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Two stories this issue: one about a successful family gathering (it was a seder with family and friends) and the other about relaxing while eating alone, on a day-to-day basis. Two different occasions, but both worth thinking about.

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A Successful Family Gathering

The one thing about a family gathering is that it should work: all should enjoy the experience of.good food, good friends, and good conversation. Sometimes it doesn't work, so that when it does, the pleasure lingers.

As it does still from a seder I attended this spring. We were 15 people, spanning three generations: couples married and unmarried, Jews, Christians and atheists, old friends and new, and half a dozen bright, independent, middle-school-age kids. The focus was the traditional ritual reading of the story of the Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt, but the genius of it was the way it was all handled.

First, there were no placecards: although seating sorted itself out naturally by couples and by generations, the children chose their end of the table rather than being assigned there or worse yet relegated to a table of their own.

Second, the reading of the Haggadah, the traditional text for the Passover meal, was in English, or primarily in English, rather than Hebrew. Nevertheless, the Hebrew it included was sufficient to establish a critical connection to the ritual, history and culture of the original event. Thus, instead of paragraphs (and long pages) of hard-to-pronounce Hebrew text (which is what some families do), we had thoughtful declarative sentences, starting with "In the beginning, darkness was everywhere, and the rushing breath of the universe." As for what Hebrew we did pronounce, it was repetitive enough that one could get it after a few tries.

Next, the text was read by all in turn, young and old alike, a short paragraph or passage at a time. A bonus was that the text had been adapted for modern families by one of the guests, a progressive Democrat (the host family lives in Washington, DC, and the husband is active in politics there). Calls for peace included not only Israel but also Iraq, Ireland and Palestine. We prayed that we would "continue to strive for freedom, inner freedom for ourselves and outer freedom for all." We were reminded of the bondage of Blacks in our own country

But the best part was yet to come -- in response to the worst. You may remember the story of the ten plagues that God inflicted on Pharaoh's people to persuade him to release the Jews -- it rained blood, then frogs, then lice. Then came poisonous beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and finally, in response to Pharaoh's decree that the firstborn of Jewish families should be slain -- the Angel of the Lord passed over the Jewish homes and slew Egyptians instead.

This is pretty lurid stuff, but traditionally the plagues are simply listed, not emphasized (they are accompanied by an admonition not to rejoice over the suffering of the Egyptians -- or of anyone). But now, to bring in the younger generation, "plague bags" have been created and even marketed: each child gets a paper bag with 10 objects in it, to symbolize the ten plagues. The challenge to the children is to figure out which toy or object represents which plague and then toss that at the appropriate moment.

There were packets of bloody eyeballs to squeeze and exclaim over, then little plastic frogs. The "lice" were plastic bugs, the poisonous beasts were rubber rattlesnakes. For pestilence, a time when the Egyptians' livestock were afflicted and died, each bag had one of those little animals on a platform with a button underneath to be pressed so that the animal falls down -- my favorite object if not my favorite plague. The boils were represented by blister-pak for the kids to pop. Hail came as pingpong balls, locusts were aural only: clickers that sound like locusts honing in. And darkness, well, that was a pair of sunglasses.

The children followed the text, addressed the symbols with humor (minimal sarcasm), tossed the "plagues" amiably about and mostly as prescribed. Adults laughed, children laughed, all ate well, and the event was a grand success. All will remember the plagues.

Inhaling Food

I have a friend who, as my mother would have described it, inhales his food. That is to say, he eats fast and with each bite taken he also sucks in air. He chews briefly and swallows the food, really almost (although he would never admit to it) gulps it. From what I have observed, this is his pattern regardless of what he eats and when.

Actually, I have at least one other friend who I would say inhales food: my friend Alissa, habitually draws in her breath with each bite. Like him, she chews briefly and swallows hard.

Do you eat that way? Do your kids? I know I've caught myself doing it, and I don't think it makes any sense. It seems as though we're feeling, "Gotta finish this bite! Time to grab the next one!" It's as if all that mattered in eating (i.e., nutrition) were getting the food in, -- forget about digesting it.

