The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity, by Sandra M Gilbert, WW Norton, RRP£20/$29.95, 432 pages

The Shape We’re In: How Junk Food and Diets are Shortening Our Lives, by Sarah Boseley, Guardian Faber, RRP£12.99, 320 pages

The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, by Nina Teicholz, Scribe, RRP£14.99/$27.99, 496 pages

A photo of a burger
© Rex

He was carrying a bow and arrow, a dagger and an axe. He had a net with him, woven from hemp, which may have been used for trapping rabbits or birds. And, not too long before his death, he had eaten a meal of wheat, meat and vegetables – perhaps not so different from what you or I ate last night, or the night before, or plan to make for supper tomorrow. But this meal – the remains of which were found in the stomach of Ötzi the Iceman when his startlingly well-preserved body was discovered in the mountains of the South Tyrol in 1991 – was eaten 600 years before the great pyramid of Cheops was constructed in Egypt; at the time of his death the great bluestones of Stonehenge would not be dragged into Wiltshire for another few centuries yet. Our lives and the life of this ancient traveller are separated by a gulf of 5,000 years; most of the ways in which we live our lives would prove mutually unintelligible across that gulf. And yet we still might happily share a meal.

For what we eat, and how we eat it, is no small part of what makes us human: yet for us in the 21st-century west the decisions we make about what to eat, and when, and how much is enough, have never been more contested. Skinny latte or fresh mint tea? A thick rib-eye or a griddled slab of tofu? Five a day? Seven a day? Gluten free? Sourdough? They might seem frivolous questions, but for the fact, as Sandra Gilbert reminds us in The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity, that eating is one of the chief ways in which, from infancy on, we interact with our surroundings. She quotes the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin: “ ‘The encounter of man with the world, which takes place inside the open, biting, rending, chewing mouth, is one of the most ancient and most important objects of human thought and imagery. Here man tastes the world, introduces it into this body, makes it a part of himself. Man’s awakening consciousness could not but concentrate on this moment . . . ’ ”

Bakhtin is discussing Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais’s 16th-century satirical sequence of tales about the giant Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel; but as Gilbert points out, his observation is no less relevant to life than it is to literature. How we “taste the world” says an enormous amount about us: socially, culturally, economically and of course, scientifically, when we come to consider how what we eat affects our health, our wellbeing, how long we’re likely to live. For Ötzi, and for most human beings throughout most of human history, decisions about what to eat would have been, by and large, almost entirely practical. Neolithic and early Bronze Age humans would not have been worrying whether their diets were too high in fat, or what effect lactose had on their digestion; even in the early days of settled agriculture (and of course, for a great many people across the globe even today) what you eat is simply a matter of what you can get.

But many of us have moved far beyond that now, as Sarah Boseley and Nina Teicholz acknowledge in two new books. Health editor of the Guardian, Boseley’s The Shape We’re In: How Junk Food and Diets are Shortening Our Lives is a trenchant collection of essays addressing the way food companies and the diet industry conspire (not too strong a word, according to Boseley) to distort human beings’ natural relationship with what they eat. Teicholz, an American Yale biology graduate who has written about food and nutrition for magazines such as Gourmet and Men’s Health, spent nine years working on The Big Fat Surprise, examining the original sources which, over the past 60 years, both government and big business have used to persuade us that fat – especially saturated fat – was a killer. This is a striking study, thoroughly researched and carefully footnoted, which may well change the way you eat. I, for one, won’t ever hesitate to order a steak again (though if you’re concerned about animal welfare, as you should be, this is not the book for that discussion, as Teicholz acknowledges briefly at the end).

Teicholz describes a “perfect storm” of forces in postwar America that altered the nutritional landscape. Charismatic leaders in nutrition science – such as Ancel Benjamin Keys, a biologist and pathologist at the University of Minnesota who began looking at the causes of heart disease in the 1950s – developed a hypothesis that fat was the great evil in the American diet: “money poured in to test it, and the nutrition community embraced the idea. Soon there was very little room for debate.”

Again and again, Teicholz points to studies that have served as the basis for the argument in favour of the demonisation of fat – such as the Framingham Heart Study, begun in 1948, or the Ni-Hon-San Study of Japanese men, begun in 1965 – and demonstrates why they don’t necessarily prove what they were stated to prove. As The Lancet put it in 1974: “So far, despite all the effort and money that has been spent, the evidence that eliminating risk factors will eliminate heart disease adds up to little more than zero.” (It’s hard not to feel a little proud of this British scepticism of the low-fat fad: three cheers for the land of double cream.)

