Five years ago, I was a guest columnist embarking on an interactive weight-loss challenge chronicled in The Washington Post. As we close out National Gumbo Day, I’m sharing “Breaking The Connection Between Food And Emotions”, a piece I wrote during that period about Louisiana’s official state cuisine and the role it played at a pivotal point in my life. If the SoulCreole project is about anything it is about our emotional and cultural connections to the foods that shape our identity.
There are few places in the world where food is more revered than in New Orleans. I learned to cook some of the best food in the world as a child, watching my father and his mother turn everyday meals into culinary delights.
And that’s what we discover here from the time we can hold our own fork and spoon: in New Orleans we don’t eat to live, we live to eat. And the eating is so, so good.
The food here is hearty, robust and incredibly flavorful all at the same time, especially in the fall and winter. Gumbo is the whisper on everyone’s lips as the temperature begins to drop, and it reigns as the king of comfort foods for months.
One of my earliest vivid memories is of sitting at my paternal grandmother’s big, round table, anxiously awaiting a hot, steaming bowl of gumbo at Thanksgiving in New Orleans East. The house is filled with people. I remember how the chair I sat in felt; how my uncles laughed and joked and drank; what music we listened to; the exact pattern of the lace tablecloth and the little grains of pepper trapped between its threads.
And I remember having the bowl of deep, dark gumbo placed in front of me, and how the steam from the rice rose up into my six-year-old eyes. I felt nourished, loved. I belonged to something happy and bigger than myself. And I never forgot that.
I’m now forty-one, but I can access that memory as if it were yesterday.
That bowl of gumbo made me feel complete. And thus was born a powerful connection between food and emotions that I struggle to manage to this day. Food became the comforter, the friend who always delivered. No matter what the problem or challenge, food would be there to distract me, remind me of the good times, to release that elixir of human “feel good” chemicals.
And it always did just that. Until it didn’t.
A few nights ago, I had to deal with a minor disappointment during my drive home from a business meeting. The details of the disappointment are less important than my response to the disappointment itself. I not only blew the situation out of proportion in my mind, I began to think about how I could “make it better” by having a “good” meal of every fried and over-sauced food I could think of. This feeling of wanting to “fix” my mood with food was so overwhelming, I pulled over at an exit.
I sat quietly in my car for several moments. How was overeating going to fix anything? The food would taste good going down, but it wasn’t going to “solve” anything. Did I honestly want a response to my emotions to cause me to engage in behavior that was diametrically opposed to my goal of being healthier? I did not.
And that’s when it hit me. Food is not a response. Food is not consolation for frustration. Food is not a reward for a job well done. Food is not revenge. Food is not victory. No matter how good it is, no matter who made it, no matter what the occasion, food is just food.
Don’t let food become an emotional crutch. Handle your emotions at their source. Food is not their source.