How important is food autonomy to you? How important is it that you can eat what you want when you want it? How much does having choice about what you eat, its variety and/or consistency and quantity, matter to you? Well, until this year, I (Rich) would have said that it matters to me a lot. I like food, but I am not an omnivore—I would have said that I am a bit of a picky eater. Of course, that has mellowed over the course of my life, but I am still not a huge salad fan, for example, and I avoid salad dressings and most sauces if I can help it.
When you become a missionary, especially one that is traveling to one hundred or so homes over the course of a year, you end up letting go of food autonomy. We have been served hundreds of meals over the last 11 months, many of them in small conference facilities, but also in homes where we were being served as guests. Over the last year, we have been on our own and not serving a local student movement for just a few weeks. Other than that, we have eaten out at restaurants rarely, and then mostly local places offering local food choices.
I am not complaining about the food we have enjoyed on this trip—far from it. Actually, if anything, it has surprised me how much I have enjoyed the food and really not missed being able to make or select my own meals. We have eaten what is set before us, usually pretty happily, and really only a few times has the meal been difficult to consume.
But I notice what I think now of as my Americanness by how I notice the much reduced set of choices we have, in part because we are enjoying the hospitality of others and in part because of the post-soviet mindset of the people here.
In the US, even at relatively simple conference facilities, usually there would be some choice of food:
Again, my intent here is not to complain about the lack of variety in the food here, but simply to marvel at what people expect even nearly 25 years after the fall of the Soviet-imposed uniformity. Today, I was at a restaurant with a group of people from the church Lisa preached at this morning. One American couple was sitting across from me. They had both ordered salads for lunch, and the wife had ordered a side of French fries. Her 10-year-old son had ordered a soup, but after he finished his soup, he reached for his mom’s fries. She gently swatted his hand away, saying, “You could have ordered anything.” She was defending her (still nearly full) plate of French fries from her son. In my experience this is not a very typical mom’s response to a son’s request to share his mom’s fries. She then relented and let her son have a single French fry off her plate. I am sure she is a wonderful and loving mom, but my theory is that she had simply been craving French fries, and she was seeing that plate of fries as the pathway to satisfy her food craving. Even her love for her son was not going to get in the way of the satisfaction she sought. So perhaps this is a common occurrence when one lives as a missionary in a foreign land. I have compassion on her—I myself become territorial about food, and even about French fries specifically, especially if I am seeking to restore some lost food autonomy.
I have found a very important coping strategy. I travel, as I have for many years, with dark chocolate, and I usually eat about one ounce of dark chocolate, in small pieces, per day. It helps me not to complain about the lack of chocolate in my host-provided diet, and in general helps me to be content, as the Apostle Paul says, whether I am experiencing plenty or want. I wish I weren’t dependent on dark chocolate in this way, but as a coping strategy, it is better than taking up smoking!
So the next time you open your refrigerator and see dozens of choices of food you can happily prepare and consume, or go to a buffet at a restaurant or even a weekend church retreat, stand back, be amazed and grateful, and recognize that most of the people on the planet wouldn’t dream of the choices you have. (And, if you travel, figure out what is your affordable coping strategy that allows you to be content in all circumstances.)
Rich and Lisa Lamb