These are startling conclusions, though as Teicholz shows, the evidence has really been there all along. We should drink whole milk, she says, eat butter and stock up on cheeses, sausages, offal and even bacon. “None of these foods have been demonstrated to cause obesity, diabetes, or heart disease . . . Sugar, white flour, and other refined carbohydrates are almost certainly the main drivers of these diseases.” But government health advice is still stuck in the low-fat rut: and, however well-meaning, it is there to be exploited by the companies that stand to gain from that advice. Boseley, writing about the diet industry, is unafraid to call a spade a spade: “With its gimmicks, motivational books and celebrity endorsements, [it] is one of the biggest frauds of our time.” Diet advice predates the 20th century, of course: both Teicholz and Gilbert note the work of William Banting, a retired London undertaker who published his weight-loss tips in 1863, calling it a Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. Interestingly, Banting was the Dr Atkins of his day, advising a low-carb regime of “meat, greens, fruits and dry wine”. (Sounds pretty good to me – and not too far removed from Ötzi’s rations.) But in Banting’s day, the food industry had not yet reached the point where, as Teicholz portrays it, a company such as Archer Daniels Midland (which describes itself on its website as an organisation that transforms “crops into renewable products that meet the demands of a growing world”) “reverse-engineers” foods based on what manufacturers want stated on the product label. A non-dairy chocolate pudding comes, it seems, from a desire to print “low in cholesterol” and a certain fat content – not from any desire for chocolate, or pudding.

Boseley’s book is filled with righteous anger, which occasionally blurs her ability to consolidate her powerful argument. She is right to be outraged that more than 900 British children were admitted to hospital because of weight problems between 2009 and 2012. You also can’t fault her for her fury at a society in which a lack of education combines with the power of big business to create a world in which giant corporations whose business involves selling us sugary drinks present themselves as caring about our health. Boseley’s book reminded me of my own reaction when, at London’s 2012 Olympics, I found myself in the “Coca-Cola Beatbox” on the site, which was, it claimed, an expression of the company’s aim to motivate “teens across the country to get excited about sport, and inspiring them to lead active, healthy lifestyles.” You know what? I don’t think so. I think it was about selling teens Coke. My son, who was 12 at the time, was hugely excited to get his free bottle at the end of the experience, despite his mother’s (yes) righteous anger.

In a chapter titled “Mexicoke”, Boseley paints a bleak picture of the role the company plays in Mexico’s status as the world’s most obese nation: 32.8 per cent of Mexico’s people are now obese, compared with 31.8 per cent in the USA. Seventy per cent of Mexican women are now overweight or obese. Mexicans drink an astonishing amount of sweet drinks: 163 litres a year each, Boseley reports; nearly half a litre per person per day. Dr Juan Rivera, the director of the Mexican National Institute of Public Health, draws a plain conclusion. “In Mexico, about 23 per cent of total energy comes from sugar-sweetened beverages and junk food,” he says, noting that he thinks that figure is an under-report. Who controls 70 per cent of the drinks market in Mexico? You guessed it: Coca-Cola, as Boseley tells us.

What are we to do? Even if we attempt to eat a diet that mimics that of Ötzi the Iceman – such as the Paleo diet, a recent craze that focuses on meat, fish and vegetables, shunning sugar, processed foods, grains and beans – there are still stones along the path. First, as Teicholz points out, there’s conflicting evidence regarding the daily diet of early humans; some of it, she says, seems to show we once subsisted mostly on plants; and then we still have to resist powerful pressures to consume food that isn’t good for us – or simply more food than is good for us, full stop. (Boseley is good on the commercial imperatives behind snacking.) It’s an issue Sandra Gilbert addresses towards the end of her book, quoting a few of Michael Pollan’s “food rules”, such as “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Would great-granny have had high-fructose corn syrup in her kitchen? I reckon not.

Gilbert goes on to consider what her own European great-grandmothers would have “recognized as food”; and considers too the deep emotional charge of this reflection. The decisions that lead us to select or reject something from the supermarket shelf, or to buy in a farmers market, or to grow ourselves, or to choose what we feed to our children, are emotional decisions, no matter how much nutrition science we’ve studied.

Gilbert is an accomplished cultural critic (The Madwoman in the Attic, written with Susan Gubar and published in 1979, remains a seminal feminist re-reading of Victorian literature), and The Culinary Imagination is a lovely blend of the personal, the artistic and the political. Here is Allen Ginsberg imagining Walt Whitman in a supermarket: “We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy . . . ”; and here is Mary Frances Kennedy’s complex evolution into the gastronomic oracle “MFK Fisher”: in her discussion of the Italian Futurists – whose recipes from the 1930s offer a curious premonition of what a chef such as Ferran Adrià would develop decades later – she writes of their “sacramentalizing of the quotidian”, a wonderful phrase that encapsulates, finally, what happens every time we sit down to dinner.

The arguments that surround what we should eat, how much we should eat, and how we grow and raise what we eat are impassioned because food is never just a nutrient-delivery system. Food is love, food is memory, food is suffering, food is the future and the past. Ötzi knew hunger and satiety as we his descendants do too. Our decisions about what to eat are perhaps more complicated than his: but these three books certainly provide (you will forgive) food for thought.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section