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Maryn McKenna: Why I Care About Food

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Kirkham's Lancashire cheeses aging at Neal's Yard, Borough Market, London.

It’s been decades, but I can still hear the perplexity and wonder in my father’s voice.

“I wrote Poppa,” he says, looking down from his 5’9″ height to my seven-year-old self scrunched on a lumpy sofa. “I told him you ate turtle soup.” He paused. “And spinach.”

It was the spinach that was more remarkable.

Maybe a little explanation is in order.

We were in the cramped sitting room of a temporary rental, a staff cottage on the ground of a sprawling Edwardian hotel in a London suburb. A few months earlier, he had uprooted us— myself, my two-year-old brother, our new stepmother—from Brooklyn to England so he could take a new job. Two years earlier, months after my brother was born, our mother had died suddenly of unrecognized leukemia. Moving to London—which my father visited most months on the way to work on European chemical plants, and where he had met my stepmother, an American working on a psychology Ph.D.—was a way to start over.

Things were not going as expected. The house we were supposed to move into was not available yet. The planned five-day stay in the big hotel looked like it would stretch into months, so the management had moved us out of the main building and into the tiny spare house on a road that ran alongside the property. There was a kitchenette in the cottage, just big enough to pour cereal into bowls and open soup cans. The best dinner option, though, was the formal dining room, served by jacketed waiters who steered hors d’oeuvre carts between the tables and delivered dessert on heavy silver trays.

The menu they handed us was as long as my brother was tall. It held lists of things that I had no vocabulary for, since half of it was French and all of it was foreign to me: Alligator pear. Melon with Parma ham. Tortue en tasse. Darne de saumon. Brussels sprouts. Poire belle Helene. Cheese.

The first night we sat down, I felt my father eyeing me uneasily. In New York, for the previous two years, I had eaten—well, nothing, really. This would have been easy to miss, for a while, in a small family shocked by tragedy and baffled by the care of a motherless toddler. When my grandmothers caught up to my hunger strike, they responded first with sick-room foods (cinnamon toast, oatmeal) and then with comfort foods (lamb stew, chicken fricassee). I ignored it all. Frantic, they offered things they thought of as rare and expensive: beef, white bread, chocolate. Exhausted by the attention, I caved and ate. They figured that was all I would eat; so from that point, it was all they offered—and all I did eat—for two years. No vegetables, no fruit, no milk that I remember (though every kid in the 60s got served milk whether you liked it or not). No cookies; no chicken; no eggs.

It was not a good record to bring into a rapt restaurant whose hush was broken only by the clink of glass and the soft hiss of chafing dishes heating. My father must have been expecting me to reject the entire menu, to make a scene, to sob. Instead, I looked up, and realized that no one around us was angry, or anguished, or numb from the need to speak and the inability to get the words out. They seemed relaxed and happy, and the source of their happiness seemed to lie in the things on their plates and the long list in my hands.

I wanted that happiness, so badly. If getting it meant tasting every item on the menu, I was willing to try.

In the end, I liked the spinach better than the turtle. But what I liked best, though it took me a while to articulate it, was discovering that food could usher you into an entirely different experience. It could provide distraction, and comfort, and focus, and pleasure. And if you paid attention, it could open a door for you, into a different culture, and even a different world.

Which it did, the years we stayed in England. Becoming interested in food made me ask why the lunchtime dessert at boarding school was always rhubarb, and got me thinking about what grows in which climate. Why my friends’ parents’ favorite take-away food was curry, and what that revealed about colonialism’s effect on the colonizers. Why, when we went to pubs for lunch on Sunday drives, and my father ordered a ploughman’s, the cheese was different in every town. (To this day, when I go back to England, Neal’s Yard Dairy is one of my first stops, and I keep zip-lock bags in every suitcase in case I find something to bring home.)

Most of my life as a journalist, I’ve focused on public health, which means that I explore the unintended consequences of the choices we make around eating: not just obesity and diabetes, but foodborne illness, and antibiotic resistance, and the impact of agriculture on workers, land and water. I hope to talk about some of those issues here as well. But what I notice gets lost, when I write about those problems, is the history and complexity and even beauty behind all our systems of food production. So that’s what I’d like to talk about here: How for all its discontents, and unacknowledged dangers, food can create family, and establish belonging, and open a door into joy.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.