One guarantee when visiting my grandma in Montreal as a kid: fresh-made strawberry mousse for my brother and me.
Everything about that dessert—the look of the pale pink foam curling gently upward in narrow glass flutes; its airy texture and not-too-sweet flavors of cream and berry—will always mark that time in my life, and she will be there. My grandma has now been dead for several years, but when I do, from time to time, have that dessert, it's a carousel of familiar faces, smells, and emotions. Mostly, it is evocative of comfort.
It's not a strange notion that our individual relationships with certains foods can be incredibly complex. From the most basic form of biologic necessity, to neurochemical, social, even existential interactions, eating is rarely as simple an act as it seems. But, are emotional or social ties to food enough to save lives?
That appeared to be the case earlier this month when two police in Mexico city were ostensibly able to persuade a suicidal man to live with an offering of tacos. The story went viral.
And rightly so: there isn't much the internet likes more than feel-good stories and food (OK, there are definitely some other things, but we aren't going to talk about them here). But the incident was reminiscent of another event about a year ago, in which the San Jose Police Department used a pizza-delivering robot to talk a man on a freeway overpass out of killing himself. The bizarre similarities between the two occurrences—a suicidal individual being pulled back from a literal and figurative edge through the promise of food—illuminates the psychological significance of food, particularly in emergency situations like these, and hopefully helps to explain just how deep our ties run with the things we eat.
MUNCHIES contacted David Klonsky, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who specializes in suicide and self-harm, to help contextualize what is actually happening during these tense moments. Klonsky explains that "overwhelming pain, combined with hopelessness that anything can be done about the pain, are the number-one motivations for suicide." However, there is a "tremendous barrier" between between individuals who feel suicidal and those that actually attempt the act. The disconnect between feeling suicidal and making an actual attempt is how these standoffs with police can occur.
In these moments, Klonsky cautions, rule number one is to do whatever works to get the person to survive—tacos and pizza just happened to be that expedient. But, arguably, there is something more significant at work here: the sociality of food. He claims that, "Among people who are dealing with very high pain and hopelessness, there is still a protective factor that would prevent those people from attempting, and that is connectedness." Connectedness—to other people, even to jobs or roles in the world—is a primary factor in choosing to live, and food may offer just that.
Jordan Troisi, a psychology professor at Sewanee has spent a great deal of time researching the notion of "comfort food" as a deeply social human bond. Speaking to MUNCHIES, Troisi explains why food seems to have such a powerful reaction in these urgent circumstances. By Troisi's definition, comfort food is never a particular dish—it doesn't need to be sweet or fatty. In fact, comfort foods are highly subjective. Regional and personal variations play a huge role in determining them, but more importantly, he says, "These are foods that are associated with close others. They are served often by others, often in repetition over time, often by family members, or other favorable social events: parties, holidays, picnics, things like that."
"When we meet up with old friends after a long time away from each other, we often get dinner or lunch together. Even when we eat alone, individuals often like to eat in front of the television, which often makes us feel like we are connected to other people as well," he adds.
Troisi's insistence is that food is fundamentally social, which does help to give a much better context to the recent news stories about the persuasive powers of tacos and pizza. Certainly those foods are, arguably, for many people, the definition of comfort foods (myself included).
The emotional currency of such foods is not something that can be taken lightly, suggests Stephanie Cassin, who has published extensively on the psychology of eating disorders: "A lot of people do use food to cope with difficult emotions and comfort would be a right word for that. If food in the past has been associated with comfort, or just being relaxed and comfortable, these [examples] really illustrate that to the extreme."
Ostensibly the mediating effects of food can, on the one hand, negatively impact our lives when manifested in the forms of eating disorders, but perhaps in drastic situations like these, those effects may be just enough to pull someone back. Cassin continues, "One of the things that's so reinforcing about food is that it is so predictable. It works every time. If someone is in a depressed mood or an anxious mood or wants to just numb out and forget about something else, it's always there and it reliably works really quickly."
Of course, none of this is to suggest that in dealing with suicidal individuals, all you need to do is to make a food offering. The issue is obviously more complex than that. What it does mean is that, perhaps, we should not be entirely so surprised when food does actually make for meaningful interpersonal connections with people who are in pain and distress.
Klonsky himself seems skeptical of food having a larger role in suicide prevention. However, he is willing to hypothesize that "there might be a way in which being offered food from people, even strangers… reminds you of this connectedness to other humans."
As North America and many places in the world's police forces and medical systems continue to struggle with mental health, the more resources we can keep at our disposal the better—even if that happens to be a pizza.