A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

The Wisdom of the Greeks: Moderation in All Things

Does holiday food have to be about gorging or guilt?

I was lucky enough to have a Greek grandmother who was not only extraordinarily loving but was also educated far beyond the standards of women of her place and time. Born on a rural Ionian island in the early years of the twentieth century, she went on to study law at University in Athens, where she also received a firm grounding in classical Greek philosophy. It's hard to convey how much pride she took in knowing that what she learned was not only erudite but also originated centuries earlier in her own culture. After those university years, which were a treasured interlude for her, my grandmother's adult life was adventurous and sometimes difficult life. She spent ten years living in India before settling in England to give her children the best education she could find. Separated from her family in Greece, her husband in India, and even her children as they attended English boarding schools, she must have been dreadfully lonely,yet I never heard her bemoan those years as painful ones.

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Despite being an extremely anxious, often frail person who was tortured by severe migraines, my grandmother's mental determination was unparalleled, as was her will to pass on what she had learned. From the time my sister and I were babies, as well as my two first cousins, we were vessels into which she poured her knowledge, acquired from her life's experience as well as her days as a student of Greek and law. Though she has been gone for too many years, I still hear her voice in my mind, dispensing bromides and epigrams to live by, and I feel fortunate to carry that part of her with me always.

One of the most basic and even anodyne messages my grandmother implanted forever in my head is "Pan Metron Ariston," which translates to "Moderation in All Things." In this exceedingly immoderate age, it rings with new force as a code to live by. This November, for example, I found myself shocked for the first time--thinking in a new way about food and the messages we send our children about eating--by how people act and speak about Thanksgiving. It was profoundly distasteful to hear one person after another speak about "gorging" and "stuffing" themselves; nary a word about the underlying meaning of the holiday seems to have survived the irresistible rise of gluttony. Even I, who love to cook and eat more than many, found it depressing to realize that Thanksgiving has become either an excuse for giddy overindulgence--as if we don't indulge ourselves in fatty, tasty food enough already--or an occasion for post-binge guilt and depression. It's become a perfect, horrible reflection of how screwed up our modern (Western?) attitude to food has become--and moderation is nowhere in the picture.

And the problem here is not only unbound gluttony. Too many of those who may believe they live by moderating principles are actually over-restricting their children's or their own diets. Cutting out entire food groups (sometimes under the cover of various "sensitivities" or untested "allergies") is not moderation. Restricting portions for your growing child (unless your doctor has insisted upon it for some medical reason--and even that I find suspicious) is not necessarily teaching moderation either.

So perhaps you will find that "Pan Metron Ariston," while deeply unsexy as a guiding principle (and we are a people trained as assiduously as Pavlov's dogs to respond to the most highly-crafted and focus-group-approved messages), may be a useful standard to apply to your own life. With the holiday season upon us in now full force, it's a useful reminder that more is not always more--and that the ancient Greeks are still wiser than most of us can ever hope to be. Happy Holidays!

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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