The Eating Rebel
By Ari Cohn

On the days when I have humility, I think that it is in the simplest acts that people have the most power. My memories of the most important events of the past year always involve very basic functions: picking up an emotionally distraught hitchhiker on a cold, rainy, winter night and listening to her with great attention; bringing flowers to people in the office; eating a mainly organic, mainly vegan diet. It is probably obvious why interpersonal events stand out clearly in my mind: our 1-on-1 interactions are opportunities for great intimacy and great conflict.

The power inherent in my food choices is probably the least obvious of all my ordinary acts, but perhaps the most potent. I believe that what and how I eat is a statement of economic and political rebellion, an attempt to resist the siren song of mindless consumerism practiced in my culture, a reclamation of the power of ordinary citizens to direct their lives.

Corporate capitalism, contrary to claims of its boosters, hates a truly choosy consumer. The choice that corporations like us to have requires us to stay in a very small world, to surrender our understanding of what is good for us if such understanding isn't profitable to them. In return, corporations offer us the degenerate lure of convenience. The small-choice-big-choice contrast arises when I shop for food. When I shop at my local farmers' markets, I am saying to the Safeway and Lucky's corporations, "The real choice at stake is not who has the lowest prices in town. The real choice is the priority of my health. I do not accept tasteless, deficient, and poisoned food that degrades my health. If you want my business, pay most attention to my health needs, not your shelf life requirements, your transportation costs, and your bottom line."

The CEOs of Safeway and Lucky's cannot be very happy with that choice, because they cannot respond to it in a way that makes them money. My choice makes me an economic, and by extension, a political radical. Choosing to eat a mainly vegetarian diet makes a similar statement. Directed at the producers from whom Safeway and Lucky's buy, my choice says that I pay attention to the mountain of evidence from reputable sources that humans are designed to eat mostly plant food. I choose to reduce my risk of heart disease by 90%.(1) I choose to avoid osteoporosis.(2) I choose to avoid eating the cows that are fed some of the 100,000 other ground-up cows who drop dead yearly in the U.S. for no apparent reason.(3) I choose not to eat some of the 25 million pounds of antibiotics used on farm animals each year.(4) When I make those choices, I threaten the existence of multi-billion dollar industrial agriculture companies, because they cannot change their ways and stay in business. I am conducting economic guerrilla warfare.

How I eat can be an even more rebellious act. I am as guilty as anyone of shoveling food into my body like engineers used to shovel coal into the engine of a steam train. I eat on the run, while I read, and while conversing. All these practices make me forget that food has (or should have) flavor to be enjoyed. Moreover, food is a concentration of the forces of the universe-the sun, the oceans, the wind--going into my body. Those forces, gross and subtle, are unlocked only by chewing food properly. When I remember this, I slow down, becoming an eager locksmith, releasing the energies stored in food. It is easier to practice this idea of unlocking when I don't distract myself during the act of eating. Being silent, taking the time to enjoy my food on the physical and metaphorical levels, all increase the odds that I will absorb more of what the food has to offer. In this kind of meal, I receive spiritual nutrition as well as physical nutrition.(5) But this kind of conscious eating takes time, as does the preparation of food bought at market. It is not unusual for me to spend two hours a day in the kitchen, and 20 minutes simply eating each meal. This flies in the face of Western society, and particularly corporate society, which values those who are busy and productive (or appear to be). With regard to eating, the emphasis in industrialized societies is fun, convenience, and speed, all of which denigrate our innate needs, both physical and spiritual. By taking the time to be aware of my eating, I'm saying that my basic need for a fulfilling mealtime experience takes precedence over society's need to have me produce something.

This is a subtle, but direct affront to corporate capitalism. So, you'd think that people who claim to resent the power of big corporations would jump at the chance to to take back some of their power, especially for the payback offered by truly good nutrition. What saddens me is the constant refrains from those I tell about my choices: "Sounds nice, but I simply don't have time to eat like that." "Oh, I have no patience/no talent for cooking." These statements represent a voluntary surrender of a precious freedom in an alleged republic: the freedom to choose. When we claim to be at the mercy of outside circumstances in such a basic act of eating, what are we saying about our control of our economic-political system? If we cannot, as citizens and consumers, make our institutions serve us in this most basic of arenas, how can we hope to make them serve us in others?

(1) Robbins, John. Diet for a New America. Stillpoint Publishing, 1987, 215.
(2) Ibid., pp. 191-193.
(3) Lyman, Howard. Radio interview on KKUP, April 25, 1996.
(4) Guyette, Curt. "How Now, Toxic Cow?", Metro Santa Cruz, March 27-April 3, 1996.
(5) Cousens, Gabriel, M.D. Conscious Eating, Vision Books International, 1992, 22-23.

Magic Stream Journal
Copyright 1996 Ari Cohn