(It begins with something like a slurp, say of a drink, a process or habit which, aside from the fact that it can be noisy, is not irrational, e.g., people may slurp when a drink is too hot. That makes sense: they need the air to cool the sip to start the drink -- of coffee, soup, whatever. But I'm talking about inhaling on steak, or mashed potatoes, or worse yet, a carrot. You may need to cool your soup, but why slurp a salad or sandwich?)

Because these friends of mine are good friends, I can't help noticing their eating habits. This in turn causes me to wonder, is it coincidental that both complain about their weight? In fact both would like to lose weight, or at least not have to struggle to maintain status quo. In contrast, I, who eat slowly, remain at a constant weight. I know there are other factors to consider, -- everyone is different,-- but I do think about it.

My impression is that both of these otherwise sensible people have some kind of reason to eat fast. But it's not because they have appointments to get to, or have to eat and run -- they always seem to do it, even on weekends. I think it's just a habit, which leads me to ask a larger question: is it coincidental that in a society where (otherwise) sensible people feel a need to shove food in as fast as possible, -- so fast that they can hardly catch their breath? -- that we as a nation are getting fat? My further observation: both of these friends ALWAYS have seconds, not to mention thirds where available.

Perhaps I take this too seriously. But because I have watched myself do the same thing and decided that it didn't feel great, I have quit. It seems to me that eating calmly (taking time to sit down, converse with a friend or listen to music) makes my tummy feel better, more receptive to what I'm serving it, less bothered by things. When I relax I feel no need to inhale other than normally, or even in nice, deep, relaxed breaths.. I don't feel over-stimulated as I seem to be when I am rushing. Instead, I feel calmed.

So let's look at the whole process, starting with that -- to me strange -- issue of inhaling with each bite. It's not an essential part of eating: air in the stomach is no aid to digestion, it's a bit of a hindrance and certainly has no nutritional value. Digestion does not require air.

The next question is about chewing. My mother, and perhaps yours too, recommended chewing each bite ten times before swallowing. Ten times seems like a lot for applesauce or an omelette, and who wants to count at every bite? But in truth there are times when even ten won't do the job. Dogs "wolf" their food, rarely chewing, but human beings have molars, those rear teeth engineered for grinding, so we are probably meant to chew, not just grab a bite and swallow it. You might try counting for a few bites to see how it feels -- no rush.

Third, nutritionists say that it takes twenty minutes for the stomach to "realize" that it's been fed. The stomach doesn't think it's full just because it is: it has to get used to the idea. If we eat fast, we eat twice what we need -- we eat seconds -- before our gut even KNOWS it is full. Perfect recipe for weight gain.

Finally, when food doesn't get chewed, it can be reluctant to slip into the throat and the alimentary canal, not to mention all the way to its intended destination in the gut. Have you ever had that feeling of a hot (a.k.a. unchewed) lump making its way past your esophagus, peristaltically inching toward the balloon of your stomach until it can finally take its chances in the mush of what has previously arrived? It seems to me that, if you have to swallow hard to get a bite down, it might be easier to chew it ten times first.

A further note: if teeth are for chewing, then saliva is for lubricating food so it can slip felicitously into the gullet en route to the belly. It also contains the first of the animalcules that glom onto carbs and fat and all the even better nutrients in each bite to commence the transformation of food into healthy flesh.

In all, if you don't want to carry more flesh than you need, consider eating at a slower pace. Why hurry? Enjoy each bite. Chew until your carrots fairly beg permission to slip, unprotesting and already half-digested, toward your waiting stomach. There the process can comfortably continue unaided by any conscious effort on your part, and you can have that next, precious bite in a peace that passeth all understanding. You won't miss the seconds. You won't want them.

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These articles provide information of a general nature only, and should be used only to supplement your knowledge. We hope you find the articles interesting, but cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in these articles. Nothing in these articles is intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your own physician if you have any concerns about your own health or the health of your child.