Rachel Stone’s “Eat with Joy”: Why Healthy Eating Goes Beyond What We Eat

It is fitting that I’m writing this review of Rachel Stone’s new book Eat with Joy (InterVarsity Press 2013) while eating lunch at a local French café—an establishment that embodies why Rachel insists on seeing an authentically made French baguette as a gift to be enjoyed, white flour and all, in her generous, thoughtful, creative, challenging, God-centered vision of what food is, and can and ought to become.

I cannot, in good conscience, actually call this a “review,” as Rachel is a friend with whom I have broken bread on occasion and with whom I have regular online contact. Understand, however, that my glowing response to Eat with Joy is not a concession to a friend’s ego, but rather a testament to why we are friends to begin with. We see so much of the world, including the food on our plates, the meals we prepare for our families, and our culture’s various obsessions and distortions of food, in similar ways.

In Rachel’s vision, our modern American relationship with food is equally distorted by factory farms, ubiquitous and addictive fast food, pro-ana (anorexia) web sites teaching girls how to starve themselves, and diet gurus who preach a Pharisaic vision of food purity, in which no unclean thing shall pass through your lips. In Eat with Joy, she spends time parsing each of these distortions, and more (including her own history of an eating disorder in which she was convinced that God would be honored by dietary asceticism), as well as their opposites and remedies—the integrity of pasture-fed beef and farmstand produce, the pleasures of home cooking, the healing nature of meals shared with others. She encourages readers not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, to make incremental changes (cooking one or two meals a week from scratch, purchasing a local CSA farm share, inviting the neighbors for dinner) toward eating in ways that are healthier (in a broad sense) for our bodies, the earth, and our communities.

Throughout Eat with Joy, Rachel points us toward a God who gave us food not only for our bodily nourishment, but also for our pleasure and connection with one another.

Surely God could have designed us with some kind of human photosynthetic process, or created our refueling mechanisms in a way that would afford about as much pleasure as I imagine my laptop derives from being plugged into the electrical outlet. I suspect and prefer to believe that God made eating sustaining, delicious and pleasurable because God is all those things and more.

She also reminds us that, just as Jesus used occasions of eating to break down barriers between people and point them toward God, we are called to make choices about food and eating that honor and connect us to other beings, from the animals whose flesh we eat to farm and meatpacking workers and those with whom we dine—our families, neighbors, and strangers.

For someone who has never thought about where her package of discounted hamburger meat came from, has never been to a farmers’ market, or is accustomed to picking up take-out on the way home from work every night, Rachel’s thorough treatment of the problems with modern food production and consumption, and proposed remedies, might be overwhelming. But besides her repeated call to make incremental changes, Rachel also offers a holistic, grounded, and generous approach to healthy eating. This is not a book with hard and fast rules. Rather, it offers a vision for how truly healthy eating (in physical, emotional, communal, and environmental terms) can come about. How such eating will be manifest in each reader’s habits and home is left for him or her to discover, although Rachel offers some suggestions and questions at the end of each chapter for readers to ponder.

This weekend, I was thinking a lot about food, as I finished up Rachel’s book and thought about response to last week’s post on naturopathy and restrictive diets taken on in the name of health.

Saturday night, Daniel and I went out for a rare splurge at a steakhouse in town. While I mostly chose foods that fit into my anti-inflammatory diet (salmon instead of steak, with several different veggie side dishes), the meal was a splurge, financially and dietarily. Recognizing the meal as out of the ordinary, we ate some things we wouldn’t normally eat (we shared a piece of carrot cake, for example) and had real, sustained conversation with one another. It was a healthy meal.

The following afternoon, we took the kids to a nearby park with a maple sugar shack. They collected a huge pail of sap (Daniel, of course, got to carry it back to the shack), then watched as the sap was boiled and listened as the park ranger explained the process. They each got a tiny cup of pure, warm maple syrup to taste. One night this week will be declared pancake night. Ben, whose favorite food is pancakes, will no doubt want to help crack the eggs and stir the wet ingredients into the dry. If I am chief pancake maker, I will probably use part whole-wheat flour, add some flaxseed or wheat germ to the batter. If Daniel takes on that role, he will follow the recipe to the letter, which means pure white flour pancakes. In either case, we will sit down to a meal of pancakes, made with Ben’s enthusiastic help, topped with butter and maple syrup (which is just about as local a food as you can get here in central Connecticut). It will be a healthy meal.

After we returned from maple syruping, I made soup chock full of organic veggies from our weekly co-op delivery and other foods featured in my anti-inflammatory diet—greens, mushrooms, onions, garlic, quinoa, chickpeas. We ate it with honey wheat bread I made the day before in my bread machine (a concession to my arthritis, which makes it hard to stand in the kitchen for lengthy periods of time). That, too, was a healthy meal.

