the loss of an essential way of knowing the world (eating, tasting), but also a way of relating to others and himself. Not only has he lost the ability to connect to the particular pleasure and beauty of food, but as he says in this poignant revelation, “My wife and I seemed to talk differently when there was food between us.”

Translating science into care

Considering care in the context of health, Adriene Mol states succinctly that all healthcare providers must reckon with: “How to live well, what to die from, and how, thus, to shape good care.” There is no simple path to those answers.  Many of us are intimately familiar with the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy of a caregiver unable to bring solace or comfort to their loved one. We witness (or experience) the pain and frustrations of inhabiting an ill body – where food and feeding may become yet another regimen to endure, or, conversely the only avenue of power/control left (what to eat, how much, when). Struggling to perform a new self who we are told we must become –a ‘thin’ person, a ‘healthy’ eater while simultaneously trying to hold on to who we were before the prognosis; a life that we have lived around a dinner table.

The science of assays and diagnostics are invaluable of course; as are the gastriques and molecular manipulations and other culinary artistry. These are the tools through which knowledge advances, by which we discover and delight in the workings of the body’s mechanisms and processes. What this science reveals is just how complex our primary senses are, and how contingent our experience of taste is. Which is to say that there is another kind of high science: the translation of knowledge into practice. The transforming nutritional guidelines and ingredients into meals, or knowledge into healing.

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Chefs Frederic Morin and Taria Camerino alongside Neurologist Dong (Dan) Han preparing their dishes for the challenge in our Learning Kitchen

Neurogastronomy in action

At the neurogastronomy challenge, we’ll see medical professionals and chefs turn their attention not to the abstract realm of diagnosis or composition, but to the experience of our honored guest judges who are people living with diabetes.

The challenge starts with the deceptively simple question of: “What do you have a taste for?”  Listen closely to the question and you realize that we have taste; we hold it in our bodies, in our memories. Our challenge participants will explore how the taste of a thing (a tomato, a lollipop, a slice of bread) is realized in the unique context of eaters and their bodies. What the science of Nuerograstronomy can offer is a means to understand the unique needs and tastes of the eating person, and then offer the caring practices that can attend to them and their body.

Where the body deviates, we can use culinary ancillaries or peripheral neurological means to access satisfaction and pleasure. These techniques and technologies can help us craft meals that adapt to the needs of the ailing/healing body. Understanding dysgeusia, identifying the connections between smell and taste (in all its complexity), manipulating ingredients to elicit flavors, textures, and memories… all in the service of care.

We’re all connected, just like our food system

What an ethics of care teaches is the beautiful and terrifying fact of our fundamental interdependence – we need each other. We as scientists and chefs, we as friends, we as fragile bodies, are bound up in intersecting assemblages of care. Those of us with privilege or power have the luxury to ignore our dependence on the caring labor of others, but crisis (and especially a crisis of the body) will bring our vulnerability into stark relief.  As Maya Angelou wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.”

Our society tends to fixate on the fantasy of universal and unassailable solutions. The perfect meal. The ultimate cure. What to prescribe a prototypical patient unit. Student unit is also applicable here. Farm unit as well. But care is not an ideal definable in general terms – it is a doing, a way of relating continuously refined in its practice. There is no one-and-done in care. It requires humility and good humor, skills and attentiveness.

Because in the end, it is the very uniqueness of loss, the specificity of grief, the scarcity of time that reminds us of the importance of discovering and re-discovering new ways to care for each other so that we might all live as well as possible together.

References

Angelou, Maya. 1975. “Alone” in Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well. New York: Random House.

Fisher, Bernice and Joan Toronto. 1991. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Care” in Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s lives. Edited by E. Abel and Margaret Nelson. Albany: University of New York Press.

Mol, Annemarie. 2010. “Care and its Values.” in Care in practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. Edited by A. Mol, J. Pols and I. Moser. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The Logic of Care: Health and the problem of patient choice. New York: Routledge.

Tronto, J. C. 1993. Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. New York: Routledge.

Wong Louie, David (2017) “Eat, Memory: A life without food” Harper’s Magazine. August 2017. Retrieved from https://harpers.org/archive/2017/08/eat-memory/

Author: lilianbrislen

Rural Sociologist and regional food system practitioner

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