How do We Learn to Eat?
I find everything about food interesting but at the moment, the aspect I find most compelling is why we eat the way we do. Our culture is fixated with nutrients (every year brings some new ‘superfood’) but more or less ignores the question of psychology: what makes us want to put these foods and not those in our mouths? Eating well is not something that comes naturally, yet we hardly ever discuss this. It strikes me that there are large numbers of people who are very unhappy about food, for one reason or another. I used to be one of them myself. Somehow, to my great surprise and relief, I found a way to relate to food in healthier, happier ways.
This is the theme of my latest book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (published by Basic Books in the U.S. and Fourth Estate in the U.K.). It’s about how both adults and children learn to eat. As omnivores, we are not born knowing what to eat. We each of us have to learn to for ourselves. As children being fed, we do not just learn how to chew and swallow. We discover how big a ‘portion’ is and how sweet is too sweet. We learn to eat green vegetables – or not. Some of the things we learn are helpful, some less so. Often, we remain trapped in childhood eating patterns for the rest of our lives. We still reward ourselves with sugar and clean our plates, just as if our parents were still there watching us, though we probably learn better than to throw unwanted morsels under the table.
When I wrote First Bite, I discovered that our eating habits could be patterned not just by rational information but by such influences as siblings and culture; memory and gender. Across the world, boys tend to be fed differently from girls, in ways that are unhelpful for both sexes (in some cases, life-threateningly so).
But the greatest discovery I made was the the science suggests that food preferences can be changed, at any age. I spoke to some remarkable psychologists working with children with severe feeding difficulties. With the right intervention, it is possible to train these children to enjoy a range of healthy foods. There have also been experiments done with adults showing that it is possible to change our palate for sugary and salty foods. An aversion to broccoli or an addiction to doughnuts does not have to be a life sentence.
Often, our food environment looks like an obesogenic disaster. But it is possible to become someone who responds to the food around you in different ways. Writing this book filled me with great optimism about the potential for humans – of any age – to adapt the way they eat for the better. Your First Bite does not have to determine what comes next.
'Fire, hands, knives - we will always have these'. Consider the Fork
There were signs as a child that I might end up as a food writer. For one thing, I took every chance I could get to be in the kitchen, 'helping' my mother cook. My help mostly consisted of licking the wooden spoon and hoovering up leftover cake mixture or chunks of cheese that the rotary grater had missed. I didn't know the phrase 'cook's perk' in those days, but I certainly had the concept. Another sign was that I took my mother's old copy of The Penguin Cookery Book by Bee Nilson and changed the N to a W.
For a long time, as an adult, I thought of food writing as my hobby. I got married young, was given a Gordon Ramsay book as a wedding present, and went into cooking overdrive. I performed all sorts of kitchen feats I would never now attempt. I deep-fried garlic cloves ( a Simon Hopkinson recipe) and simmered stocks down to gelatinous essences. I devoted hours trying to recreate a risotto I once ate in Venice. I went on Masterchef, reaching the semi final. And while I was doing my PhD. in Cambridge (where I still live), I started writing a weekly food column for The New Statesman magazine. But food writing at that time felt like a fun side-line. My first career was as an academic. My subject was nineteenth-century political thought, specifically French socialism - nothing to do with food. I'd somehow absorbed the idea - probably from my grandmother, a first-generation feminist who chose not to cook - that food wasn't important enough to focus on as the main thing in life.
Bit by bit, the feeling crept up on me that nothing, in fact, was more worthy of my attention than food. I had children and was struck, as all parents are, by how much of life in those early years was dominated by learning how to eat. Sometimes it was a joy: serving a bowl of someone's favourite pasta and seeing the little face light up . Often, it was more of a pain: the porridge flung in the face, the competitive whinging about portions, the grumbles (delightful!) that I 'always cook the same dinner'. Trying to help children navigate the bewildering world of food that we now inhabit is not always easy. But however complicated it might be, I became more convinced that food and feeding are at the heart of life.
Cooking matters. Eating matters. I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to write about them. I can spend the afternoon baking sourdough or making soup and call it 'work'. I don't have to change the N to the W any more
Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian and the author of five books. Her most recent book is First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, which won the Fortnum and Mason food book of the year and Special Commendation at the Andre Simon Food and Drink awards 2016. She is the chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. When she is not cooking, eating or writing about food, she is probably at the cinema or curled up on the sofa watching tennis. She lives in Cambridge.