Variety is Important. How Important? Who Knows, but it Scares Me

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels

As a child, I was chronically underweight to the point that my dad made me milkshakes as a bedtime snack, and I fought drinking them. I’ll repeat that for effect: As a child, drinking a daily milkshake felt like a terrible injustice. I don’t remember why, but knowing myself now, I imagine the repetition bothered me.

To this day, I cannot eat the same thing for more than a week at a time. I eat leftovers without a problem, but the daily morning smoothie that is now my usual breakfast needs to be interrupted and frequently adjusted. Some days the smoothie has extra lemon juice, sometimes celery instead of spinach, sometimes just berries. The smoothie tastes a little different each day. Otherwise, I’m just done. I rebel against myself with the same venom I used to rebel against my father.

Recently, I read this book, which at first glance sounds completely unrelated, about the shame that comes from being trained to be suspicious sexuality and devalue our bodies. But in this book, the author describes a story about chickens’ mating habits, which is called the Coolidge effect because the president and his wife were the ones visiting these chickens. They noticed that among the community, the chickens rotated mates even when it was easier or more convenient to stay with whatever bird was closest. The argument being that animals are instinctually wired to choose variety.

Sex and eating are two very different activities, sure. And yes, you could argue that in their diets as they stand now, chickens basically eat the same thing for three meals a day. But one could also argue that chickens no longer choose what they eat because they’ve gone so far from their wild selves. And IF they could choose what they ate, it would be more than what they eat on the farm.

Likewise, humans have become creatures of habit, eating based on convenience rather than necessity. I used to think of myself as an adventurous eater because I regularly cooked with quinoa, farro, and freka. But last year, this post with instructions about how to make lemonade from the sumac in my backyard blew my mind. Eat something from my tree? Immediately my anxiety skyrocketed. How did I know if it was clean? What about the wrong variety? Fertilizers? Here, I’ll admit that I often don’t wash my produce from the grocery store, because I don’t mind a little dirt. But this possibility of eating something outside, ungoverned by capitalism or the FDA. I just couldn’t do it.

This year, I was challenged again by this idea that once upon a time humans truly lived from the land and it is still possible to do so. The challenge came from the book, Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas, where one of the characters lives in the woods and cooks from materials found in those woods, along with products from human bodies. Again, I found myself making excuses. The book takes places on the west coast. They have more varied wildlife up there. They’re closer to nature. They don’t build neighborhoods on the sites of demolished battery factories, etc. etc. etc.

Excuses notwithstanding, the idea continues to follow me. I would love to purchase this cookbook with recipes and food practices from Native Nations, but that would mean I’ve spent money on this possibility of eating from nature. That would mean, I’d actually have to try it.

Back in the day, when humans ate off the land to survive, their diets were incredibly varied. Variety wakes the body up, gives it something new to think about, breaks it out of routine. I think this means I might try cooking with ground sumac that I buy from the spice store, but maybe sometime soon, it will mean tromping out to the tree outside, chopping off that red cone, and reclaiming a bit of that wild ancestry.

Jaye Viner knows just enough about everything to embarrass herself at parties she never attends. Her novel, Jane of Battery Park, arrives in August