While Dutch schools ban birthday cakes, the British pine for the next Bake Off

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

The Way We Eat Now begins with a single bunch of grapes. The bunch is nothing special to the modern eater: seedless, one-note sweet. It appears to be unchanged from those which might have been dropped into the mouths of Roman emperors. But, Bee Wilson explains, the grapes’ sweetness, their lack of seeds, their sheer abundance and affordability makes them a wholly different beast to those eaten by our forefathers. As she puts it: ‘Almost everything about grapes has changed, and fast.’

From there, The Way We Eat Now expands outwards to examine the peculiarities and vagaries of our modern eating habits. How they vary across different countries and continents (surprisingly little); how they have changed from those of previous generations (a lot).

Wilson’s book touches on a staggering array of issues: snacking, fast food, fat phobia, superfoods, the growth of veganism. As it does, it weaves in nutrition, psychology, sociology, anthropology and geography. Two of Wilson’s previous books, First Bite and This is Not a Diet Book, dealt with how our tastes and eating patterns develop as individuals. The Way We Eat Now feels like the logical next step, moving from the individual to broader social trends, and how they dovetail with politics, work and so on.

As we find ourselves ‘living in a world of perpetual feast, but with genes, minds and culture that are still formed by the memory of a scarce food supply’, we need new strategies for how we eat in a way that is nutritionally and environmentally sustainable, while not losing sight of the pleasure that food can bring. Wilson sets out to address how we might go about this, but as she states, with characteristic straightforwardness: ‘As always with food, it’s complicated.’

It’s refreshing to read, and Wilson’s refusal to shy away from the knotted nature of modern eating is the book’s greatest strength. It quickly becomes clear that the situation is significantly more layered than many nutritionists, journalists or scientists would like us to think. Beneath her meticulous research and skilful assembly is a very real desire to answer the questions that our modern diet poses, and the joy of the book is in Wilson’s determination not to reach lazy conclusions but to embrace the complexity and nuance of modern eating without shelving it as an intractable problem.

She is quick to do away with established narratives. I suppress a cheer when she dismisses Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted aphorism: ‘Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.’ As Wilson says, our great-grandmothers probably wouldn’t have recognised a kale salad, but that’s not an indictment of kale. When it comes to the clean eating movement, there is less of a debunking, and more a thoughtful examination: where some commenters (myself included) have been eager to denounce clean eating’s myths, Wilson takes a more careful look at its appeal — explaining why, in a world where eating lacks structure and rules, we have made up our own rules.

A lack of time is often cited as the reason for our poor diets. Those who say this are duly scolded. Don’t we have more time than ever? Well, maybe not. Although technically we have more hours outside of work than our forebears, household time is now divided between men and women. These days it’s the norm for women to be in the workplace rather than in the home. Most of us don’t live with our extended families and cook communally. Clinging to old ideas (and ideals) of eating and berating us for our modern lives  does us few favours.

As ever, it seems, the children are our future. A re-education of tastes though sensory-based learning is something Wilson is actively involved in, with TastEd, a new system of food education. She looks to Chile, where government intervention has been intensive, and Amsterdam, where the Peas Please scheme has seen a drop in childhood obesity by 12 per cent. (Although, as someone who shows love through, and derives great enjoyment from, baking, I struggle to get on board with the new initiative introduced by one Amsterdam school, which sees birthday classroom baked goods banned in favour of vegetable skewers.)

It could be argued that the book poses more questions than it answers. But then much of what Wilson is examining is dependent on what happens next. Given our current position, The Way We Eat Now could serve as a warning, even as a threat about what could happen if we don’t buck up our ideas. But it doesn’t read that way. Wilson’s desire to preserve the pleasure around eating shines out of this book even when grappling with the stickiest of issues.

Above all, I find myself returning to how thoughtful it is. It may sound a little insipid or lukewarm to term a book ‘thoughtful’, particularly one which is scientific and sociological in approach, but I mean it as the highest compliment. It is this thoughtfulness that gives Wilson the empathy which makes her book so engaging, and allows it to end optimistically, looking at the successes seen in other countries and pointing to the future as one in which our eating habits have the potential to change for the better.

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