Suffering — Sometimes it’s Just About Food and Sometimes Not

We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.
~~ Winston Churchill ~~

Suffering? Why on earth write about suffering on a food blog, especially one ostensibly about cookbooks and their history?

Aren’t food blogs supposed to be full of fun-but-complex recipes that you can make in 1 minute, creating the illusion that you’ve cooked all day?

Well, sometimes no.

Food is more than beautiful people living it up in a glossy magazine or playing with the latest kitchen gizmo on television or witty one-liner blog posts that disappear from memory with the next click of your mouse.

Food often carries a great deal of suffering with it.

But lest you think suffering and food begin and end with inedible food cooked and served by a klutz in the kitchen, that’s not it at all.

Let’s take a closer look at suffering.

First, a definition, thanks to Webster’s:

Suffering: The bearing of pain, inconvenience, or loss; pain endured; distress, loss, or injury incurred; as, sufferings by pain or sorrow; sufferings by want or by wrongs.

The question of suffering lurks beneath the surface of all religions and the human condition.

Christianity hinges on the suffering of Christ on the cross, made visible by the crucifixes hanging in every Catholic Church.

In Buddhism, suffering underlies the four noble truths, which are:

1.  Suffering exists.
2.  Suffering arises from attachment to desires.
3.  Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases.
4.  Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path.

In Judaism, the Talmud provides discourses on suffering:

Suffering makes people more sensitive to their own lives. It makes them more aware of the context in which they live, and it makes the sufferer aware of new avenues for positive change. Indeed, the Talmud states that this is the main purpose for suffering …

And in Islam, the question of suffering also forms the basis for much of the Muslim’s path in life.

It is He Who has created death and life that He might try you—which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving. (Sura 67. 2)

Suffering, as it pertains to food, really begins and ends with hunger, due to many different situations.

When the spinning wheel of chance points to the horsemen of war and famine, hunger results. In Memory’s Kitchen, a cookbook edited by Cara da Silva, concerns the women of the Terezin concentration camp. On the surface about food memories, the book’s real subject is hunger. And, hence, suffering.

Don’t forget the suffering of the farmworkers who stoop over all day and pick the lettuce and other vegetables that you eat. Without their work, they would starve. And so would you.

Recall, too, the animals that live their lives confined in cages and pens to provide cheap meat for your barbecue grill and roasting pan. Every time you see those large aluminum trucks rolling down the interstate with hundreds of terrified pigs or chickens or cattle sticking their noses out through the slats, straining for a breath of fresh air, their suffering becomes even more incarnate.

Disease, that other horseman, brings a long list of ailments blooming with suffering, like mold on old cheese.

Acid reflux disease (GERD). Gout. Diabetes. Heart disease. Crohn’s disease. Anorexia/bulimia. Cancer.

Loss of teeth, too, particularly when poverty precludes replacing lost or broken teeth.

In one way or another, all of these conditions — and a litany of others — lead to a diminished availability of food for the afflicted individual. Hunger, again. That’s why there’s a market for those hundreds of health-related cookbooks sitting on bookstore shelves: The First Year: Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed, by Jill and Manuel Slar; The Diabetes & Heart Healthy Cookbook, by the American Diabetic Association;  The New American Heart Association Cookbook, 7th Edition, by the American Heart Association, etc.

Contemplate, if you will, the earliest food-related books, the herbals. Their goal? To relieve suffering, right? Just like these modern dietary tomes.

Oh yes, the blessings of food, the ability to eat the bounty of the earth, something so often taken for granted.

Until the day comes when eating causes pain. And suffering.

So there’s the pain. But that’s not all.

Another, unexpected, effect of this particular form of suffering is the loss of the ability to eat in community. You sit there with your toned-down plate, carefully chewing plain white rice or mushy carrots, while all around you, people eat and drink with abandon the very foods that cause your suffering.

Most people who have suffered health problems like these or other problems —  family abuse, war, hateful destructive gossip, whatever — learn from their suffering. They often end up working to try to eliminate suffering in the world. Their suffering leads to greater compassion and empathy for other human beings, for the world and its creatures.

Suffering can result in great art and literature, too.

Take Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Her art reflects her physical and mental suffering over a disfiguring injury she received as a teenager in a bus accident.

Kenya’s first post-colonial president, Jomo Kenyatta, recorded his fight against British colonialism in Suffering without Bitterness (1968).

Pablo Picasso painted “Guernica” in response to the suffering of the Spanish people.

Albert Camus wrote The Plague, essentially a dialogue about suffering.

M. F. K. Fisher, food-writer extraordinaire and author of How to Cook a Wolf, examined suffering (and many other things) through the medium of food.

But suffering can also result in bitterness and hate. In individuals, as well as in nations.

Just imagine all the good that would result if —  instead of spewing negative and untrue rhetoric — people let go of their acerbic hatred and soul-destroying bitterness and created some transcendent thing for the world …

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “Suffering — Sometimes it’s Just About Food and Sometimes Not

  1. Hi Stacy,

    Yes, we do try to alleviate pain with food, too, don’t we? Very astute observation, thanks for bringing it up, as I was focusing mainly on the pain-causing side of food.

    Food can be a very deep subject and so it’s very gratifying that now many people in academia consider it a subject worthy of serious study. What a tragedy in a way that until recently people recorded mostly politics, wars, and the comings-and-goings of royalty, so a lot of primary material for historical study never appeared in the first place.

  2. Very thought-provoking post. Pain is our body’s way of telling us something, too, and it’s interesting how we also try to alleviate suffering with food (chicken soup for the soul?).

    Still digesting this, no pun intended.

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