I grew up deluged with rules for everything — for good behavior, for success, for driving and dating. And for eating politely and healthily. It was enough to give a sensitive kid like me an anxiety disorder. But never before have there been so many rules — in books, magazines, documentaries and on TV — governing our consumption of food; and never have I felt so confused about every mouthful I take.
I can remember my annoyance with my grandmother’s stern food commandments, like “Eat your vegetables” and “Let your older brother have the largest slice of roast beef.” Not fair!
And then there were the biblically-based kosher dietary laws in Judaism, such as not mixing meat and milk (dairy) in the same dish — or, as the rabbis put it, not “seething” (boiling) a “kid” (young goat) in its mother’s milk. Honestly, I get nauseated just thinking about it.
A rule a day keeps the doctor away?
But which food rules should we follow today? Michael Pollan, America’s supreme food ruler, started with his celebrated list of six rules, then jumped to 64 and 83 rules in his many articles and books on eating well and eating right. If he ever gets to 365 rules, the commercial product potential will be enormous — Michael Pollan branded diaries, calendars and smart phone apps.
There is, however, one of Pollan’s food rules I’ve found particularly helpful, and that’s his sixth and most important rule in his 2006 Time Magazine article “Six Rules for Eating Wisely” — “Eat with pleasure, because eating with anxiety leads to poor digestion and bingeing.” Finally, a rule that lets me relax about food, a golden food rule I can build upon!
My 10 personal pro-pleasure, anti-anxiety food commandments:
I Thou shalt eat with right-brain gusto.
To avoid anxiety, indigestion and bingeing, resist the analytical left brain’s effort to control your eating with rules. Rely on the right brain’s more direct connection to taste memory, aesthetic sensibilities and gut feelings.
II Thou shalt count chews, not calories.
I learned to track how many times I chew each bite of food from an Indian yogi who was a foreign exchange student at UCLA. He came to my house on Sunday mornings when I was a teenager and taught my mother and me yoga, and then stayed for breakfast. He instructed us to chew every bite 10-30 times, depending on the food type. It took him 15 minutes to eat a slice of toast with honey. I always felt full before finishing the food on my plate.
III Thou shalt snack often.
One of the healthiest and thinnest people I know takes forever to eat anything. But unlike the yogi who counted chews, my friend seems to just forget he’s eating. I’ve seen him, for example, take a bite of a sandwich at 10-minute intervals while reading the paper, watching TV and even while working the counter at a specialty food shop near my house. A joke in our community is that he and his wife take a break during lovemaking so he can eat another slice of pizza. Contrary to prevailing rules against snacking, my friend is doing just fine living on a series of prolonged snacks.
IV Thou shalt embrace Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s three rules for dieting.
When I need to lose a few pounds, I consult “The Physiology of Taste” by the patron saint of Western gastronomy. Brillat-Savarin’s 19th-century treatise presents us with what may be history’s first low-carb diet. Monsieur’s three rules are remarkably prescient: avoid flour and sugar, exercise more and eat less. Voila!
V Thou shalt not patronize fad restaurants that preach.
Restaurants with proselytizing mission statements printed on their walls or menus make me squirm. It’s like going to church and hearing a culinary sermon. I eat and run.
VI Thou shalt not consume animals with names.
It’s good to honor the names of the farms, even the farmers that supply our meat and other foods. But if the name of an animal being served should ever appear on my menu, that would be “pet food” and it will be reported to the SPCA.
VII Thou shalt be faithful to restaurants you love.
The rush to trendy new restaurants can be stressful and disappointing. I prefer returning to my favorite restaurants, many of them with old-fashioned set menus and time-tested signature dishes. Nothing lasts forever, but I’ll keep going back until they, or I, go out of business.
VIII Thou shalt beware of avant-garde food on square plates.
Modernist, and often unidentifiable, high-tech art food served on square plates makes me suspicious. If I want to experience art in square frames, I’ll go to a museum. And with round plates, no matter how they are put down in front of you, they’re always facing the right direction. That’s comforting.
IX Thou shalt resist free promotional food.
Everywhere I shop, food samples are handed out to promote sales. At the bakery there are shards of cookies. Produce shops offer sliced fruit, and cheese counters have tiny cubes of aged Gouda on toothpicks. I once spent an entire day hunting and gathering promo food, from soup to nuts. A fun and healthy way to eat (See Commandment III), but afterward I felt guilty, and guilt makes me anxious.
X Thou shalt talk less about food.
We use to go to eat at restaurants and talk about art. Now we go to art galleries and talk about food. Instead of consuming food, we are being consumed by food. Enough said.
I don’t know if my 10 personal food rules will make me healthier and happier. Hopefully they will not do me, my community or the planet any harm. But I’m a lot less anxious about food now that I have clear rules to eat by. My rules.
Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)
Image: Ten Food Commandments. Credit: L. John Harris