The centrality of food in our lives goes far beyond the physiological need for sustenance. In every culture across the globe, food plays a vital role in our socialization. Easter eggs, Christmas cake, a picnic basket, a wedding cake, “padkos” and funeral sandwiches are but a few simple examples. Celebrations in the Jewish community rely heavily on the symbolism of food – the Cedar plate representing the bitter tears of the slaves, the jawbone used to kill Esau signifying huge emotional connectedness. Food represents our connectedness, our shared experiences, our emotional wellbeing. Whether we are Indian, Moslem, Jewish, Irish or Afrikaans, Xhosa or Sesotho, food is an integral part of our cultural heritage and identity.
Institutionalization – by its very nature – can kill the significance of this powerful emotional bond with food and turn it into a sterile exercise to simply fill the stomach. When food services focus purely on nutritional value and a limited budget, it can actually do more harm than good – for both the body and soul.
Imagine never inhaling the appetite inducing fragrance of fried onions again, the freshness of lemons, and the warmth of freshly baked bread or exoticness of freshly brewed coffee. Biting into the crispness of freshly toasted bread with butter and marmalade, chewing a piece of Kudu biltong or letting a piece of chocolate melt in your mouth. Food is about engaging all the senses, not just filling the stomach. Engaging with food – peeling an orange and having it spit in your eye, chopping an onion that makes you cry, crushing fresh herbs or grating a piece of fresh ginger – makes one feel one with the magic of the universe.
The Eden Alternative encourages the creation of a human habitat. For me, a human habitat starts in the kitchen. I have the fondest memories of my Grandmother’s kitchen: watching her roll our pastry, kneading dough, chopping, stirring, tasting, smelling and creating a magic world of love. In my adult years I relish the joy of cooking – albeit now with a bottle of wine that I gently nurture from a beautiful thin rimmed glass on a long stem. It is called HOME. It is part of my culture, my humanness, my joy and my wellbeing to be surrounded by and enthused with food, glorious food.
The Eden journey can be overwhelmingly daunting. Or it can be incredibly simple. Start with food. Open the kitchen doors – let the Elders participate. Let them chop and stir, smell, cry, sneeze, squeeze, roll and taste. It will bring back long forgotten memories of love and laughter and family. It will remind them of their connectedness, make them feel alive; give them a reason to get up in the morning.
I always hated washing up after a meal – as I grew older I started appreciating the sensuality of hot soapy water melting away the fat in a roasting tin, the sparkle of a perfectly clean glass, the disappearance of the evidence of a glorious party, only to create a clean slate for the next episode. Such a simple ritual can be created from a chore if we change our mind, see and feel the nurturing in the cleaning up ritual.
There is a magic world being hidden from our Elders in every institutional “old age home”. A world where they could reconnect with their inner child, re-lives memories, reminisces, create, feel alive and be human again. A simpler start to a life worth living cannot be imagined.