Meals That Heal the Heart

Her parents’ divorce meant angry mealtimes, but Elissa Altman found her way back to a nurturing table. She shares her tips on preparing and enjoying meals that heal yourself and others.

Elissa Altman
27 October 2017
Photo via Pearl / Lightstock.

Eggs were my mother’s mood barometer. When my parents were happy, she made us delicate soft-boiled eggs every morning. They were nestled in English porcelain egg cups, their tips carefully sliced away so that my father and I could dunk untoasted fingers of bread into the runny yolk.

But as my parents’ marriage got rocky, our breakfast eggs were medium-boiled, their yolks cooked to a thick orange velvet, and when I turned fourteen, my mother began cooking them to the consistency of hard rubber squash balls. My parents divorced the following year, and, for the next two decades, I would no sooner eat an egg than I would swallow poison.

I waited for the familiar flavor of fury to return to my mouth, but it never came. In its place, pure sweetness; in my heart, pure gratitude.

Of course, the universe works in mysterious ways and I became a food writer, forever searching for peace and nurturing at the table as a way to undo my past and create what food writer Marion Cunningham termed “the modern tribal fire”—a place where we can sit, eat, and create community.

Feeding people at my table is a form of practical meditation for me, with every step in this process of creating sustenance marked by a sense of purpose—to heal body, mind, earth, and often, spirit, and to commune with friends and strangers alike.

Twenty years after I last ate one of my mother’s angry eggs, I was fed breakfast by someone I was beginning to love. One morning, she quietly slipped into the kitchen, tenderly cracked two fresh, locally-laid eggs into a small pan of gently simmering water, and swirled them around until their whites grew firm. Three minutes later, she lifted each egg out of the water with an old, worn, slotted wooden spoon and set them down, one by one, on a slice of plain buttered toast. She sprinkled each serving with flakes of Maldon sea salt.

When I sliced into the egg set in front of me, it ruptured into a dark golden river— perfectly cooked and mindfully prepared. I closed my eyes as I ate, slowly smelling, tasting, and swallowing. I waited for the familiar flavor of fury to return to my mouth, but it never came. In its place, pure sweetness; in my heart, pure gratitude.

If we want to create our own nurturing table, we must reacquaint ourselves with both mindful cooking and eating for sustenance and nurturing, while also making an effort to support humane growing and raising methods. How to get there?

Grow Something, and Start Small

Grow something is a way to reconnect food to the act of sustaining not only your body, but the earth. Plant a small garden; grow a pot of basil on your windowsill and snip fresh herbs for every meal you make. Growing food reconnects us with the earth itself as a living, sentient being.

Eat Humanely Grown Food

Buy the food you cook from sources that produce, raise, and harvest it humanely and compassionately, with an eye to the welfare of the growers, the animals, and the earth. Whenever possible, cook and eat food that is not heavily processed, that retains its inherent nutrients and flavor, and that hasn’t traveled far from its birthplace or growing region.

Pay Attention to the Linked Kleshas of Attachment and Repulsion

We gorge in an attempt to replace enmity with desire, satisfaction, and satiety. In the klesha (conflicting emotion) raga (attachment), we become attached to the belief that the more we eat, the fuller our bellies and hearts will feel, and the happier we will be. But the more we have, the more we want, and often, an addictive cycle is launched.

How many times have we eaten something that doesn’t taste good, but we somehow can’t stop ourselves? Eating food cooked or served in rancor can literally taste bitter, fill us up too quickly, make us ill, and leave a foul aftertaste.

The result is the klesha dvesha (repulsion)—a turning away from the table—and a hunger that forever afflicts body and spirit. If you are presented with food grown, prepared, and/or served in anything less than a tranquil manner, take the time to acknowledge this and to recognize it before you eat it. Be mindful of the sustenance that it provides, and compassionate towards the hands that prepared it. Feel it fill your belly, and make peace with it.

Prepare the Simplest of Meals as a Meditation

Often, the simplest, most elemental dishes and cooking practices can serve in slowing down and anchoring us, and provide a reconnection to the kitchen as a place of nourishment. As Dana Velden, Zen priest and author of Finding Yourself in the Kitchen, suggests, “When we cook, we are expressing ourselves completely, for we always cook within the context of our lives.” Butter your bread, boil your water, slice your cheese. Pay attention while you do it.

Slow Down, Eat Less, Taste More

The slower and more mindfully we eat, the less apt we are to overeat and treat the food on our plate as fuel. When we eat slowly, our bodies recognize food as a source of goodness, and will let us know when we have had enough. We just have to listen.

Elissa Altman

Elissa Altman

Elissa Altman is the author of, most recently, Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing; Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw; and Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, and won a James Beard Award for the narrative blog of the same name. When she is not writing or cooking, she practices Insight Meditation from her home in New England. You can find more about her at