Conviviality Now!

Family feasts for body and soul

Posted May 21, 2010

As my family and I gathered around our dinner table yesterday evening, the Mediterranean Spirit was among us.

Three generations - my three children, their parents and visiting grandparents - sat down for a shared meal of chili con carne* that my 13-year-old son had prepared. Before we began to eat, each gave thanks for something they felt grateful for: the fine weather, the delicious meal, a good day at school. When it came to the chef's turn, my son said: "I am thankful that we are all together, and for this nice atmosphere." Amen to that!

In my last post, I sang the praises of the Mediterranean diet - its healthy vegetables and fruits, fish, herbs, garlic and olive oil. However, the health benefits of Mediterranean-style eating go far beyond mere molecules: taking time to prepare and savor good food in the company of people we love also has immeasurable benefits.

Indeed, possibly the most life-affirming aspect of the Mediterranean food culture is the central role of conviviality: the pleasure of sharing food with others, of celebrating communal culinary traditions and life at large. Without it, the Mediterranean diet would be just another health-food prescription; conviviality, at its heart, makes it a lifestyle.

The word ‘convivial' derives from Latin, where it means quite simply ‘the act of living together.' We are drawn to conviviality by our need for safety, companionship and comfort. But in today's hyper-efficient, fast-paced world, we often sacrifice that which made us human - our fundamental need for food - and the communality that was born of this need. Instead, we rush from one task to the next and eating becomes just another chore to be slotted into our busy schedules.

Over the long term, this modern way of eating cannot provide us with the biological or emotional sustenance we need to thrive. For a truly anti-cancer way of life, let's rediscover the joys of eating calmly, at a table, using cutlery and plates, ideally in the company of people we are fond of.

Shared, leisurely meals are about much more than fuelling our bodies, they are "uniquely human institutions where our species developed language and this thing we call culture," Michael Pollan argues in an impassioned plea for a return to more traditional eating habits (In Defence of Food, Penguin Books 2008). "The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fuelling our body to a ritual of family and community, from mere animal biology to an act of culture."

In recommending the Mediterranean diet, I want to move beyond the ‘food-as-medicine' paradigm, where our diet is seen merely as an amalgamation of molecules that support bodily functions (a mechanistic view popular in Anglo-Saxon countries). Instead, I espouse the more holistic ethos prevalent in Mediterranean cultures where food is also a source of spiritual nourishment, of pleasure, comfort and vitality - a celebration of life in the fullest sense.

Although modern eating patterns have been making inroads into Mediterranean countries, many retain a rich and joyful food culture. Indeed, French bistros at lunchtime throng with office workers enjoying a leisurely meal and engaged in lively conversations not pertaining to work. On Sundays, three-generation families gather around many a restaurant table for two to three hours' eating, relaxing and laughter. These groups often include babies and toddlers who learn from an early age that eating with others is an occasion for joy and communality.

Sociologists have compared habits of conviviality in Mediterranean and Anglo-Saxon countries and their results make fascinating reading. In an international survey of people's attitudes to food and eating, respondents were asked to describe what, to them, constituted a ‘healthy diet' (Fischler C, Masson E. Manger - Français, Européens et Américains face à l'alimentation. Odile Jacob (Paris), 2008).

Whereas primary health-concerns for the Americans and Britons surveyed touched on scientific concepts such as 'proteins,' ‘carbohydrates' and ‘fat,' Italian and French respondents overwhelmingly focused on the notion of pleasure.

There was also a great divergence in respondents' attitudes to conviviality: when asked what constitutes a healthy diet, French and French-speaking Swiss participants spoke spontaneously of ‘family meals' or ‘eating with friends.' In the French-speaking focus group, the word ‘family' came up 39 times, ‘friends' 51 times, ‘convivial' 72 times and ‘sharing' 38 times.

This is in striking contrast with the Anglophone groups, where ‘family' was mentioned eight times, ‘friends' four times and ‘sharing' only three times. Lastly, while Anglophones and Germans valued ‘conviviality' on special occasions, the French, in particular, said they treasured conviviality as an ordinary, day-to-day event.

In addition to their attachment to conviviality, the French and Italian respondents were also found to adhere most closely to strict rules about meal times (three times a day, at fixed times), portion sizes (modest), table manners (no phones, no TV), in-between-meals snacking (forbidden), second helpings (frowned-upon), dietary variety (essential), eating environments (tables, real dishes and cutlery, not cars, sidewalks or desks).

Thus, ‘Mediterranean' anti-cancer eating, as I see it, isn't just about eating healthy food. It's also about consciously developing a health-promoting attitude to food which nourishes body and soul.

Call me a hopeless romantic, but to me, healthy nutrition is about eating natural food grown nearby under open skies, moistened by rain, ripened by the sun and brimming with essential nutrients, simply prepared and enjoyed in a relaxed mood, ideally in the joyful company of fellow-humans. This celebration of the senses and the grateful, guilt-free acceptance of pleasure is one of the best things we can do for our health.

* If you think that ‘chilli con carne' has no cancer-prevention virtues, let me assure you that my son's stew contained only 60 grams grass-fed beef per person supplemented with copious amounts of red kidney beans, five red, yellow and green peppers, two large onions, six cloves of garlic, four large tomatoes, tomato concentrate, generous amounts of cumin, coriander and paprika powder, a pinch of red pepper flakes, raw cocoa powder and a lavish scattering of fresh cilantro. With it we ate steamed quinoa (a tasty, low-glycemic alternative to rice), low-salt tortilla chips (a small bag between 7 people, yielding 8 chips each. Boy, did the children savour those!), and cubed fresh avocado to scatter over the stew. Bursting with flavour and nutrients, the dish contained little meat, yet it satisfied even the most rabid meat-eater in my family.

Every month I publish two Mediterranean-diet-inspired recipes on my website (click 'my recipes' tab on left menu). They are tasty, simple and affordable -- why not give them a try?