President’s Day has apparently thrown me for a loop, as it wasn’t until I was on coffee break with someone and informing her of the homemade brownies that someone else had brought in (and her subsequent response that she was going vegan for Lent), that I realized Lent had begun. I quickly backtracked through my meals up to that point. My peanut butter and maple-pumpkin-butter sandwich passed; the half and half in my coffee definitely did not. The orange and homemade brownie were fine; the coffee-flavored yogurt was not (it was also off-tasting. I do not recommend coffee yogurt). I am already down 2, and the game is just underway. Not good.
I committed to giving up processed food for Lent. It will be my first season observing the period by “giving up” something, and I’m still not fully comfortable with the idea, but I am all for experiences that demand you stretch yourself. For expansion and enlightenment of the self via new experiences, as majorly idiotic as that sounds. And obviously this is a time to meditate and explore some of the spiritual questions I’ve been asking of late.
I am also aware that I am not observing Lent in this way for spiritual reasons alone — at least not strictly as a Christian preparing for Holy Week. It is part of what I want to be a permanent change in my life, a choice to live fundamentally different. It actually goes back to seeing Avatar this past weekend, a movie I had resisted watching because I thought it was too faddish, more style than substance. I went into the movie expecting to retain my disillusionment when I walked out, but I left profoundly moved. The display of creative spirit, inspired by nature and given voice by technology, was remarkable. The issues Avatar raised have always been on my radar, but it convinced me of the necessity of developing these deep-rooted, heart-felt connections to the earth, and that we are less human without them.
I chose to forgo processed food for Lent in part as a response to these convictions. For sure, it makes sense as a religious act — I consume it regularly, so it constitutes a significant sacrifice (more so than meat, which I was also considering). And I derive a lot of happiness and satisfaction from it (kettlecorn, hello?! so delicious), so it is also an active deprivation of pleasure. But I also wanted to forgo processed food because I saw it as an opportunity to consider what “processed food” means to me. “Means” both in the sense of defining it (that is, creating criteria for distinguishing what foods are processed and what foods are not), and determining what kind of statement is made in the act of consumption.
In effect, I’m pledging to focus my food choices on helping me reconnect to the environment and to other living things. Food is part of the circle of life, and I believe that processed food does not facilitate the same vital bonds to the earth as non-processed food (I am sure I do not stand alone). I also feel strongly that the solution is not not eating other creatures (where does that end, objectively?). I think the emphasis should be on celebrating the inherent, living connections between the eater and the eaten. That is a beautiful thing to me and something worth striving for.
So how to define processed foods? In the largest sense I think it is food that contains unnatural ingredients. I thought about creating a processed vs. non-processed chart (peanut butter with hydrogenated oil vs. the natural stuff, bread with preservatives and phosphates vs. fresh-baked), but while helpful, it is too reductive. Not all foods are either/or. I feel most ambivalent about organic vs. non-organic ingredients — should non-organic vegetables fall under processed if they are grown with chemical fertilizers? And chips? One would assume that chips are processed (that is, contain unnatural ingredients). Most are, but Tostitos prides itself on using just three ingredients (corn, veg oil, salt) in its tortilla chips. Kettlecorn I think is also all-natural. But while these foods may not be processed by definition, I still question what it means to me, in the second sense of the word, to eat them, and so will avoid them for that reason.
In the end I decided the easiest thing to do was create a list of items that are strictly off-limits, either b/c they contain unnatural ingredients or because they do not bring me closer to my ultimate objective. Off the top of my head, this list includes: commercial candy, soda, most canned goods (but not canned tomatoes, beans, pumpkin, or others that generally contain only natural ingredients), commercial cookies, chips, and other such non-foods (sad, the girl scout cookies I have been awaiting for three weeks will have to wait), anything with artificial flavoring (including non-plain yogurt, drinks, jams/dips/spreads/NuTELLA, packaged sandwich meats, not real cheese, commercial ice cream except for haagen dazs 5, packaged ramen and instant soup/sauce mixes), fast food, most frozen food (commercial dumplings, microwave meals), cold cereal (which I have eliminated from my diet already).
What is NOT off-limits (important to articulate because it affirms that there is still more than enough to keep me going): home-baked goods (made with natural ingredients, as they usually are), fresh-baked bread, natural peanut butter and other all-natural spreads like the amazing maple-pumpkin-butter I recently splurged on, non-organic but natural stuff (fruits, grains, vegetables, nuts, meat), fried foods cooked in non-hydrogenated oil or oil with no trans fats, restaurant food I can reasonably assume contains only natural ingredients, fresh pizza (thank goodness), preserved food that does not contain artificial stuff (i.e. H-Mart kimchi, I think. One can hope.)
Last, I want your help. Feel free to suggest, critique, advise, add to either list, question items, whatever. I welcome your words, positive, negative, or neutral. I want to share this venture with you and I hope you find something in it for yourself.