Food is Language, Language is Food

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Author: Lena Smith

I have been in France for more than two months and I have not blogged about food. I have eaten a lot of food—trust me—but I have not been able to see where it connects to language. There are words for different menu items, words for how to prepare meals, for ordering and for describing wonderful (and disgusting) tastes. But those are just the words themselves, and language is more than that. Language deals with how the words fit together, how they complement each other.

To get deeper into the connection between language and food, I must dive into metaphor.

Food is language. A carefully constructed dish can create an emotion just as well as any carefully constructed sentence. Both the cook and the person eating the food are affected by it, since there is both pride in putting together a good dish and pleasure in eating it. Maintaining a habit of preparing and eating good food, thus, improves a person’s ego and happiness. This sounds romantic, but that does not mean it is untrue.

There is absolutely a link between how people eat and their overall wellbeing and happiness. I eat very well with my host family, and I feel better than at school where I sometimes make meals out of cookies and popcorn. Here, there is no temptation to eat unhealthily, since I have free meals every night with my host family. Sometimes I eat too much, but it is too much fish with sautéed vegetables, not too many potato chips. Eating well makes me feel better, and I appreciate my food more. I taste it more, because it has more flavor, and I feel fuller from a normal meal.

This week, I talked to my host-parents about McDonald’s, which is pretty popular in France. I do not understand eating at McDonald’s when there are ham and cheese crêpes or fresh salads around the corner, but Montpellier’s McDonald’s does good business. My host-parents can each count on one hand the number of times they have eaten there, mainly because they see great value in preparing a meal at home. As we prepared a local dish with fish and homemade aioli together, my host-mom commented on the large amount of olive oil which goes into the aioli. But she also pointed out that in making it ourselves, we were aware of the quantity. In contrast, the exact amount of grease in a Big Mac is a mystery.

To tie this into how language affects wellbeing, I am jumping to another experience I had on a different trip away from home. During one winter break in the United States, I spent a week living with my aunt. She is a very thoughtful and engaged person, and I felt uncomfortable swearing around her, even if it was just muttering “crap” when I dropped something. I made an effort, for that week, not to swear. The act of speaking positively rather than negatively improved how I thought about everything that happened to me that week. It was a good decision, both because—as I had expected—I never heard my aunt swear once, and also because by the end I no longer had the instinct to swear myself.

I have returned to the habit of swearing, but not forgotten the peace of mind that I had for that week. I could never maintain it normally, because even if I kept myself from swearing, it is still rampant in everyday life. However, when I avoided it, I had a similar experience to being in France and not eating too much processed sugar or unhealthy oil; I was more in control of myself and not so stressed or agitated. The pride one feels in speaking well is similar to that of making a good meal.

My inexpert opinion is that eating well and speaking consciously have the same effect on a person. Everyone chooses how they participate in their own culture, and these are just two of those choices. While one is physical and one mental, both improve how a person feels. It may take effort, but the result is worth it.

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