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Food from cradle (and before) to grave

First Bite How We learn To EatI first encountered social historian and food writer Bee Wilson through her brilliant book, Consider the Fork, which looks at history and much more through examining the evolution of cooking, and the implements needed for this.

Wilson is my favourite kind of writer or non-fiction – extensive in research, meticulous citing to enable the interested reader to search further, and, most important of all for me – a gifted weaver of words. However erudite a writer, I need the skills a good novelist possesses – how to tell the story. Essential that this is done in non-fiction as much as in fiction, I think. Bee Wilson knows how to tell the story.

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat is a more personal, different kind of book, though all the strengths of Wilson’s writing, as detailed above, are as impeccably in place. This book takes a long and cool look at the origins of our often disordered eating habits. It is a more personal book because Wilson herself, as she explains, was a disordered eater, tending towards weight gain, attracted to the sugary, struggling with this and that diet. Meanwhile her sibling had another kind of eating disorder.

Food, in lands of plenty, has become a huge problem for man. Fashions in advice for how to change, in the developed world, the curious mixture of obesity and malnourishment which is endemic, is endlessly written about, and the legions of diet gurus all grow fat (metaphorically, one assumes) on the proceeds of the over-fed’s obsessions.

Bee Wilson’s book is not a ‘how to eat more healthily and lose weight’ diet advice or recipe book, though, if that is what a reader is looking for, there is lots of sensible advice to be found within the pages. Rather, what she does, as in earlier books, is to look at a variety of disciplines, from the medical, through to the politics of the food industry, psychology, neurochemistry, culture, sociology, scientific studies and much, much more and blend them together into a remarkably tasty, nutritious, beautifully presented casserole which will leave the reader (well, it did so for this reader), energised, with a feeling of satiety but not over-indulgence, left pleasurably digesting ideas when away from the book, and ready to come back for another meal-read.

Roasted Brussels – Learned Bitter Taste Delight Flicr, Commons Mackenzie Kosut

The book is brimming with all sorts of fascinating facts and ideas. For example, one of the reasons that so many ‘won’t eat their sprouts’ is because we are hard-wired to be alarmed by ‘bitter’. This goes back to our days as omnivorous foragers – bitter tasting plants are more likely to be ones which may be toxic to us – and some plants have evolved ‘bitter’ to deter being eaten, too. Wilson explores, however, the fact that food tastes and fads are a mixture of genetics and nurture. We each have differences in the number of papillae on our tongues, and there is no doubt that there are tastes and smells which some people perceive with ultra-sensitivity, and some cannot perceive at all. Of course, we also learn tastes in the high chair (and earlier) Forced too quickly to eat tastes we don’t like – or, perhaps, not being exposed to a wide variety of tastes during the window of opportunity when ‘new tastes’ are not experienced as threatening, and if, perhaps, we are an individual hypersensitive to ‘bitter’, an aversion to the dark green leafies may be on its way.

Later learned bitter delight

                               Later learned bitter delight

I was fascinated to read how recent (and, again, how specific in many ways to the developed Western world) the idea of ‘special food for babies’ is. There are many cultures where the weaning baby eats what the adult eats. And sometimes this includes food we might consider unsuitable for a baby – garlic, for example. And yet – one of the fascinating benefits for breast-fed babies is that the taste of breast milk is never the same, feed to feed, as breast milk will taste of what mother eats. Garlic eating cultures will have garlic habituated babies from the off!

Bee Wilson is a mother of three, and the book has a lot of focus on the developing of food likes, dislikes, disorders and orders, back from not just babyhood, but in-the-womb. A neat experiment was done with a group of mothers who were due to have an amniocentesis. They were asked to take a garlic capsule 45 minutes before the procedure – and those who had taken the capsule had amniotic fluid which smelt garlicky. The baby in the womb is already ‘tasting’ the food mother eats. Other experiments have verified these findings.
Loving my sprouts early - the other pay-off - bitter dark stuff heaven
       Loving my sprouts early – the other pay-off – bitter dark stuff heaven 
(For the curious William Curley Chocolates So good, so expensive, so luxurious one chocolate is enough rare treat, and satisfies, when savoured)

Wilson was also very interesting about how there are cultural perceptions of different foods being suitable fare for boy children and girl children – and how damaging this is to both boys and girls. Boys are less likely to be pressured to eat up their greens than girls. Meat (and larger portions of meat) is more often given to boys. Salads and sweet things are seen to be more suitable for girls. However – from puberty, girls and women are more likely to be anaemic than men, so actually, girls could benefit from iron rich foods – eg steak, and boys should really learn to be more like girls in their ‘eating up their greens!’

I could go on and on and on about this book. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the politics of the food industry, health, children’s health, – or in the collection of fascinating facts to astound your friends with!Bee Wilson

Highly recommended

I was lucky enough to receive this as a digital review copy from the publisher, Fourth Estate, via NetGalley

First Bite : How We Learn To Eat Amazon UK
First Bite : How We Learn To Eat Amazon USA