I AM A FOOD WRITER. At restaurants, I taste as much of the menu as possible. I bring people who are willing to let me eat off their plates. I come to the meal ready to be delighted, to coo over the red kuri purée, and gamely tuck into the Scotch eggs, jellied head cheeses, black corn fungus, whatever you’ve got, yes please. At home, I like to cook and to feed people — the best of my friendships have been established over long-winded meals — and, being a food writer, people like to feed me. Friends bring me bourbon from Kentucky, pork rillette from California, and truffle flour from France. They bring me pocket melons and wonder beans from their gardens, and all kinds of goodies from their kitchens, too — crumbly shortcakes, goat-milk ricotta drizzled with honey, pickled watermelon rind. If it all sounds a little precious, let me say that I’m equally pleased to receive a piece of hot, buttered toast.
In the words of Jonathan Richman, I eat with gusto, damn! You bet!
That is, I did until very recently. Last spring, my middle-aged body cried uncle and I developed a host of complaints, including waterlogged joints and a persistent urge to nap. My doctor attributed it to aging, lifestyle, and stress. I could try NSAIDs and water pills, or I could change my diet. She recommended more vegetables and whole grains, less fatty meat, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, and a big reduction in sodium. I should have been relieved: a mild health problem with an easy, noninvasive solution. Instead I mourned the end of an era. Henceforth I would slog through thin, meagerly salted soups and turn down cake. Ironically, the idea of telling my friends that I couldn’t eat something, anything, filled me with shame. Oh no, I thought, I’m going to be one of those people. By which I really meant, not myself: I love food, and much of who I think I am is wrapped up in the way I eat.
In her latest book, First Bite, Bee Wilson tackles our complex relationship to food and how we go about making these kinds of hedonic shifts in our eating — that is, how we transfer our pleasure response from the foods we love to the foods we should love. It’s not a self-help book nor, as the author explicitly tells us, does it even offer advice. But it does have an agenda: in the preface, Wilson reveals that for much of her childhood and young adult life eating was a miserable seesaw of binging and dieting. In her 20s, she developed a healthier relationship with food. “It’s good here, on the other side of the divide,” she writes. “I do hope you’ll join me.” That direct and encouraging tone is a divergence from her other books (Wilson has five), but not a bad one. First Bite may not have the playful wit of Consider the Fork and The Hive, but the fluency and well-curated research for which she is known is all here, and she writes with such empathy and warmth for her topic (and her readers) that it’s an absorbing read. It’s also timely. At this point, we are all aware that the United States is in the midst of an epidemic of poor nutrition: in 2009-2010, according to the National Institutes of Health, 42 percent of adults age 20 and older were obese or extremely obese, and another 33 percent were overweight. It’s tempting to blame fad diets and the pendulum of nutritional science — red wine is a carcinogen; red wine is full of antioxidants — for our confusion about how to eat, but Wilson refutes this idea with the help of David Katz, a nutritionist from Yale University:
Katz points out that the essential tenets of a healthy life […] have been well established for decades. Across all diets, there is, notes Katz, a huge “aggregation of evidence” that the best pattern of eating for health is a diet of minimally processed foods, mostly plant-based. “Our problem,” notes Katz, “is not want of knowledge about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens. Our problem is a stunning and tragically costly cultural reluctance — to swallow it.”
In short, we just don’t want to eat our vegetables. Not because we lack the intelligence or moral fortitude, but because we haven’t learned to, and when we try, we’re working against a lifetime of eating patterns and preferences. The good news is that these preferences, while complicated and often stubborn, are not hardwired. According to Wilson, science agrees that eating habits are learned behavior; the premise of First Bite is that we never lose the ability to learn new habits. Wilson explores the many influences that come together to teach us how to eat, including mealtime rituals, nostalgia, culture, neuroscience, and genetics. She then demonstrates how, in spite of them, children, adults, and even whole cultures, relearn how to eat — not just for the few agonizing weeks of a diet, but in a more meaningful and permanent way:
This is not about being thin. It’s about reaching a state where food is something that nourishes and makes us happy rather than sickening or tormenting us. It’s about feeding ourselves as a good parent would: with love, with variety, but also with limits. Changing the way you eat is far from simple; nor, crucially, is it impossible. After all, as omnivores, we were not born knowing what to eat.
For much of the first half of the book, Wilson discusses how infants and toddlers learn to eat, and she spends quite a bit of time on children with strong food neophobia — fear of tasting new foods — also known as picky eaters. Contrary to popular belief, Wilson says, children are not born picky eaters. It’s true that genetics can affect how we taste foods, but they don’t have much bearing on whether or not we’ll end up liking them. It might take them longer to get there, but even surly little super tasters — kids who have a heightened taste response, especially to bitter foods — can learn to love brussels sprouts. It’s important for kids to see others eating the scary foods and enjoying them (not gagging or croaking), but Wilson also suggests that parents can help this process along via the “Tiny Tastes” system, developed by Lucy Cooke and her colleagues:
The parent and the child together select a vegetable that the child currently moderately dislikes (as opposed to feeling deeply revolted by). Each day for ten to fourteen days, not at dinnertime, you offer the child a pea-sized amount. If she tastes it — licking counts, it doesn’t have to be swallowed — she gets a tick in a box and a sticker. If not, it’s no big deal; there is always tomorrow.
