The problem with food is we care too
much. Take the example of Diane, a 48-year-old office manager who took part in
a study of eating habits in 2010. She believed food was entirely about pleasure
and imagination, a matter of “what I like and what I fancy,” she told an
interviewer. She obsessed over the variables that might interfere with her
enjoyment—as a gourmet might critique the texture of a sous vide chicken
breast or frown at the seasoning of a broth. The temperature of her food was
particularly important. Diane invited the researchers to a café nearby so they
could see her navigate the menu, or rather navigate its dearth of appetizing
options. When dinner was served, she ate rapidly but didn’t finish. She would
only eat a cooked meal, she explained, when it was still piping hot.
So Diane was a picky eater. And this
might have given the food she ate greater meaning, since in order to truly love
a certain dish—not too salty, not too sweet—you have to reject other, lesser
forms of it. But in truth Diane complained of being deeply miserable. Her
selections were more pained than indulgent. The food she made such a show of
ordering at the café was nothing more than a plain egg on toast, which quickly
became revolting to her as it cooled. As she neared the age of 50, she felt
she’d let her mother down because her fussiness meant they could never share a
meal together; her friends no longer invited her to dinner. Though Diane wanted
to change her ways, she doubted she could. She lived on a diet of de-food-ified
food: processed cheese, breakfast cereal, potato chips, and sliced bread.
Of course, these culinary preferences and the anguish that often trails behind them aren’t uncommon. The British historian Bee Wilson’s new book First Bite takes on the subject of how we learn to eat as children and the habits we end up with as adults. As well as negative health effects, the book describes the contortions people perform in their social and professional lives because of disordered eating: One woman chooses her college on the assurance the cafeteria will serve the kind of pizza she finds acceptable; another has to call any restaurant she plans to visit and check that they will cook a hamburger with absolutely no fixings. Nor are the outcomes of these situations so different from the person who likes a wide range of foods but ends up buying a sandwich for lunch and pizza for dinner. These daily struggles are good examples of a much bigger dysfunction: Why do we find it so hard to eat nourishing, whole foods, even if they are available and we can afford them and we want to eat them?
Any account of the Western diet in the twenty-first century is going to be both a bleak picture and one that contains a lot of candy. A 2002 study of the foods children like to eat—tastes they would, it was hoped, grow out of—revealed that their parents favored the same popcorn, pancakes, ground beef, and pizza. Nostalgic, fattening “kids’ foods” have become part of everyday life: Wilson cites the “cereal milk” sold at David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bars in New York and the rise of birthday-cake-flavored ice cream that asks to be consumed on the 364 un-special days of the year. (She also has a disdain for cupcakes that made me instantly trust this book.) The average American in 2006 consumed 2,533 calories per day, including 422 calories worth of drinks, compared with 2,090 calories in 1977. In studies of portion size, a common reason to stop eating was boredom.
Wilson’s explanation of how we got to this state of affairs feels the most human of the many that have been offered in the past 15 years. There is a lot of blame to go round after all, and you could start with Eric Schlosser’s target in his 2001 best-seller Fast Food Nation: the huge fast-food companies that invented supersize portions and use Disney-style marketing tactics to sell them to families. Or you could look at the corrupt politics that have given us sugary drinks in schools and deliberately confusing government dietary advice, as Marion Nestle does in Food Politics (2002). Naturally, the military is behind much of this. After World War II, the Army partnered with corporations to create a permanent market for processed foods originally developed as soldiers’ rations, as described in The Combat-Ready Kitchen (2015) by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. And maybe Kraft and Frito-Lay are just really, deceptively good at what they do. The $1 trillion snack industry, Michael Moss’s Salt, Sugar, Fat (2013) argues, is built on the “bliss point,” an addictive combination of the three title ingredients. It doesn’t help, Michael Pollan suggests in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), that Americans have few long-established food traditions to guide us—what we need is “food rules.”
Wilson doesn’t deny that all of these books identify powerful forces. These factors shape the environment in which we all now must make our individual choices: whether to breakfast on melon, grapefruit, and kombucha, for instance, or to grab a cream cheese-laden bagel and coffee from the nearest food truck en route to work? But ultimately our decisions about food are determined by long-ingrained patterns of likes and dislikes. If I choose the bagel, Wilson would argue, it’s not because I don’t know that it lacks the vitamins of the fruit salad or that I’m about to experience a huge spike in blood sugar, meaning I’ll be hungry but still strangely stuffed by 11 a.m. I know all of this and so do plenty of people—three of the books above were New York Times best-sellers. The major barrier is just that I prefer everything about the bagel. Before the day has even started I will have broken all three of Pollan’s famous rules for a healthy diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That is because, as Wilson puts it, in order to follow those rules you have to: “Like real food. Not enjoy feeling overstuffed. And appreciate vegetables.”
