The Masterpiece

Today, as I do many days, I am sitting at my kitchen table eating a meal.

I am watching a brightly colored yellow and black goldfinch perched on the birdfeeder just outside the kitchen window.

The bird is quietly and intently feeding, just as I am doing.

If you have ever traveled to Milan, Italy, at some time during your visit, you have probably made the pilgrimage to the Dominican monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie to view Leonardo’s popular masterpiece, The Last Supper.

The Last Supper is a large mural that occupies most of the north wall inside what once was a refectory where resident monks took their daily meals.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper, however, is not really a painting as much as it is an interactive installation.

Centuries ago, as the monks engaged in their regular communal meals, they were mirrored in the narrative scene on the wall before them, while, at the same time, the painted wall scene was reflected back onto the ritualized dining activity at the refectory table.

With each bite, a monk may have imagined himself taking part in the enactment of the Last Supper, or perhaps a brother may have simply surrendered to the divine aesthetic and meditative beauty portrayed in the reflective scenario.

Again today, as I do many days, I am sitting at my kitchen table eating a meal.

I am watching the brightly colored goldfinch perched on the birdfeeder just outside my kitchen window.

The bird is quietly and intently feeding, just as I am doing.

We are both chewing and swallowing at the same time, although the finch does not really chew, but draws the food into its body through the esophagus.

I see him clearly, and he is aware of my presence nearby.

It is natural for both of us to survey our close surroundings as we consume our food, to pay attention to any slight movements or sounds that could represent a threat.

Animals, including humans, become vulnerable when distracted by eating; perhaps there is a food thief nearby, or an obscured predator.

The long history of our evolutionary journey from single-cell to animal is reflected in both the finch’s and my ability to obtain, ingest, and digest nourishment.

An amoeba engulfs tiny food particles and digests them internally.

Algae contains chlorophyll that uses the sun’s energy to make carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water.

All plants and animals must have food and water to live.

Most creatures in the wild, from small insects to large animals, are in constant search of food.

The goldfinch, often in the company of other birds, collects seeds with its superbly evolved beak, cracks open the shells, and extracts the nutrients.

Its digestive system maintains two stomachs so as to quickly convert the food into useable energy.

I gather, store, and prepare consumer-edible foods.

Sometimes I dine alone, more often with family or with friends at social gatherings.

Typically, I eat at regular intervals.

Large mammals like myself digest their food slowly, over many hours.

I have a small gut compared to other primates, which allows me to dedicate more calories to my comparatively large brain.

For humans, eating evolved within a social context, yet the act of eating is intensely personal.

In my family, an intense form of group consciousness grew up around the evening meal, as it does in many families.

The evening meal is often where we first discuss social values, our biases and prejudices, and our hopes and fears for our families, ourselves, and the world.

Food is the new sex.*

Fifty years ago, relaxed sexual behavior was the moral ground on which a national debate was focused.

Today it is food.

As an adult, my relationship to food is complex. I am forced to consider the things that I am willing, or unwilling, to put into my body, in what amount, and how often.

The ease at which so many food products can be moved around the world makes it extremely convenient for consumers to gather, prepare, and cook their meals quickly.

In our fast-paced society, convenience has become a necessity, and ‘slow’ food has become one of its victims.

Humans have become habituated to the easily accessible, highly processed, ready-made foods; repeat offenders, we continue to follow the path of least resistance.

Throughout our country, food is processed and packaged to satisfy our enormous craving for fat, sugar, and salt; we are a nation overweight.**

Parents and children, alike, are busy and on the move.

We have learned to eat and talk on the run.

Contrast the many cultures of the world that practice a more relaxed attitude toward preparing and cooking food.

They spend more time at the market, shut down business during the noon meal, and generally consider mealtime as a valued social experience.

Throughout Europe, it is commonplace to spend six hours talking and eating around a leisurely evening meal.

The good news is that individuals and communities who can afford the time and money are calling for more locally grown foods, more nutritious products, healthier eating habits, and a slower pace overall.

Schools and some food retailers are beginning to take notice.

But for many, slowing down and eating healthfully can be expensive and time consuming, and if you are under-paid, under-appreciated and overworked, there simply isn’t enough time in the week to make the commitment to consider your options, read the labels, and sort out contingencies.

Small birds also have a fast-paced lifestyle, supported by efficient lungs, a fast–beating heart, and a rapid digestive system.

Ironically, when we serve the bird population pre-packaged seed, we also produce, for them, a necessity of convenience.

Life is easier for the goldfinch when it can continually return to the feeder.

It is well known that the feeding of birds by humans, especially inconsistent feeding, can lead to abnormal patterns of food gathering, and can even prevent migration.

Yet, there is a meditative beauty, if not a divine aesthetic, in keeping company with birds in the wild.

For the past 11 thousand years, most people in the world have been actively engaged in farming. In the western world and some parts of Asia, it is only comparatively recently that industrialization and information technology have replaced agriculture as a primary source of economic stability.

While the rest of the world is quickly catching up through the process of globalization, industrial food products are becoming increasingly mass-produced, scientifically engineered, and mass-distributed, world-wide.

Perhaps this represents a significant step in the battle against world poverty. Or maybe not. It is yet to be decided.

Experts note it is crucial that we spend more time, energy, and resources in order to gain a deeper understanding of the complex issues surrounding food requirements and practices within a changing world.

My meal is nearly finished.

I stare out the window, entranced by the tropical-like beauty of the goldfinch.

Without warning it flies away, moving in the direction of its next avarian incidence.

My phone rings; I must attend to some business.

I clear the dishes and put away the food.
The goldfinch will soon come back for a meal, as it always does.

And I will do the same, as I also must.

* Mary Eberstadt Is Food the New Sex? (essay in Policy Review)
** Dr. David A. Kessler The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale Books)