What determines our food choices? This year's inaugural Borough Talk
The premise was simple; the title a phrase so often repeated by officials, the media and advertisers, we barely register its significance. “You are what you eat” declared the bold green and yellow poster for this year’s inaugural Borough Market talk.
Led by Sybil Kapoor, chef, food writer and author, the line-up was as impressive as it was appropriate: Bee Wilson, food writer and historian; Olia Hercules, author of the acclaimed book Mamushka; award-winning food photographer Patrice De Villiers and Michelin-starred chef James Lowe of Lyle’s in Shoreditch.
“Just as the clothes you buy express who you are and how you appear to other people, so it is with the food you eat,” opened Sybil. “And the question which prompted this talk was, what determines our choices when it comes to cooking and eating?”
Is it genetic? Is it where we grew up? Is it fashion—trends, restaurants, cookery programmes—or advertising? Is it a desire to feel connected to a larger, cultural identity, or is it about personal memory? “There are so many different aspects,” Sybil continues, “so we wanted to get a group of people who are really well qualified to talk about them.”
Psychology and history
Borough Market could not have struck luckier, with a panel which ran the gamut from the photographer behind one of the most successful food advertising campaigns in recent years, to a food historian whose latest book, entitled First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, is an exploration of psychology and history—making its author, Bee, the most obvious person to open the discussion.
She did so with gusto, by flipping the original question on its head. “In discussing what forms our food choices, I thought it might be helpful to start by considering what doesn’t form our food choices. So often when attempting to change diets on an individual level, or even a national level to improve entire populations, we take the wrong approach.”
The approach we adopt is one of rational information: of ‘five-a-day’ campaigns and calorie counters instead of the far more influential, irrational feeling. “By the time we reach 18, each of us will have had around 33,000 meals or snacks, each one of which has the potential to form future food experiences.”
Moreover, she continues, “a lot of our experiences have been formed in ways we’re only dimly aware of. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that when we say we’re a ‘born’ carnivore, or a chocoholic, our mother’s choices while pregnant could be partly to blame."
She cites an experiment with carrot juice carried out on pregnant American women. When born, their children showed a marked preference for the flavour of carrot compared with those whose mothers hadn’t indulged in the vegetable.
Each one of us is born imprinted with memories of flavour, making an already “bewildering food environment” even harder to navigate. Quizzing the panel on their diet as an unborn child seemed challenging, but given how influential childhood seems to be on our food choices, the effect it had on our panellists seemed a natural question. How has what you ate while growing up influenced you? Sybil asked, turning first to James Lowe.
Each answer proved insightful. James cooks because his mother insisted on timing meals around his younger sister, who ate at half four. “If I didn’t eat at that time I had to make something else later. So I taught myself.”
For Olia, the merits of a childhood spent in southern Ukraine surrounded by “a huge allotment, chickens, goats—all this amazing produce” didn’t really dawn on her until she was much older, living in Britain with a small son of her own and training to be a chef. “I’d made a dish of my grandmother’s at university using supermarket chicken and it was awful.”
Devoid of the pungent spices and thick sauces prevalent in the cuisines of many other countries, Ukrainian dishes demand nothing less than brilliant produce. “When I had my son I took up eastern European cooking again and was amazed what you could do when you bought better quality meat.” Yes, it meant spending more, but the secret of Ukrainian cooking is making it last for days.
At this point Patrice took the discussion down a different alley, inspired by Olia’s account of her grandparents and how their stories—of Soviet rule, of poverty and picking new season cucumbers—were woven into her recipe book.
“The idea of having a strong cultural identity through food is huge in Paris. I should imagine that is true of the Ukraine too,” Patrice points out. “Interviewing musicians for my book Love Music Love Food, I found that most often artists selected recipes according to the culture and country they grew up in.”
Bee agrees. Indeed, last week she’d been discussing with Heston Blumenthal the challenges chefs face in creating a dish which can trigger good food memories, in the various individuals coming to the restaurant table. “When one food can mean such different things to different people, how can you possibly find the herb or sauce or spice which triggers something in all?”
To a Dutchman, a cucumber is not the same thing as it is to a German or a Ukrainian. Yet Bee also believes that really good food “almost creates new childhood memories: you feel like you are reliving a good moment.” So where do restaurants fit into our food choices? For enlightenment, we turned to the restaurant chef on the panel, James Lowe.
“I cannot imagine how you could hit so many memories with the same references, but I do think a key part of this in a restaurant is looking after people: creating that little bubble around a group of diners.” So is the event of eating together as important as what you are eating? “I think as a chef you have to develop a philosophy outside what you are cooking at any given time,” James explains.
What he serves at Lyle’s boils down to what’s available and at its best: the fish landed, the seasonal vegetables, what game’s in season and so on. Though not averse to following trends, James’s choice of ingredient is determined by quality, “not how that ingredient is perceived”.
Yet trends are hugely influential. Like it or loathe it, the trend for kale, say, has swayed even our veteran chefs. Urban foraging has also taken off, Sybil points out, suggesting a desire among us city-dwellers to reconnect with nature through food.
Fashion in food
“Fashion in food is fast paced. It has become a mainstream thing in popular culture, but I don’t think as a chef you make a conscious decision to follow them,” James says. Living in London, you get influences from everywhere, adds Olia. “I have a friend who is Eritrean and I’m a bit obsessed with it. In my book, I’ve an English pickle.”
Both James and Olia are avid Instagrammers: a medium whose role in the propagation of new trends is not insignificant. “There’s no denying that a good photograph can lead you on to a new cookbook, ingredient or recipe,” says Patrice.
Of course, for everyone like Olia, there is someone like Sybil’s mother in law, who “only ever cooks Indian, despite living most of her life in London.” Even Instagrammers shape their food choices by choosing who they follow, Patrice continues.
Our exposure to new influences is not as great as we might think. Food campaigns like Patrice’s, which set out to ‘rebrand’ ugly fruit and vegetables by making them beautiful, can work wonders: we eat with our eyes is a common saying, and true—but underlying sight is the web of emotions and memory that Bee alluded to when we opened and on which we, not wholly without optimism, end.
Basic eating skills
“It is about re-learning your responses. It is possible, but it takes a lot of time,” says Bee. Cooking is one thing, but the truth is that most of us lack basic eating skills. Our grandparents grew up at a time of relative food scarcity; now we’re surrounded.
“Our plates are bigger, our children are bigger, yet we still encourage them to clean their plates. Though diet-related ill health now causes more disease and death than any other, we grow up associating sugar—those sweet treats we’re given for good behaviour—with love.
What shapes our food choices? An alphabet soup of factors, many of which we can’t control, but some of which we can try and mitigate. As far as children go, Bee says, “I think a lot of this change will have to come through schools.”
“It’s already happening,” says Olia. Only the other day she got told off by her four-year-old for buying sugary juice. And for the adults? plead the entirely adult audience, silently. “It is reconditioning our palates. Just as it takes 120 tastes to love a food, to fall out of love will take longer—but it can be done.”
Encouragement, cooking, exploration
Bee is testimony, having been plagued with food issues in her youth, and she’s met many others like her. She relearnt to eat through love. Others do through encouragement, cooking, exploration—various means.
But when it happens, she says, and you start to crave Olia’s grilled vegetable caviar, or James Lowe’s cod cheeks with green sauce “those foods you previously spent all your time and energy fruitlessly trying to stop eating will no longer taste any good at all!”