Talking about what has gone wrong with modern eating is delicate, because food is a touchy subject. No one likes to feel judged about their food choices, which is one of the reasons why so many healthy eating initiatives fail. The foods that are destroying our health are often the ones to which we feel the deepest emotional connection because they are the stuff of childhood memories.
British food writer Bee Wilson covers lots of ground in The Way We Eat Now. The basic premise is examining globally shifting food trends, and how they’ve brought us to a fairly unhealthy state of nutritional affairs worldwide. It’s quite a conundrum, since we live in a time with unprecedentedly good access to varied foods, ingredients, and a cornucopia of choices, yet we’re simultaneously consuming too much of less nutritionally-dense items and obesity is killing us. Among many other problems.
This is a book discussing a lot of problems and few solutions, but it does make some interesting points, collate plenty of data, and interview some folks with unique perspectives from their corners of the food and culinary industries.
All at once, billions of eaters in disparate places have started eating from the same repertoire of ingredients. Never before has such dietary change happened on such a scale, and simultaneously across most of the planet.
As many problems as Wilson finds with how we eat now, I found with this book. I agree with lots of her points, but the tone feels preachy and scoldy. There’s also some hypocrisy. She discusses the inaccurate categorization of food as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” vs. “unhealthy”, and I agree – that’s not the way to look at it. But then she repeatedly describes certain foods or diets as healthy. She also dispels the myth of superfoods, but labels foods that way anyway.
The structure mostly consists of describing how a way of eating or cooking or shopping was done in the past and contrasting with the present. She writes that we can’t romanticize the past, but the present way of doing things isn’t good, either. What should we do? Eat on smaller, vintage plates, according to the overly simplistic advice in an epilogue.
After thoroughly lamenting the Cavendish banana, the modern-day primary banana option (six or seven mentions within a few pages of how bland or bad-tasting it is), she writes that she always has them on hand. If you don’t like something, don’t eat or buy it. Especially if you’re economically privileged with myriad choices. She gives this lesson herself, saying that we speak with our wallets in the food economy. If you don’t like or approve of something, for ethical or other reasons, you shouldn’t buy it, sending a clear message. But she doesn’t adhere to that, or at least fails to see the discrepancy.
It’s starkly divided in its messages, preaching one thing, like that we should relax when eating, enjoy meals slowly and share them with others, then going on tangents about how of course all these things aren’t always possible. We should eat more like our forebears, using smaller wine glasses, but also they were malnourished and their diet limited by reliance on staple foods, now we can eat pho anywhere. Supermarkets offer too much food as two-for-one offers, creating waste; but food is too expensive and many people can’t afford it. Nearly any scenario she complained about, I could think of something to counter it, sometimes from what I’d read here already, and it made me constantly wonder what the message was.
She also inserts too much opinion that, as far as I can tell, is backed up by minimal fact or research, instead bent to the message she wants it to fit. “Have you noticed that often in a coffee shop now, someone will get to the front of the queue and ask for their latte in a takeaway cup, only to sit down and drink it in the café? It’s as if a ceramic cup and saucer feels like too much of a commitment.”
I’ve gotten a to-go cup and sat down because I’m going to leave before I’m finished, or I’m waiting for someone and leaving with them, or because like Ross Gay I loathe a saucer. I felt like Jerry Seinfeld reading this, always a “WHAT is the DEAL with THIS?!” in mind. (Don’t get me started on the war on snacks chapter.) Although I guess she was kind of doing the same thing. “WHAT is the DEAL with POTATO CHIPS that taste like something else? We don’t cook our grandparents’ food, we just eat CHIPS that TASTE like their food! Can’t a potato chip taste like a potato chip?!” You get the idea.
A discussion on the popularity of Buzzfeed’s Tasty recipe videos was also strangely opinion-centric. “In a world of celebrity and bad news, it seems that what many of us crave is the soothing sight of unknown hands doing things to food.” Really? Personally, I love those videos because, unlike many food blogs, I don’t have to scroll through someone’s life story, random philosophy, or personal diary entry to get to a recipe. This happened too much here, I kept wondering if I’m the one who’s misunderstanding everything. She used data, like about recipe videos’ popularity, but conclusions often seemed mere opinion.
These videos allow us to imagine that we, too, are floury-handed craftsmen in the kitchen rather than busy people whose thumbs are now used almost exclusively for swiping and tapping a small non-nutritious object.
That object is your phone, you can bet she’s got thoughts on that as well. Am I the only one who’s never watched a Tasty recipe video and fantasized I’m making it? Is that really what people are using them for?
I’m criticizing a lot, but she does make some easily agreeable points. I enjoyed her take on the bizarrity of Instagrammable food, and I had no idea that “It has only been with the endless brunch photos on Instagram that egg sales have finally started to rise again.”
She also has wise words about nonsense food trends, which she amusingly calls “extreme food reactions,” although not as in-depth as The Angry Chef or The Woman Who Fooled the World. My favorite elements were the completely fascinating facts peppered throughout, especially about historical cuisines and food choices. Did you know that in eighteenth-century Paris, you could complain to the police if you were sold sub-par bread, and bakers could be fined for it? Amazing.
As many gripes as I have, it was still worth it for some fascinating factoids. I didn’t like the tone, the structure of giving two bad or impossible options as comparisons to each other, and the data, although thorough, isn’t very well incorporated into the flow of the text. Maybe worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the kind of arguments she’s making in the first place. 2.5/5
The Way We Eat Now:
How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World
by Bee Wilson
published May 7, 2019 by Basic Books
Amazon / Book Depository