Unsettling the table

Somewhere in recent history, Western discourse interrupted the continuity between medicine and food. Indeed, for Western clinical practices to achieve their moral superiority (in the sense that Western medicine often considered the sole valid means of treatment) the non-causal relationships between food and wellness had to be displaced to the realm of superstition. Chicken noodle soup, for example, is only tangentially associated with treatment. It’s nice to be brought a bowl of broth in bed, but rarely do we consider broth to be medicine. Real healthcare, as we understand it, is a transaction between the ill and the pharmacist, physician, or specialist.

To generalize, Western thought knows the body as a system of directed relationships: between exercise and physical fitness, pharmaceuticals and treatment, or healthy food and nutrition. In other words, health sciences divide the body in order to understand its causalities. Western thought perceives fundamental differences between a flu shot and a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

Yet, Western medicine achieves its totality as a system of thought at the expense of alternative understandings, wherein lies the potential for considering the interdependencies of food and wellbeing of the individual as a whole. As nutrition divides foodstuffs into atomic materials, the wholeness of food as a practice is not preserved in health science. The nebulous but indispensable relationships between food and our social, spiritual, emotional selves are left to the social sciences. Where tangencies exist between food and medicine – the brewing of teas for the pacification of toothache, perhaps – their sameness is quickly dissolved into a coincidence of medicinal substances within an edible vessel.

There is a parallel to be drawn between the decomposition of the human whole by health sciences and the depoliticization of toxicity. Pathology divides the individual in order to facilitate the transaction of chemo drugs, antidepressants, vitamins—but it does not understand or indict our environments as carcinogenic, depressant, or toxic. In its tiny way, then, food-as-medicine begins to address the pathos of systems that lie beyond the individual body; many forms of medicine challenge the linearity of treatment. Food can make us feel better—it draws us nearer to the chicken whose bones we boil for broth, to our caregivers who deliver meals to our sickbed, to the cultures from which our food derives its form. Perhaps food-as-medicine does not respond to those atoms of illness by which the individual is understood in health science. But, it does understand the multiplicity of illness our bodies may suffer—as a physical substances, social bodies, spiritual bodies, and bodies of affect.

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