Beyond Feeding My Stomach By Miyuki Baker

I found this piece in a magazine I used to edit called Overlaps. It’s from 2012 but I still have many of the same questions. These days I’ve been 95% vegan. I generally label myself as vegan but was told by a very strict vegan friend that since I’m known to eat an egg or two per month, I shouldn’t go around calling myself a vegan. I disagree with her opinion, but I do see that calling myself “vegan” or any other label can be limiting.

Anyways, hope you enjoy these words about food, culture, and my Japanese heritage.

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. I recently completed a 21-day cleanse (slip-ups-once-in-a-while-is-okay kind of cleanse) in which I ate a vegan, mostly gluten-free and processed sugars-free diet. That meant I was pretty much eating only out of the salad bar at my college dining hall. To spice things up, I carried dried seaweed to reconstitute in a bowl of water to add on top of my salads. Bringing the dried and shriveled up seaweed back to their plump and glossy state took me back home where my Japanese mother puts seaweed in every meal.

It’s actually quite an amazing system my mother uses, in line with a traditional Japanese diet. This consists of the following set of foods. Beans, sesame seeds, seaweed, vegetables, fish, mushrooms, yams (mame まめ, goma ごま, wakame わかめ, yasai やさい, shiitake しいたけ, imo いも) The first letter of each food group forms the sentence まごはやさしい or “grandchildren are kind (in the sense of filial piety)” It amuses me that such a saying sneaks into a mnemonic about foods to eat, but that’s another discussion entirely.

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In any case, I grew up with an incredible chef as a mother who not only worked her butt off to put delicious food in front of my father and I but also cared so much about the nutritional values of said foods. She would literally point out each food group from the ma-go-wa-ya-sashi-yi list in our meals, viewing it as a game of sorts, clucking her tongue if she missed a food group or two. There were several occasions where I sent me into the kitchen to grab the mortar and pestle to grind up some sesame seeds to complete the set.

Coming from such a healthy and mindful diet, but distinctly Japanese diet of fish stock and pork fat, my vegetarian, vegan and celiac friends I encountered in college and elsewhere surprised me. Wasn’t a wellbalanced diet, one that ate many things but in moderation? I questioned the authenticity of such diets as I recounted episodes of embarrassment in my childhood during which elementary school classmates would wrinkle their faces in disgust at the sight of something my mother had labored to create and say “ewww, what’s that?” We Americans often have problematic relationships with our food. In many cases, kids think of french fries as a good representative of vegetables, and Red 40 strawberry popsicles as fruit. I was surrounded by friends who grew up in households where the only fruit they had were apples, oranges and bananas. Ironically, the only consistent fruit Swarthmore serves are these very fruits.

Variety tends to make us think of access and privilege, but why must we deny people the right to connect with the earth? Ditch the expensive health food stores that charge $2 per organic avocado. No, actually, buy a couple of organic avocados, take the pits and make an orchard of avocado trees, and make guacamole for everyone in the neighborhood! Of course it’s so hard to remember that seeds grow into plants and that real animals lay eggs when everything is covered in plastic and cardboard. When I worked on an organic meat farm a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but revel in the beauty of each new size and color of the chicken eggs. Why would I want it to be so uniform and white after seeing the variety that exists in nature?

And yet there are so many ways in which people interact with their food, influenced by religion, class, race, politics, gender and other social factors. There are so many ways of talking about food that it becomes overwhelming to talk mindfully about it with others. I think we all have our own histories and cultures surrounding food that impact the way in which we view our food and its functions. While going on a cleanse made me realize that my body felt lighter and cleaner, less weighed down when I wasn’t filling it up with things that have been known to take lots of energy to process–gluten, sugar, meat etc., but it has also made me think a lot about the traditional Japanese diet and diets of different cultures. I grew up hearing about the Okinawans (the southernmost island of Japan) who eat every part of the pig, as well as an incredible amount of bitter melon–apparently a magical pairing that put them at the top 3 of longest living and healthy people in the world.

Then last night I had a moment with some friends over a bag of shrimp flavored chips, the Asian kind. Having conveniently ignored the ingredients list on the back of the bag, I cringed as one of my friends read off the list. MSG, shrimp and weird oils that I don’t know the origin of. I responded that foreign food “didn’t count.” Can I get to the bottom of this? In my mind, many of these so-called “foreign foods” are linked to my childhood, my culture and to my sense of belonging. Sure, that’s largely due to socialization but could there be something more fundamental to the way certain groups of people eat? Do I have a right to deny this food? Do I want to? What am I doing to my soul when I deny my stomach? Is it a denial? Does converting something traditional into a vegan dish make it less appetizing to the soul? I’m still trying to figure out how to eat so that I’m being good to my body and my soul, and of course to animals, the environment and workers in the food industry. In the meantime I want to talk to you about all of this. LET’S TALK ABOUT FOOD! Maybe you’ll convince me to stop calling myself a flegan (a flexible vegan), or perhaps I’ll show you how to make vegan chia seed chocolate pudding.

This is a part of our blog series to let people know that we’re calling for submissions to include in a new youth food justice zine! Check it out here!

You can read more of Miyuki’s work at her blog:

Follow her IG: @heymiyuki or Twitter: @miyukibaker

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