05 June 2010

The Great Chewing Experiment

Do you...chew?

If you eat, chances are you do. But how much?

When I lived in India during the '90s, we did an experiment to become more aware of food by chewing consciously. This is how it went:

No matter how famished we were when we'd sit down to eat, we would make an effort to chew each spoon of Pav Bhaji, each mouthful of rice, each morsel of chapati until the food in our mouths had been reduced to liquid. Depending on what we were eating, that meant chewing each bite from 40 to 100 times. Sometimes more. Only then would we continue.

The first and most obvious consequence was that it took a lot longer to eat. The second was that I ate less.

As the experiment continued, I noticed other changes too. Because we were all very busy chewing with great focus, meals were refreshingly free of annoying chatter and mindless gossip. Food had suddenly become an extension of our daily meditation practice.

For the two weeks that I managed to really chew, my digestion improved and my energy level picked up. It's hard to keep liquid in the mouth for so long without letting it slip down. But when you do, the food tastes...better somehow. Richer and sweeter.

But so what? I'm busy, you might be saying. I don't have time to sit and chew so darn much. I've got places to go, people to see...And what's all this have to do with France and living in Lyon anyway?

For starters, France prides itself, justly I think, about being the food capital of the world. And in France, Lyon is revered by foodies and epicureans alike as the Holy of Holies. 

In Lyon, food is  art. Food is philosophy.  Lyon is the Taj Mahal, the Sistene Chapel, the St. Basel's Cathederal of the gastronomic world. The tastes and textures and colors of food are designed and balanced to near absolute perfection that even the most gifted engineer would bow in reverence and awe. For food has a way of touching a man's heart in a way that concrete and steel, no matter how deftly or ornately twisted, cannot.

The image of the Frenchman coming home for a two-hour lunch in the middle of the day is well-rooted, but for the most part belongs to a bygone era.

Stand on any busy street corner in any large city at noon and you will see men in suit and tie powering crispy baguette sandwiches of floppy ham and cheese. Others go to the restaurant around the corner for steak and frites (fries), dessert and coffee. They're usually in and out again before the hour is up.

I've been there with them, stood side-by-side, eaten côte-à-côte with these soldiers of the French workforce. And even if I wasn't chewing to 100 at the time, I was eating in slow motion compared to everyone else.

Cutchewswallow...cutchewswallow...cutchewswallow...They'd eat with gusto, all of them, and do that weird reverse backwards cut with knife and fork when eating filet mignon.

But to be fair, in the fancier restaurants, those hallowed kitchens boasting the coveted Michelin star or two or three, food is, I understand, treasured the way a lover of fine art strolls through the Louvre. Rushing is not tolerated. Your heightened powers of observation tell you to take your time. You stop in front of the canvas and slowly, delicately unleash your trained eye (pallet) to wander over shape and color and texture, zooming freely in and out.

The senses are open and acutely aroused when going slow like this. To hold oneself back, to restrain from the impulse to "take it all in at once", requires unshakable will and solid discipline.

But coming back to my chapati: there's nothing three-star about your average Indian flat bread, unless you're hungry. And chewing slowly. With awareness.

We began our great chewing experiment after hearing the true story of a man who'd been imprisoned somewhere in Europe during the last part of the 20th century. Each day he was served one bowl of watery soup to eat and nothing more. His prison sentence lasted several years, and an intuition he'd had at the beginning probably saved his life.

Somehow he understood he had to "chew" his soup, each watery spoonful, at least 100 times. While his cell-mates were steadily weakening from lack of nourishment, this man's strength and vitality increased.

The day he walked out of prison a free man, he was as strong, if not stronger, than when he'd entered several years before. All because he'd chewed.

About three days ago I started chewing consciously again, everything from my morning toast to my lunch time sandwich to my bowl of fusilli pasta and peas at dinner time. Not only are my jaw muscles getting stronger, meals are more enjoyable. I'm talking less, but because my senses are on alert, I'm much more aware of my body and my surroundings. The breath is deeper and as much as I like to indulge and eat more just for the pleasure of it, I'm stopping when my body says 'that's enough'.

Well, most of the time. Old food habits are testy little bastards. They're cunning, and they die hard, if at all.

I  haven't yet had the opportunity to dine in one of Lyon's famous restaurants. I've eaten in some pretty good ones, but none with a world-class reputation.

But it doesn't matter. Because I know now that all it takes is a little more chewing to turn my 'chapati' into a three-star meal. 

Bon appétit.

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