A few weeks ago I had dinner with good friends. It was the end of summer and the evening was warm and we ate outside, in the garden.
To the sound of birds getting ready for bed, evening scents of jasmine and lavender hanging in the air, we dined on lentil salad with tomatoes they had grown themselves, grilled fish with lemon and wonderfully-perfumed basil from their herb garden, stuffed zucchini flowers from the plants which sprawled half-way across the veggie patch and finished up with figs and apricots, plucked fresh from the tree that afternoon.
It was a feast!
We had a delightful evening, sitting under the stars in their productive and gorgeous garden, enjoying the fruits (and veggies) of their labour, sharing our news, the funny and perplexing anecdotes of our lives.
And it made me think. It reminded me of Epicurus and his property in Athens which he shared with friends and grew fruits and vegetables which appeared on their dining table.
Epicurus was a philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BC and like many philosophers, he was concerned with what makes a good or happy life. He set up a school of philosophy, known as ‘The Garden’ because it met in the garden of his home, which he shared with his friends. It had few students, both men and women, but they were devoted to him and his teachings.
We are so distanced from the origins of our food. We go to the supermarket and buy things in packets, open them and zap them in the microwave and eat them from plastic trays. Well, sometimes we do. They’re called convenience foods and while they may be convenient, I wonder whether they are actually food.
Oh sure, tinned foods and frozen foods are handy and I can understand why you’d have them in the pantry. I used to have many more than I do now because having adopted the Mediterranean Diet several years ago, I know it actually doesn’t take that long to prepare meals from real, raw foods. After all, people have been doing it all the way back to Epicurus’ time. It does, however, require a commitment to preparation…
But getting back to the origins of our food - hunting and gathering and farming – these are time-consuming tasks but can you imagine the joy of finally eating a juicy steak of whatever it was you caught or sinking your teeth into the first apples of the season?
Do you eat mindfully? I never did, not years ago. I would eat on the run, often in my car, or at my desk. I was already thinking about the next thing I had to do. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember what I’d eaten that day.
How sad, when eating is one of the great pleasures of life.
I bet when the wild boar is roasting on the open fire at the hunter’s camp or the chicken is coming out of the oven in the farmer’s kitchen, there is a real sense of anticipation.
Why? Because so much effort has gone into catching or raising that food.
Growing your own food is very satisfying. It’s satisfying because it’s an accomplishment, it’s rewarding and things that are rewarding make you feel good.
‘These are my carrots’ you say to yourself proudly. ‘I nurtured them through the work of my hands and they’re going to taste fantastic!’
There’s something visceral about connecting with your food. Burying the seed in the earth, watering it, watching and waiting for the seedlings to appear. Searching the sky for rain, nurturing the young plants and finally harvesting. It’s work that connects us with the earth and the food it produces.
It’s slow work, farming. There are no instant results. You have to watch over the plants and the animals, ensuring they get what they need to stay healthy. Weeks or months (sometimes even years) later, the harvest is brought in or the animals are taken to market.
Growing your own food, even creating a small herb garden, can be a real mood-lifter in a number of ways. It is a gentle way of focussing on life, in the midst of sadness, or grief.
First, it is a mindful task that requires your attention. While your attention is focussed on your plants, it gives the mind a break from the worries that can often take over. Working on your garden means there is no space for rumination. Focus on the earth in your hands, look at it, feel it, smell it.
Shut your eyes and meditate mindfully for a few moments on the experience of being in the garden.
What can you feel? Is it a warm day, a windy day? Are you sitting on grass or crouching over the path? How does that feel in your legs, your knees?
What can you smell? Are there fragrant flowers? Something earthy in the compost? Something a bit unpleasant coming from the rubbish bin? Don’t make any judgements about it. Just focus on the smells.
What can you hear? Are there birds in the trees around you? The rustle of the breeze in the leaves of the trees? Cars on the nearby roads? Children shouting or laughing? An argument at the neighbours? Again, just sit with the sounds, letting all worrying thoughts pass by.
Now open your eyes and finish your gardening. Have you watered your plants? Pruned any dead bits away? Put a little mulch through?
If it’s the right time of year, choose something to eat today, from your garden.
It’s very satisfying to cook with your own produce.