I am grateful to Rachel who, through her friendship and her book, has helped me to understand that healthy meals are not defined solely by which compounds they do or don’t contain, that eating with joy and gratitude means being conscious of the foods we eat, how and with whom we share them, and the God from whose hands it all (the food and the company) ultimately comes.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Marcie

    This may be out of line and if so, I apologize in advance. I heard a news report that quinoa, a staple of an African diet, is so popular in the US that the people who used to eat quinoa are unable to obtain that grain and this may begin either a famine or a serious lack of nutrition in that country. I wish I could remember what African nation/people use the quinoa as a mainstay of avoiding famine but my mind is often like a steel sieve and some info sticks and some just passes on through.

    I just wonder in our American state of mind for inclusiveness of other cultures in our cuisine, we may damage other cultures.

    Just a thought.

    • DaveP

      > I just wonder in our American state of mind for inclusiveness of other cultures in our cuisine, we may damage other cultures.

      That’s an interesting and complex question that missionaries (such as my sister and her family) and I (doing some agronomy work for African rural extension agents) have had to deal with a lot, and the answers are sometimes surprising.

      For example, in one African area there was the potential for the women (who grow 60% to 80% of the food in Africa) to almost double their crop yields so that not only could they feed their families, but they could sell their surplus for extra income.

      The women refused. The reason? Their “culture” was that the men would beat their wives to get any extra money that the wives earned. So a women who grew a surplus would simply get beaten more, and still end up broke.

      Similarly in Bolivia, the infant mortality rate is about 46/1000. Compared to about 7/100 in the US or 21/1000 in Peru.

      So Bolivia has a “culture” of high infant mortality. If money from increased quinoa exports reduces the infant mortality rate there, is that “damaging” their culture?

  • Marcie

    I apologize again. It’s not Africa but South America and the Andes where Quinoa is a staple and the people are beginning to feel the American need for anything from anywhere.
    But my question still stands.

    • http://prinsenhouse.blogspot.ca/ Jeannie

      Yes, I saw that too, Marcie — someone posted this on FB which was where I first noticed it (it was about Bolivia):
      http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57570479/worldwide-quinoa-fever-stressing-bolivian-farmers/
      This was an angle on the food issue that I had never considered. I appreciate Ellen’s post and also your mentioning this because I thought about it a lot after reading the news item.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Marcie – No, this is not in the least out of line. In fact, it allows me to expand a bit on the main idea in this post—that what constitutes “good” or “healthy” eating cannot be reduced to the compounds and nutrients in particular foods. So many folks today are hawking diets that restrict entire food groups (note that I’m not referring to diets recommended for people with an allergy or intolerance to certain foods). This bothers me, because of how it discounts foods that, depending on the contexts in which they are grown or made or shared, are indeed “good.” So let’s take quinoa. I have read of the same problems you bring up here. And while Dave’s point (that cultural context can obscure our interpretation of what is or is not a problem in another culture) is well-taken, what if there is some fundamental injustice caused by Western folks’ sudden love of quinoa? In that case, might my pancake dinner, featuring pancakes made with US-sourced wheat flour (common enemy of many diets), organic butter (again, a common enemy of diets suspicious of all animal fats), and maple syrup (a form of sugar, another common enemy) actually be a “healthier” alternative to a soup featuring quinoa? While I don’t think the answer to that question is completely clear, I think it’s a question worth asking. Thanks for raising it.

  • DaveP

    > … baguette … salmon … carrot cake … pancakes … topped with butter and maple syrup …

    Yum! You set me salivating again.

    Last night I had salmon alongside salad, followed by cheesecake. As I will again tonight! We had guests over a few days ago and we’re still finishing the leftovers from the feast my wife cooked. :)

    Sounds like Ben is going to have some fond cooking memories. I know that I always enjoyed helping my parents in the kitchen. And I know my kids have fond memories of helping my wife and me. From the early days, when we were saving money by making our own flour using a hand grinder attached to some bicycle pedals, to now when our budget is more flexible. Two of our sons ended up with high school fast-food jobs (at KFC and Arctic Circle), and one of them has turned the tables on us and now introduces us to stuff like pizza stones and “sous-vide” cooking.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    “a testament to why we are friends to begin with” – Such a tender and honest statement to set the whole review – a great review I note – in perspective. Thank you for pointing out, as Rachel does, that there’s more to healthy eating than what’s on the nutrition label.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. I’m tweeting this review!

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks Tim. You have become quite a tweeter!

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