Josh (desh) wrote,

the food stress post

I've been thinking about making this post for awhile. So I might as well do it, huh.

As you might have been able to tell from the subject line above, or from my vote in the poll, food is a major stressor in my life.

Luckily for me, the health aspect of things isn't really a problem. This probably distinguishes me from most people that have food stress. I'm comfortably a bit overweight, and if I wanted to do something about that, I'd be much better off exercising more than changing my diet. I eat 90% vegetarian, I don't snack unhealthily too much, I love carbs but try to stick to low-fat stuff at least sometimes, I don't get stressed out at all by hunting for local or organic produce or reading package labels on occasion, and I have very good self-control when I do snack. (I'll decide I want 4 cookies, bring the bag of cookies to the TV, eat 4 cookies, and close up the bag and bring it back to the kitchen when the show is over.) No, the problems I have are everything else.

I used to say that I can't cook. This is less true than it used to be, though I'm certainly still a below-average cook. I'm not creative at all, and I don't really have an understanding of what the different variables involved do. (For example, I can make scrambled eggs. But I don't know what it would mean to use a different pan temperature, or to add cheese (if I'm adding cheese) earlier vs. later in the process, or to use a lid, or even to add various herbs and spices.) And I'm too afraid to experiment with any of the variables, because the stress involved in cooking in the first place would just get that much worse if I had to throw something out, or eat it but enjoy it less, when I could have just as easily made some known quantity.

No, the reality is just that I don't like to cook. At all. Spending an hour in the kitchen makes me not want to go back in there for another two weeks at least. I'm not comfortable in there. I'm a klutz, and there's lots of hot things and sharp things around. My bizarre back/rib/torso/whatever problems have recently been at their worst when I'm standing in one place without being able to move or sit or lean for more than about a minute at a time, and that tends to only happen to me at concerts and in the kitchen. And perhaps the biggest point is that I'm a complete member in our short-attention-span instant-gratification culture. Every minute spent in the kitchen is a minute I'm not talking to other people (usually), reading anything, checking my email, or even creating something that will last beyond the next few hours. And I can't easily stop what I'm doing to take a 30-second LJ break, either.

Also, I don't have particularly discerning taste. There are dishes and foods I like, but they're few and far between. More than most people, I think, I'm often just trying to find something to eat that I don't mind, or like a bit, or won't dislike too much. The available range of how good things taste to me is a bit narrow, and a bit skewed toward the bad side. The exception, of course, is when it comes to foods I genuinely don't like. I've managed to compartmentalize most of the foods I don't like (anything made with a tomato product, though exceptions can be made for baked things like pizza and baked ziti; mustard; coconut; tree nuts; and spicy things), but that's still a lot of stuff and still impacts my food choices pretty much everywhere.

All that would be bad enough, right? But then there's the Jew stuff.

I'm not talking about keeping kosher, either. The way I keep kosher, eating vegetarian stuff anywhere, including fish, is good enough almost all of the time. And as I mentioned above, that's not so much of an issue for me. (It cuts down on choices in a restaurant a bit, but I can usually handle that.)

No, the issue is more Shabbat. In particular, the fact that I don't spend money on Shabbat, and the fact that I don't cook on Shabbat. Generally there are two big meals eaten on Shabbat, dinner (Friday night) and lunch (Saturday afternoon). So, for people who practice like me, you have to plan ahead for both meals in terms of having the ingredients and/or prepared foods on-hand before Friday sundown. And you also can't eat food that has to be served immediately after cooking for either meal (since even dinner is usually eaten at least an hour or two after sundown), and you have to eat cold food for lunch unless you've made something that can live in a crockpot for 18 hours.

A big part of Shabbat is the community that develops around eating meals together. (Shabbat-observant Jews are often much better at hosting dinner parties than other people, mainly because we practice a lot more.) This is hard enough for me where I live, since it seems like the majority of my Shabbat community here has moved away or will be moving soon, to be replaced by people I don't have much in common with. (I could make a Jewish-community stress post too, but I don't feel like that now.) But even the people I do feel connected with never invite me for meals anymore, mainly because I don't invite them over much either, obviously. (In addition to the above issues, this is also due to my mostly-dormant-but-not-entirely-gone having-people-over-my-house stress, which isn't interesting enough for its own post. In a nutshell, I've always been weird about having friends over, for unknown reasons. I'm mostly over that these days, but the overall effect is worse now, because I'm embarrassed that I still live at home with my mom. I stay there partly because I'm lazy, but partly because she understands these issues and cooks for me sometimes. It's a vicious cycle.) So I've been having people over for Shabbat meals at my house at a rate of roughly once or twice a year, which certainly isn't enough to help sustain a community, and seems to also not be enough to get even an occasional reciprocal invitation anymore.

There are potlucks at my synagogue sometimes, but that crowd is extremely awkward for some reason, and I probably wouldn't go at all. (Sorry, J, if you're reading this. Nothing personal, I promise.) Except for the fact that a potluck is a nice way to eat other people's food guilt-free, at a price of just bringing some challah and wine, or even some takeout (which is doable because of the kashrut rules that the potluck uses). So I go anyway.

Really, the most stressful part about Shabbat food isn't that I don't get to enjoy it with other people. That issue is secondary to the fact that it's really hard to just "cheat" and go with my six-days-a-week strategy of trading money for already-cooked food. Given all the issues in this post, I'm really happy to budget whatever's necessary to do this, but it's more challenging for Shabbat. I do it sometimes, getting prepared foods at Whole Foods most Friday afternoons to bring to a Friday potluck, and some more (pasta salad or something) to eat cold by myself for Shabbat lunch. Occasionally, though, I get bored of that and decide to walk down to Penn Hillel to eat in Kosher Dining. This is a terrible idea more often than I'd like to admit, given that I graduated almost 5 years ago now and it's kind of weird that I spend as much time with undergrads as I do. (It was particularly awkward last Friday, Parents' Weekend, when the dining hall was packed twice as full as usual, and it was even more clear than usual that I didn't belong. I bailed on my plan to eat there and headed home, despite only having bought Whole Foods food for lunch rather than for two meals. I covered the difference, which was really less than one meal's worth due to the fact that I overbought, by having more bagels and veggies than usual at the kiddush at synagogue on Saturday morning.) But any opportunity to simply pay for Shabbat food cooked by someone else is one that I eagerly jump at.

So hopefully now you see why I voted "yes" in my poll. I'll happily sit with you and watch you eat and make conversation and all, but more often than not, I myself am also eating then only because I have to. I'm sorry if this post makes any of you foodies or you big-Shabbat-dinner types sad, but it is how it is.

(Advice and sympathy welcomed, if you're so inclined. "Get over it, you baby" remarks are less welcome. (You know who you are.))
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