We have to understand how our likes and dislikes are formed, Wilson argues, if we want to change. This means looking at the way we feed children, the memories we create around food, and gendered assumptions about macho versus supposedly feminine foods. No one is hardwired to eat only beige-colored carbs, though some find it easier to branch out than others. “It would help,” Wilson submits, “if we stopped seeing our personal likes as such a deep and meaningful part of our essence.” Her faith in change partly comes from experience: “I used to be on the wrong side of this great divide,” she writes, recalling her dependency on rich, sweetened, comfort foods as a teenager with divorced parents. Tracking big cultural shifts is a continuation of Wilson’s work as a food historian; her previous book, Consider the Fork, looked at relatively small changes in cooking technology—such as the invention of the wok in China—that nevertheless brought forth new cuisines and made entire populations eat differently.
Most of our likes are learned very early in life. It’s somewhat disappointing to read as an adult that the “window when humans are extraordinarily receptive to flavor” is between the ages of four and seven months. During this time, studies conducted in Germany found, a baby only had to be fed a new type of food half a dozen times in order to come to like it and be willing to eat it again several months later. Most people miss that window because mothers are encouraged by World Health Organization guidelines, among other sources, to breast-feed for the first six months. Even though more than 80 percent of mothers in the United States don’t actually follow this guideline, most parents do keep the baby on a diet of milk during that time—formula milk instead of breast milk—and so they miss out on giving their children the zucchini, cabbage, broccoli, or butternut squash purées that would make their lives so much easier in years to come.
If the tastes we’re exposed to as infants are predominantly milk and the occasional mashed-up potato or carrot, then it follows that the foods we’ll reach for most often in later life will be bland and dairy-rich, rather than briny (capers, anchovies), sulfurous (hard-boiled eggs, asparagus), or woody (beets). This line of reasoning seems completely logical; the hitch is that it wasn’t true in the past, when mothers and nurses tended to breast-feed for at least as long as they do now and yet, at a certain point, young people would graduate from “nursery food” to the sophistications of the adult dining room. People like Diane used to grow out of overly cautious habits and start to appreciate the bitterness of an endive salad or complexity of a bouillabaisse.
This becomes less mysterious when you consider, Wilson explains, that children before the 1960s found nursery food dreary, if not disgustingly bland, and were eager to grow out of it: watery rice pudding, mung beans. In Britain, these foods were so hated that in 1912 and 1913 educators from both elite private schools and charity schools for children in the slums convened in London to debate their menus. One delegate denounced rice pudding as “a specialized sort of cruelty,” and several confessed their students often left it uneaten; but with the coming of the First World War, their cause was dropped. The food wasn’t much better in the United States. In his 1894 book, Luther Emmett Holt, a doctor from upstate New York who proclaimed himself the country’s “foremost authority on babies,” earnestly forbade fresh bread, cakes, and most types of meat and fish, with a special warning about salad. At a time of higher infant mortality, porridgy, mushy fare was considered “digestible” and less likely to make a young child sick.
For those reared on such a cautious diet, food was the passport to the adult world, and the adult world—of dinner parties, dances, travel—offered a chance to try something new and more interesting. This was broadly true for people from all but the poorest backgrounds, though for the upper and middle classes, opportunities were much more extravagant. In her memoir The Gastronomical Me, the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher describes being “dumb with pleasure at my own importance” the first time she tasted an oyster, at a school Christmas party in the 1920s. “My new-born gourmandise,” she writes ominously, “sent me toward an unknown rather than a known sensuality.” Before she knew it, she was wriggling out of a friend’s embrace to shut herself in the pantry, among the stores of voluptuous, iced mollusks.
It’s harder to imagine a generation raised on string cheese and curly fries—food designed to be appealing and fun—feeling quite so starved for adventure. A typical weeknight dinner from my own childhood in England in the 1990s might consist of turkey dinosaurs with a side of potato smiley faces—which sounds more like a reenactment of Jurassic Park than a nutritious meal. As the freezer packets would have told you, we got our protein from reconstituted turkey pieces, sculpted into T. rex and brontosaurus shapes, with a breadcrumb coating. The potato bites were breaded circles with holes for the eyes and mouth (since rebranded as Mas#tags). So to me it’s not surprising that today the restaurant scene for millennials—in London as in New York—more often than not means upscale children’s classics: “grown-up” burgers, artisanal pizza, and truffled mac and cheese. (You could probably tell the story of the rise of this style of restaurant through the career of Danny Meyer, whose first restaurant, Union Square Café, severed the link between traditional French cooking and fine dining in 1985; in 2004 he launched Shake Shack.)
