The last time I ate fast food was in the spring of 2000. My two friends were jonesing for Mickey D’s, and I, who can count on both hands the times I’ve ever eaten drive-by grub, accompanied them out of anthropological curiosity. I opted for the fish sandwich, thinking it a more virtuous choice over a burger or chicken-like nuggets.
As I held the parchment-wrapped victual in my hands I felt delightfully naughty, as I often do before indulging in any peccadillo, and I was overtaken with the giggles, much like Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me, where he kisses his first Big Mac in front of the camera and says, “Look! Isn’t it beautiful?” before he chomps it down.
Within three bites of the sandwich, a universe of revelation unfolded on my palate. The fish patty, still partly frozen, tasted of stale freon gas. The rancid frying oil clearly hadn’t been changed out of the fryolater in a while. The wonder-bread roll had all the fiber of two cotton puffs; and the “special sauce” broke its emulsion and dribbled in a slimy stream down my chin.
As I chewed, my inner anthropologist ruminated, “This is what America eats.” I continued to eat not for enjoyment, and certainly not for nourishment. I ate to gain more intimacy with the context of this sandwich. With the next bite I tasted overconsumptive malnutrition, a new phenomenon in human evolution, in which we are consuming a surfeit of calories so bankrupt as to leave us malnourished. The next bite bore the flavor of attention-deficient children who recognize the double golden arches before learning their own names. The last greasy bite finished my palate with the degradation of the home-cooked family meal and the chronic-fatigued ambivalence of parents who know they need to feed their kids better but can’t prevail against the hydra of overscheduling, lost cooking skills, children’s whining, and the latest happy toys.
With that fish sandwich I tasted, chewed, and swallowed the decline of our American society. More than any external enemy, I thought, this diet will destroy us from within.
In Dharma circles, a popular mindful eating exercise is to take one raisin and look at it, notice its texture, smell it, put it in our mouths without chewing, chew it without swallowing, and then, after some prolonged interval, swallow it down.
While such a practice can connect us with our immediate experience, our understanding of mindful eating needs to expand beyond what’s going on in our mouths. In our current food system, mindful eating must encompass the relationships that give rise to the food, the activities that get the food to our table, and the consequences of our choices. Wendell Berry says that “eating is an agricultural act,” but it’s more than that. If we contemplate deeply what and how we eat, we can trace our umbilical cord to the rest of creation. We’re eating no longer for ourselves but for all sentient beings.
So if you feel like “you deserve a break today,” consider that, just as a certain savior died for our sins, legions of people are already eating junk food on your behalf and are paying the karmic debt for it. You can repay their kindness by shopping at farmers’ markets or starting a garden this spring. Or just making the best, most conscious food choices you can. Their well-being depends on it.