If fear of the unknown is a challenging influence, it is trumped by nostalgia. “Memory” is one of the more engaging chapters in First Bite, twining together the biology of how we gather food memories — the amazing olfactory bulb, which allows us to recognize 10,000 smells and an infinite number of flavors — with bits of personal history and memoir to illustrate how they inform us. “Memory is the single most powerful driving force in how we learn to eat,” Wilson writes. “It shapes all of our yearnings.” The chapter is filled with examples: Alsatian babies yearning for the anise in their mother’s amniotic fluid, World War II POWs yearning for treacle pudding, and anosmiacs yearning for every food they can no longer taste. Apparently, our nostalgia for junk food is particularly strong, in part because the flavor and mouth feel of mass-produced foods never change, so we can revisit the memory again and again. And we do, not only by fondly reminiscing about it with our family and friends, but by continuing to eat it — even if it makes us feel bad afterward.
Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer, asked why it was so hard for us to stop eating food, like hotdogs […] His answer was that for him hotdogs — especially those from Nathan’s on Coney Island — had deep memory connections that could not be matched by any of the foods he had learned to love subsequently in adulthood. Hotdogs for him were about childhood and longing and being with his sister at the fun fair on a hot summer’s day. If Bittman wanted to stop eating them, it wasn’t enough to understand rationally that they were unhealthy, or that the meat in them came from the least salubrious parts of unhappy animals. The emotional connection somehow had to be severed.
In other words, bad food becomes linked to good memories, and to our sense of who we are and where we come from. To give up that food would be to give up not only a piece of our childhood, but of ourselves. “When we hear someone suggesting that we stop eating our favorite brand of ice cream or potato chips or sliced white bread, we feel a knee-jerk hostility,” Wilson writes. “It’s hard to let go of these foods and find a better way of eating without a sense of loss.”
Yet shifts are possible, for individuals and whole nations. Wilson writes about Japan’s “enviable relationship” with eating as a model for how food environments can change. Today food is a national obsession in Japan — they write songs to their noodles: “the slippery saltiness cries out/is it my tears or maybe a dream?” — and the quality of the food is such that they have not only more Michelin-starred restaurants, but also better health than any other nation. But Japanese cuisine wasn’t always so artful, tasty, or healthy: from the seventh century AD to the 20th century, most of the population was undernourished. Meals consisted of rough grains, miso and pickles, very little if any protein, and no spice. And, until the 1930s, it was customary to eat in silence.
So how did they become the country that discovered umami? The short answer is politics, wars, travel, and exposure — Tiny Tastes on a grander scale. When the Japanese Army faced malnourished recruits in the 1920s, they created a Military Diet Research Committee, which introduced the army to Chinese and Western dishes — curried noodles, beef stews — high in fat and protein. Propaganda talks spread the new diet to the rest of the Japanese population, which was further exposed to eclectic American foods through post–World War II food aid. In the 1950s, the national income doubled, and protein became a staple of the Japanese diet. People moved to the city, bought refrigerators, and filled them with eggs, chicken, beef, fish, and pork. At the same time, the Japanese attitude toward food blossomed:
Newspapers published recipe columns for the first time, and after centuries of silence at the table, the Japanese started to talk […] They embraced foreign recipes, such as Korean barbecue, Western breaded prawns, and Chinese stir-fries, and made them so much their own that when foreigners came to Japan and tasted them, it seemed to be “Japanese food.” Perhaps thanks to all those years of culinary isolation […] they did not adopt them wholesale but adapted them to fit with traditional Japanese ideas about portion size and how a meal should be structured. […] At last, Japan had started eating the way we expect them to: choosily, pleasurably, and healthily.
Through positive exposures to new foods, Japan was able to shift to a diet that supported good nutrition, without wholly losing the traditions that define their eating — miso soup and rice, for example. In the process of making those healthy changes, they actually fell in love with the food. If an entire nation can do it, so can a person — and it doesn’t have to take 80 years:
The surprising part is what a short time frame may be required to shift our palates in a healthier direction. Our tastes are built over decades and reinforced daily by meals and snacks. Yet experiments have shown that at least some of our flavor responses can be relearned over a matter of weeks.
Contrary to my worst fears, I found this to be true. It only took two weeks for my palate to adjust to a low-sodium diet, but not all habits go so quietly. Prior to all this, I had gotten into the routine of making a Bundt cake every weekend, and during the workweek I liked to have a small piece of cake at around three p.m. — indulgent, yes, but also what contentment, to hold a wedge of cake in one hand, a cup of tea in the other. It was hard to let go of the cake, a symbol of the pleasure in food that defined me. Wilson writes that changing how and what we eat doesn’t happen through rational argument, but “a form of reconditioning, meal by meal,” and so healthy afternoon snack by healthy afternoon snack, I have unlearned the daily cake. On the special occasions that I have a piece, it is even more delicious. The fact is, these changes have made me feel better, and yet, if it were only that — vigorous health rewarded with the occasional cake — I don’t know that I’d have the mettle to stick with this new diet. This is where Wilson’s theories about our capacity for change and the Japan case study come together: it’s not simply about nutrition, but the delight we find in eating, the singing to noodles. It turns out that we are living through a great time for veggies — there are five kinds of radishes at my local market right now — and I have so much to learn about them. At the moment, I’m obsessively collecting spices, pounding them up with my mortar and pestle, and eating my way through Ottolenghi. It appears that what brought me to food — curiosity, joy, community — came with me in the hedonic shift, and as I dig into the veggies, I feel very much myself.
Susan Pagani is also the co-author of two books, Minnesota Lunch and The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food.