- Feeding Hunger: Three Things I Take for Granted about Food—and Shouldn’t
To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.
This essay looks at the human face of hunger, up close and personal. “Feeding Hunger” will explore the topic from three perspectives, alternating but refracting on one another. It is from this corporeal perspective—influenced perforce by the prevailing culture—that I, as a middle-class mother, amateur chef, and food writer, approach the subject of hunger by examining what I take for granted about food. Under ordinary circumstances, Natalie Crouter, another comfortable middle-class American mother, would have shared my point of view; but her status as a prisoner of war in Baguio, the Philippines, throughout World War II, dramatically altered her way of regarding the world, and life itself, as she, her family, and five hundred other internees dealt with diminished food supplies, and the nutritional, social, and medical consequences. The third perspective, and the grimmest, is the statistical evidence from the United Nations World Food Programme on “food insufficiency” in Nepal, Niger, Guatemala, and Haiti (among eighty countries) in which individuals in are crushed beneath the numbers that provide counterpoint to the narratives.
On Taking Things for Granted
We don’t talk much about the things we take for granted in this life. Why should we? They’re as natural as breathing, as easy as opening our eyes. Although travel may call into question the middle-class assumption that we have the opportunity to bathe when we’re dirty, to sleep when we’re tired, to eat when we’re hungry, most of the time we middle-class Americans can [End Page 159] take for granted these comforts of home. We take it for granted that our refrigerators will hold an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, that if we run out, we can buy more, and that the food will be savory, nutritious. In fact, the food in the front of my fridge—I just looked—blocks the view of the jars in the back that contain remnants of tapenade, chutney, horseradish; a jar of fresh ginger preserved in sherry; half-empty bottles of fish sauce, sweet chili sauce, almond oil…. That’s the refrigerator in the kitchen; the extra refrigerator in the basement holds white wine, the chocolate stash, the bargain carrots, and the harvest season’s abundance of tomatoes, peaches, apples; the overflow during holidays, parties…. During the six months this essay has been in progress, I’ve checked out these assumptions in an informal survey of my students, my hair stylist, random exercisers at the gym. We all agree, if we were snowed in, we’d have enough food on hand to last for a month. No sweat.
I write, of course, with irony and its implied self-criticism. What right have I, or anyone, to have so much food that I forget what’s in not one but two refrigerators? What right have the world’s well-nourished to even talk about hunger, even as the UN website “World Food Programme” lists eighty countries, from Afghanistan and Algeria to Zambia and Zimbawe, with “food insufficiency”? Our minds can perceive hunger’s gaunt visage throughout the world, in the next town, or even—if we squint hard—in our own neighborhood. Yet to we whose cupboards have never been bare hunger is likely to remain an abstraction except when we “Walk for Hunger,” donate to Food for the Poor or America’s Second Harvest, serve at a food pantry. Even then, this reminder is intermittent.
In Rambler #60, October 13, 1750, Samuel Johnson accurately explained what happens when an abstraction is made concrete: “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others is produced by an act of the imagination that realizes the event however fictitious, or approximates it however remote, by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate; so that we feel, while the deception lasts, whatever motions would be excited by the same good or evil happening to ourselves” (qtd. in Greene 204). Or, as Flaubert said...