Great Books: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, by Bee Wilson

Bread pudding
Bread pudding – a childhood favorite, but also reflective of foods commonly given young children. (Photo mine, February 2016)

“To anticipate pleasure in the next meal – something that can take up the greater part of the day, in my experience – is always a form of memory. And each mouthful recalls other mouthfuls you’ve eaten in the past. It stands to reason, therefore, that the flavor patterns in our brains are highly dependent on all the things we’ve tasted in the past, especially during childhood.” (Wilson 2015, 51)

The acclaimed British food writer Bee Wilson came out with a fascinating new book this past December: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. In it, Wilson examines how memory, childhood eating habits, food practices we learn from our parents, culture, and taste all combine to create our dietary habits and preferences. Why is someone who is picky at five picky at fifty? How is it that children can be taught to like new foods? How do our dietary habits and culturally determined desires affect the healthiness of our food choices? And if – as Wilson amply proves – likes and dislikes in food are not nature, but nurture, what can we do? Wilson explores various ways that not only show how food choices can – slowly and steadily – be changed, but also how these ideas about food even evolve in the first place.

The book is structured in eight chapters, roughly topical: “Likes and Dislikes,” “Memory,” “Children’s Food,” “Feeding,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Hunger,” “Disorder,” and “Change.” In each, Wilson shows how food culture and habits and the way children are raised with food affect everything from eating disorders – the idea that only boys should like certain foods, for example – to how the mass marketing of children’s food has led to a global convergence around a taste combination of salt, sugar, and fat. Wilson provides a rather stunning overview.

The book is also delightfully written and flows like a conversation – or, more aptly, like a sauce! I read almost the entire volume on a five-hour train journey, and could not put it down.

My favorite sections were the first two – on what we like and how we remember it. As a diaspora nerd, I always find the question of memory particularly vexing and beautiful at the same time: is our nostalgia a “colonization of the present” by what we want, or is it a reaching into the past to make sense of the present and tie it to place and culture? In the Jewish context, how does remembered childhood memories of food – kneidlach, corn pashtida, or quince jam – determine what other foods we like, or how we envision home? (Beyond the obvious “that is where kneidlach are eaten.”) And how does our approach to Jewish food relate to what we ate in early childhood? Wilson notes that many of our tastes are determined between the ages of four and eight months, and some tastes through the third year of life. So, for example, the fact that I liked to bite into lemons as a little child (true story) might be why I’m rather fond of both dishes with citrus (in many forms) and sour food more generally. This is maybe why American babka is that sweet, or why the sour taste of schav might fail to capture the mind of someone whose earliest nourishment outside breast milk was sweetened infant formula. Wilson’s work provides a path to explore all these points.

The book isn’t perfect – I think Wilson could have done a better job of addressing class and income, and how both significantly affect the ability one has to change what one eats. In addition, the way gender is addressed is a bit underwhelming – especially given how us queer folks have very complicated relationships with food and gender. But First Bite is definitely worth a read, it’s incredibly informative, and I think many of the points can spur interesting discussions. To add a Jewish angle to this whole thing – after all, this is a Jewish food blog – I thought of two questions that I’d like to mull over, inspired by this book’s chapter on Memory:

  1. For those of us who started keeping kosher later in life, how does memory play a role in addressing the various challenges that are presented by, say, avoiding a food one used to like? Does the advent of “kosher bacon” and imitation shrimp stem from curiosity, or a desire to restore – within the framework of halakhafoods once beloved?
  2. If so many food tastes are learned in early childhood, what happens to reviving certain Jewish food traditions? It is interesting to think about how an adult’s revulsion to or love for p’tcha or schav upon first taste is in part determined by what he might have consumed at the age of two or three. What are the bounds of revival? How do these early tastes change how we cook Jewish food as adults? Is my taste for sour food in part due to my toddler-hood love for biting into lemons?

Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. New York, Basic: 2015.

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