Bee Wilson on modern food culture, the fallacy behind diets, and eating well at any age
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox
Of all the many things that can mar a meal out with my family, there’s nothing quite like the effect of a raw slice of red onion. The mere sight of an angry, purple stripe among the salad leaves is enough to turn my mother’s normally mild face into a picture of pain.
It is her kryptonite; mine too, for I’ve inherited her dislike of onions along with her narrow hips and complete lack of subtlety when it comes to facial expressions. Or at least I thought I had, until food writer Bee Wilson put my various misconceptions straight.
The hips are, alas, genetic. The facial expressions anyone’s guess. But the idea of inheriting a food dislike is one thing that Bee takes issue with. For years now, she has been researching and writing about our modern day relationship with what we eat. What began as a study of children grew into an ambitious exploration of how we, as humans, learn to eat.
Likes and dislikes
“We are as much driven by our likes and dislikes as adults as we were as children,” she says, “but that doesn’t come into discussion. We just think how we eat is inherent, that we are powerless to change.”
In fact, we are incredibly open in our responses to food throughout our lifespan, “but we don’t give ourselves a chance. We are born with a preference for sugar and at four months we develop a preference for salt, but beyond that and a slight aversion to bitterness there are very few aspects of taste that are innate.”
Put simply, this means a so-called ‘inherited’ aversion to a foodstuff has less to do with genetics than it does with how you’ve experienced it. Exposure, Bee continues, is a word that covers all manner of sins. “It could mean looking at an advert, at another child’s lunchbox, or the expression on your parent’s face when they offer you something. We pass on negative feelings without realising it.”
Led by joy
Hence the raw onions. Given my mum’s reaction, it’s little wonder I learnt to treat alliums with horror. But that’s not how the subject is discussed. “We see ourselves as having this Paleolithic brain in a world full of sugar we cannot resist. We think we can counteract this by saying things like ‘five-a-day’, but if you’ve grown up not liking fruit and vegetables it just sounds off-putting. You need to be led by joy.”
It sounds almost religious, and there is something of the evangelist about Bee when she gets going. “There is a massive undercurrent of unhappy attitudes towards food. We live in an obesogenic environment,” she says.
Then, throwing discretion to the wind: “Ours is a deeply screwed up food culture. We’ve gone from being in a position where for the first time in history the West didn’t have to worry about food, and supposedly about malnutrition, to having options—and it turns out choosing what to eat is as challenging and important as not having food.”
A golden age
It’s tempting to hark back to a golden age when our grandparents dug for victory and ate frugally. But Bee is wary. “If you transplanted someone from the war generation here, they might do well, but they might also do badly, because they came from a culture where chocolate is not available. If you say as people we’ve changed, you’re saying our generation is uniquely greedy.”
The problem comes from the fact that feeding is bound up with love. She cites the example of childhood obesity in China, where the one-child policy spawned a generation of so-called little emperors who were often chronically overindulged, especially by their grandparents.
“Researchers found that they had such vivid memories of famine, they felt overfeeding a child was impossible,” she points out. In their minds these were good impulses that would ensure the child’s health and longevity. In practice, they had disastrous results.
No one is immune to these issues—not even Bee, the one person you’d have thought might have sussed this stuff. In 2009, Bee’s third child was born with a cleft palate, which made swallowing difficult, resulting in an operation. Feeding him was “a nightmare,” she remembers. “He just wasn’t growing and I was so anxious I basically force fed him.”
Looking back, it was the worst thing she could do. “It takes between 10 and 20 exposures for us to like something,” she says, “and they have to be positive.” Not forced, or served with a grimace like the onion of my childhood.
It’s easy to be negative: much easier to criticise the overweight two thirds of the country than observe the smaller proportion who are in, well, proportion. “What they should be telling us,” she insists, “is that one third of the population, assuming they’re not anorexic, bulimic or compulsive exercisers, have positive eating habits which means that eating well is a pleasurable thing.”
‘Naughty’ or ‘virtuous’
We’ve become moralistic about food and size, waging war with words. “It’s not ‘naughty’ or ‘virtuous’. It’s food,” Bee fumes. “Painting chocolate as naughty and salad as virtuous just enforces the dualism in which salad is unpleasant and sweet things, frankly, sound like way more fun.”
A good starting point, Bee suggests, is to remind ourselves that as omnivores, eating has long been a complex thing. “We don’t have an instinct that tells us what to eat,” she says. “It’s not a moral thing. It’s a skill we learn.” When people say it’s easy to lose weight—move more and eat less—it’s not just insensitive, but patronising. “It’s not about intelligence. It’s about education.”
Setting out to explore how we learn to eat, Bee found much to rail against: fads like black coffee, mixed with butter to fill you up, known as bulletproof; tools to make courgettes into a ‘pasta substitute’ by slicing it into strips.
“The problem with fads is people think ‘that’s what I need to do to eat healthily’ and then they fail, because in reality you need to take baby steps,” she points out. Faced with a mound of raw courgettes rather than a modest portion of spag bol, there’s every chance you’ll eventually break. That much is evident in statistics, which suggest nearly four-fifths of diets fall to bits.
Like many, Bee believes the government should do more to plug our nutritional hole. Yet for all our shortfalls, she concedes there is much about British food that appears to be in rude health. There’s the acceptance of vegetarianism in schools, the rise of new ingredients, and the effect of Ottolenghi, Anna Jones, and the other chefs making vegetables interesting in Britain.
There’s the proliferation of cafes like that which we are now sitting in. There are markets like Borough. “I mean, it’s just paradise, isn’t it? We need to learn basic principles: to sit at the table, to know when we’re hungry, and how much we need. Then, when we go to places like that, we can make good choices. Eating well through pleasure: that’s Borough Market. That’s how every food encounter should be.”