The good news in the book is that some of our bad habits—even the bad habits we’ve passed on to our offspring—can in theory be undone. Through extensive retraining of our palates, we can learn new responses to the foods we think we ardently dislike, replacing disgust with acceptance. First Bite collects an impressively wide range of success stories from this front. One is Tiny Tastes, a system developed at University College London that asks children to eat a pea-sized amount of one food they dislike every day for two weeks. Wilson doesn’t give figures on its success rate, though she does report that it made dinner with her own children “more positive and mellow.” Moreover, when therapists used a similar system to treat autistic children who had severely restricted food preferences, the results were remarkable. One child went from a diet of hot dogs and cheese sandwiches to a repertoire of 65 different foods.
The careful gathering of scientific and historical studies in Wilson’s book is meant to do more than convince us change is possible. While First Bite does not introduce itself as a self-help guide, its pages contain a generous portion of no-pressure advice, doled out in a sensible but soothing manner. If you are going to change your whole manner of eating, it’s implied, you’ll want some sense of what that might feel like. You’ll want to be able to imagine yourself tasting a food you once passionately feared. “Assuming that you don’t retch or die, maybe you try the experiment again,” Wilson gently proposes. “Over time, you forget that this food was ever strange. It settles into something like a pleasure. … Now, it is the old hungers and habits—the sickly sugar head rush, the lingering salty aftertastes—that feel uncomfortable. Given enough repetitions, the new ways of eating may become as familiar and sweet to you as milk.”
I should be the first person to endorse this well-reasoned gospel of change. When I was in my late teens, I didn’t know any adult as picky as Diane; I couldn’t imagine my own eating habits being any better than hers by the time I’d reach my forties. The only real drawback of the bread-and-potatoes diet I loved was the worry they would leave me vulnerable to any number of the serious illnesses I read about with increasing obsessiveness. That was, eventually, enough to make me improvise a Tiny Tastes-style regimen for myself: I selected a new vegetable to cook with each week for the best part of a year. Spinach, I discovered, could be buried underneath layers of phyllo pastry; chunks of red bell pepper could be softened by sautéing, then disguised in a frittata. I conquered everything but broccoli.
Still, it’s the picky eater I find myself aligning with. I find it hard to let go of the idea that the foods we like are a central part of who we are. A world in which all foods are deemed equally palatable and equally worthy of consumption seems a less exciting one. Being picky allowed me to make stark distinctions between the tastes and textures that were transcendent and those that were horrifying. It showed me how every aspect of food could matter and paved the way for revelations about flavor. It’s with only mild embarrassment that I admit I fell in love with roast chicken via Walker’s Roast Chicken Crisps, the British equivalent of Lay’s; they convinced me there was something better than the pale, waterlogged bird I’d always declined to eat on Sundays. Only years later did I encounter the real thing and leave behind its junky predecessor. Just as junk led me to real food, so picky eating led me to gastronomy, with its potential for rapture over grapefruit as well as French fries.
In my day-to-day habits also, I still have too much in common with some of the more disordered eaters in First Bite, eating more toast and crackers than greens. A system like Tiny Tastes can only do so much to transform an individual life: It can help reset preferences for flavor and texture, but it can’t alter the environment in which we have to shop for ingredients, find time for meals, or (almost bound to end in defeat) coordinate people to share them with. Even for those of us who now genuinely enjoy the “right” foods, it’s difficult to plan healthy, cooked meals when you have a job and a commute to wrangle. Turkey Dinosaurs provided a working parent in the ’90s with the greatest gift they could have hoped for: time.
If we really want to sort out the disorder in our eating habits, then understanding the way we learn new tastes is just the beginning. In the meanwhile, we’re stuck in a strange relationship with our highest culinary ambitions—something like unrequited love. As the feminist critic Sandra M. Gilbert recently pointed out in her book, The Culinary Imagination, “You might … be munching popcorn and sipping Diet Coke while watching Meryl Streep perform as Julia Child in Julie and Julia.” You might acquire adventurous tastes, but for various reasons—a lack of time or facilities, or a decision to reject traditionally feminine tasks like cooking—you might only rarely indulge them.