I don’t have a garden, but I have a small courtyard and in that courtyard I have a little herb garden: basil, coriander, mint, parsley and rosemary. I hope to add others very soon. I’m planning to try my hand at strawberries and chillies and perhaps even a tiny lime tree.
I love going to my little herb garden and choosing some leaves to add to a salad or soup. It feels really good.
All over the city community gardens have popped up. People who live in apartments without much space for growing their own produce can now rent or purchase a couple of plots. There’s one right in the heart of my city, over a carpark, near the main train station. A little oasis of green in the concrete jungle.
Nowadays, fruits and vegetables are available all year round. I think that’s a bit sad because we’ve lost the thrill of ‘nectarine season’ or ‘avocado season’. Produce is kept in cold storage or flown in from overseas. Does anyone preserve, bottle or dry foods any more?
Yes, I’m sure they do. But not as often as in our grandmother’s generation. Imagine opening a bottle of preserved tomato sauce or summer fruits in the middle of winter! Today we expect everything to be available all the time.
No wonder the slow food movement is so popular. Many people have grown tired of the instant, 3 minute, fast food lifestyle.
Why is cooking with your own produce, or at least, seasonal, well-cared-for produce better for your health and emotional well-being?
Omega 3 for one thing.
And other nutrients.
When hunters bring home the wild bacon, it’s been feasting on wild grasses and plants, not force-fed grains. Wild plants contain Omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health. Many meat animals today do not roam freely across the plains enjoying a healthy supply of wild-grown plant foods, so their meat does not give us the nutrients it would have supplied to our hunting forebears.
Fresh, seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits are available at regular farmer’s markets throughout my city. Look for them in yours too.
Enjoying a Mediterranean Diet, ingredients for which you can grow yourself, can really help when you’re feeling a bit down. Even if you don’t feel like eating much, one good meal a day can go a long way to helping you feel brighter. Snack on yoghurt, dried fruits and nuts and wholegrain bread if you don’t feel like cooking often.
The food-mood connection is well known now. The diet enjoyed by villagers on the island of Crete in the 1940s has many benefits for your physical as well as your emotional wellbeing. Full of fish, fresh vegetables, seeds nuts and fruits, the Mediterranean Diet has been shown to be effective in improving the health of brain.
You can grow all sorts of fruits, veggies and herbs which are consumed in high quantities in the Mediterranean Diet.
You know who else enjoyed a Mediterranean Diet?
Well, he had to really, being Greek.
Epicurus was keen on self-sufficiency as a key component of happiness, and while it may be difficult to live an entirely self-sufficient lifestyle in today’s world, growing some of your own foodstuff certainly can bring a smile to your face.
What else did Epicurus claim as the cause of happiness?
Eating with other people is very pleasant
Epicurus and his friends lived together in a large house on the outskirts of Athens. They had a productive garden, with fruit trees and vegetables and created and ate their meals together.
Friendship was one of the keys to happiness because friends provide each other with security, support and help when required. But Epicurus believed friendship was important for its own sake, that friends are more than just the bringers of benefits, but that real friendship makes the other person part of ourselves.
Diffuse communities were the Epicurean norm, rather than small, tightly knit nuclear family structures. A village if you like. Communities of like-minded individuals, supporting one another in many ways including the production of food for communal sustenance and enjoyment.
Eating with others is also part of the Mediterranean Diet. It should really be called the Mediterranean Lifestyle. Those post-war Cretans on whose way of eating the Americanised ‘Mediterranean Diet’ is based, lived a hard life, eking out a living from the hilly, stony landscape. It must have been backbreaking work. But it made them fit and hardy people, and I can imagine weddings and other social occasions were the highlights of the year.
I can also imagine food having an important role in such occasions. Sharing a feast together is binding; it makes us feel that we are part of a group. It connect us with a shared experience.
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Epicurus’ book.
Go on. Go to the nursery and get yourself some seedlings. Some basil, some parsley, some oregano. Take them home and nurture them. Harvest a few leaves. Make a soup, a salad or a stew. Invite a neighbour or someone who has been going through a bit of a hard time recently. Invite them over and nourish them with the food you have grown and created. Sit outside if you can.
Bet you anything you’ll feel better for it.
Epicurus said so.
Written November 2017