Food has always had the capacity to bring me joy. Even in Auschwitz, barely existing on the prison regimen of thin broth and crusts of bread, we prepared feasts in our minds, arguing over how much caraway goes into the best rye bread, how much paprika in Hungarian paprikash, praising the ingredients and choreographing the preparation of our favorite dishes. We were starving and cold, we feared death at every turn; yet in our minds, we were feasting, soothed by the remembered scents of spices, the flavors of vegetables, meats, fruits, desserts.
During those heated arguments, for those moments, we were back in the life of love and food. Those loved foods nurtured us even then. I pledged that if I ever escaped that hell, I would fill my home to brimming with the healing power of food.
And I have. To savor food is to savor life.
When my husband and young daughter Marianne and I moved to America, I was determined to reproduce the foods I remembered my mother preparing for our family, the dishes that had meant love and fulfillment to me as a child and that signified something even more profound as a survivor and new mother—the joy and responsibility of freedom, the memories and sensory impressions that kept my parents’ spirits alive.
What began as an attempt to connect with the past has also become a way to embrace the present. As I’ve come to know and love the distinctive flavors of American cooking, I’ve adapted my recipes with the imprint of my new home. And in my training and practice as a psychologist, I’ve come to see that food is significant to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health; it feeds us beyond physical nourishment. The way we approach our meals affects how we think, feel, and behave. When we pay attention to and take pleasure in what literally sustains us, we have a greater capacity to learn, grow, and care.
5 mood-boosting tips for mealtime:
I’m someone who loves conversations that happen over meals—tiny at breakfast, longer at dinner. Food is often part of the conversation. Sometimes we talk about what we did that day, who we saw, and what’s going on in the world. Sometimes it’s just gossip.
Make extra so you can share with friends or eat for the next day’s lunch. You never know when you’ll be hungry.
In cooking as in life, making mistakes and being disappointed are two of the best things if you use them well. How else can we learn, redirect, and move forward? Don’t get discouraged—that may have serious emotional effects. Look within, acknowledge what happened, look for more helpful actions. Keep at it.
4. Make the kitchen your friend.
Many people who think they hate cooking don’t realize that one first has to learn one’s way around the kitchen. No one is good right away. Use a basic cookbook or simple online recipes. Learn first; create after. Ask for help if you need it. Let others try your food. See this as a gift you give them. A gift you can enjoy together.
5. Choose to make your meals celebrations.
Every meal you have makes a difference in your happiness each day. You can choose to treat each as a rushed moment of ignoring or damaging yourself—or as a tiny celebration. Your attitude will set the stage for growth, stagnation, or regression. Choose celebration. Take loving care of yourself emotionally and in your relationship with food, and you will nourish all who come into your life.
This is an excerpt from the updated 2022 edition of The Gift: 14 Lessons To Save Your Life by Dr. Edith Eger.