The Mediterranean diet is praised by its proponents as one of the healthiest eating styles around. Dominated by fruits and vegetables, it is considered well suited for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, cancer and even mental decline.
What gets rarely mentioned, however, is that it is not so much the dietary principles but rather the underlying lifestyle that sets the Mediterranean diet apart. For example, not rushing things too much and enjoying a leisurely clip are just as important as the food itself. And that does not only apply to food preparation or consumption but to life in general.
The Mediterranean diet as we know it today is inspired by many, often ancient, culinary traditions from southern European and northern African countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It's not a specific cuisine but rather the product of centuries-old struggles for survival in lands that can be harsh and barren.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Mediterranean population never had it particularly easy. The region is by no means a bountiful breadbasket. The landscapes that surround the sea, mostly mountainous peninsulas and islands and narrow coastal plains, do not easily yield a livelihood to their inhabitants. The food supply comes mostly from small farms that have been operated by the same families for eons. Industrial farming methods are neither practical nor welcome.
"For all the sun-drenched ease we associate with the Mediterranean - in reality little more than a vacationer's fantasy - there is an undertone of harshness to the region's beauty," writes Ayla Alger, co-author of "Mediterranean - The Beautiful Cookbook" (Harper Collins, 1994). "It is indeed remarkable that agriculture has flourished at all in the Mediterranean, the result not only of skillful cultivation but also of the peasant tenacity and hardiness of its peoples."
Still, despite all the difficulties (or, perhaps, because of them), there has always been a deep appreciation for nature's gifts. People's relationship to their food is profoundly personal. Those who don't farm themselves buy locally grown produce at the market and prepare their meals at home from scratch. Hardly anyone ever eats alone. Having food is a communal affair that involves families, neighbors, friends and visiting guests.
By contrast, our lifestyles demand ever-greater speed and efficiency in nearly all aspects of our lives, including our mealtimes. Many of us skip breakfast or grab something from the coffee shop on the way to the office. We work through lunch and watch TV or spend more time on computers and other devices while having dinner, which is usually take-out or something microwavable.
Fast food, an icon of Western culture, is the quintessential opposite of the home-cooked family meal. It is available almost anywhere and at all times; it comes ready to eat; it can be consumed alone; it doesn't require a table or even a plate; and its non-descript taste never varies. Instead of bringing us together, it allows us to keep to ourselves, we don't even have to get out of our cars if we don't want to. As such, it doesn't just impact our physical health but our entire well-being, including the quality of our familial and social life.
We must pay more attention to the consequences of our constantly accelerating world, warns Jay Walljasper, a contributing editor to National Geographic and author of "All That We Share."
"The human time world is no longer joined to the incoming and outgoing tides, the rising and setting sun, and the changing seasons," he says. "Instead, humanity has created an artificial time environment punctuated by mechanical contrivances and electronic impulses."
Our eating habits are a direct reflection of our lifestyle that is becoming increasingly unsustainable, says Walljasper. Feeding ourselves has become just one of the countless activities we engage in day in and day out. It has no special meaning. There is no attention being paid, no gratitude felt. It's just consumption.
It wasn't always like this - and it doesn't have to continue this way. "People want to slow down because they feel that their lives are spinning out of control," he says. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans would accept pay cuts if they were given more time off in return.
There is also a growing hunger for getting back to basics. More young people now consider farming - the small kind - as a career option, and also because they want to do something meaningful with their lives. And their sentiments are widely shared. The popularity of farmers markets all over the country speaks for itself.
The desire to slow down and take more time for things that really matter can become a reality at any moment and without much ado. Walljasper describes his own "conversion" to a slower-paced existence like this: "I've started the "Slow Is Beautiful" revolution in my own life - right in the kitchen, scaling back my busy schedule to find more time for cooking good meals and then sitting down to enjoy them in a festive, unrushed way with my wife, son and friends. Even cleaning up after dinner can offer a lesson in the pleasures of slowness, as I learned a while back when our dishwasher went on the fritz. [...] I'd put some jazz or blues on the stereo and sing along, or just daydream as I stacked dishes and glasses on the drying rack."
Who says you can never go home again?