Glorious Food

A photograph of the author, Austin Bailey.

By Austin Bailey

August 23, 2012

The following is an essay on mindful eating submitted by Diane Baron, a Heifer International supporter from Asheville, N.C.Thanks, Diane!

"Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The one who eats the fastest gets the most."

My grandfather used to say that, my mom tells me, and I'd bet it was a silent prayer in many other homes. Especially if there were boys, brothers in my case, at the table. Even as a small girl I had the appetite of an active teenage boy, and despite nearing age 50, I still do.

Someone in our family who seemed immune to the challenges of a runaway appetite was my grandfather's younger daughter, my aunt, a Catholic Benedictine sister. If she had been a practicing Buddhist, I would say she had aced "The Middle Way."

Sister entered the convent at age 17, and a 82 is still teaching and adjudicating piano solos. She's gotten up before dawn to practice tai chi close to 20 years, and at age 60 she began taking harp lessons.

I've studied her habits (no pun intended) relating to food since I was young and brimming with gusto for the big worlds of nature, art, dance, music, books and especially food. While the rest of her extended family gobbled throughout the holidays, I never saw her volunteer as quality control tester at the stove, serve herself a second helping of food or take a nap after eating. Her dishes were always cleaned off like they hadn't even been used.

I remember one Thanksgiving in particular. With the same alert energy with which she sat down at the table, at the end of the meal she was clearing plates and transferring food from serving dishes to plastic containers. Then she stood at the sink and hand-washed dish after dish, plate after plate, platters, glasses, utensils. How much tableware could six people dirty? Then she S.O.S.-ed the roasting pan! It was Herculean. She continued on, soaking one tea towel after another, drying everything by hand all to say, "Thank you for inviting me." Whatever I did to help with the before-meal preparations (make cranberry sherbet, set the table and eat stuffing bread) was nothing compared to this.

After our feast I slugged my way from the dining room to drape myself over the kitchen table, where I watched her with awe and thought of how she took on our suffering for us. I could hardly move, sit upright or breathe, and there she stood--steady, poised and heroic, 35 years my senior, with all the vitality and freshness of someone my preteen years of age. With her dignified bearing, she even appeared to enjoy being helpful at such an overwhelming time. Why hadn't we all just given thanks over a shared box of Saltine crackers and been done with it?

Sister was used to monastic life being orderly, precisely timed and ship-shape. When we visited at her Pennsylvania monastery, dinner was always at a specific hour. While Sister modestly ate one serving, we kids, cousins, great nieces and nephews scarfed up food like lusty pirates at an all-you-can-eat buffet, running back for seconds before they whisked the big metal pans back into the kitchen.

Once, we had so much food to finish that the sisters on the clean-up detail were hoisting chairs up on the tables and vacuuming around us. Our plates were loaded like we hadn't eaten for weeks, rather than just the five hours since lunch.

If we gifted Sister with a box of candy, she took one piece and set the rest out to share with her community. Who was this woman/martyr/saint? How could she have so much self-control to not indulge in what she clearly liked? How could she be so disciplined and moderate?

When I was 16 I experimented with convent life to see if I had a vocation, only to realize that I had a temperament more like Zorba the Greek.

Six years later I spent the summer in Marine Corps boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, home of sand fleas, intense heat and humidity. Everything we recruits were commanded to undertake was supposed to be accomplished faster than possible. That included eating.

The sequence through the chow line was as follows: The recruits who needed to put on weight filed in at the front of the line so that they could go through a second time to get more chow. The weight control recruits were put at the rear so that they didn't have enough time to eat. We all ate as fast as we could because if one of us finished bolting her food, we were all supposed to be finished, then jump up and clear our trays.

This routine wasn't cutting it for me, so one chow time I decided to shovel in a few more bites before jumping up. The red-headed sergeant drill instructor who I was terrified of planted her oxfords in front of me with her hands curled in fists on her hips and yelled, "YOU PIG!" Let's say, I heard her. My first pseudo-satori.

From that day until the end of the nine-week boot camp I ate only what I could mindfully chew and whittled to an alert-minded, lean-bodied 111 pounds. On graduation day when another drill instructor pinned the eagle, globe and anchor emblem on my cover and called me a marine for the first time, I felt invincible.

Actually, for the first time I felt like I imagined my aunt did. Clear. Capable. Courageous. I could probably even wash a humongous pile of Thanksgiving dishes.