Raisins to improve one's mental health

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Feb. 19, 2009

Dear Julie,

If it is possible for winter to have dog days of its own, these are Southeast Missouri's, chilling and often gray. The kind of days that keep you indoors aching for spring, mornings when you eat your oatmeal thinking about things you don't ordinarily think about.

Because DC rarely stops moving from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., I usually east breakfast alone and the winter menu is occasionally oatmeal. Not the oatmeal of my youth, which I came to despise for its blandness and omnipresence. This oatmeal comes in tiny packages and a rainbow of flavors: Peaches and cream, strawberries and cream, blueberries and cream, maple and raisins, cinnamon and maple, and on and on. Adding pecans or walnuts and more raisins makes the mix jazzier. It's not your parents' oatmeal.

In a poem titled "Oatmeal," Galway Kinnell writes of eating his oatmeal with an imaginary John Keats, because eating oatmeal without company is not good for your mental health. "Due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone," Kinnell writes.

Keats advised Kinnell that two lines of his poem "To Autumn" congealed in his head while eating oatmeal alone: "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells" and "Thou watchest the last oozings hour by hour."

Food has an inordinate power to make us queasy. Our niece Kim won't allow any foods on her plate to touch one another. To her that represents contamination. Kim wants to become a doctor. Epidemiology might be a good fit.

DC keeps to the same rule as Kim and will only eat one thing at a time. I used to ask her why it was important to her to live by those restrictions. She thought that was a crazy question.

I do have my own rules. For instance, I'm not keen on eating anything that's alive or eating some things even when they're dead. One day in California my boss unwrapped the turkey sandwich she'd brought for lunch and discovered a colony of ants had beaten her to it. Not one ant or a few, a big family reunion. In shock I watched her pick off a couple stragglers atop the bread and begin eating. "More protein," she said coolly.

Food phobias or fetishes are nothing to laugh at. Worst off must be those who have cibophobia, the fear of food, because they're on a permanent liquid diet.

Since the recent salmonella outbreak, people with arachibutyrophobia -- the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one's mouth -- are legion.

I myself suffer from a mild case of lachanophobia, the fear of vegetables. Not counting potatoes, of course.

Maybe we all fear food in some way. After all, our lives once depended on our ability to capture and gather food. For most in the West, our lives now depend on our ability to eat healthfully.

Instant oatmeal almost certainly isn't as nutritious as the glutinous kind and has its own consistency issues, namely the lack of any. Truthfully, no bath in boiling water can bring those little specks of dried fruit back to life. But over breakfast this morning I assured Galway that adding some raisins and pecans could improve anyone's oatmeal and mental health.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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