Japanese cuisine was not always known for sparkling fresh sushi or tasty ramen noodles topped with chashu (juicy braised pork), nori (crispy toasted seaweed) and egg. Before the 20th century, food was often sparse, repetitive and always plain and unseasoned—in times of scarcity rarely more than rice and pickles—and it was the custom at meals to remain completely silent. Eating was not a joyous or ceremonious event.
Today, Japan is a foodie’s paradise with the lowest rates of obesity of any industrialized country. The concept of umami, the meatiness found in seaweed, miso and soy sauce, transformed the cuisine in the early 20th century, along with a national campaign to add more protein to the diet of soldiers and school children. Visual presentation has become a part of the cuisine creating an edible art form. The result has been a nation that has changed from a country that once ate in silence to one that relishes and reveres food. This leaves countries with high obesity rates like America asking: if an entire nation can change its food preferences, why can’t individuals?
In her latest foray into food writing, Bee Wilson, author of the acclaimed novel Consider the Fork proves that we can indeed rewire our desire for new foods in First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Basic Books; December 1, 2015). Wilson reminds us that as omnivores, we are extremely adept at changing the way we eat to suit our environments and that it is possible to learn new tastes and to let go of old perceptions about what types of food we like and what types we absolutely loathe. In fact, Wilson began writing the book with the idea that this would be about exploring hardwired food preferences, until she realized that the issues that we all had with certain foods as children follow us right into adulthood.
First Bite is Wilson’s attempt to teach us that it is possible to learn new tastes. “We all begin life with an innate liking for sweetness and a suspicion of bitterness, yet there is nothing inevitable in our physiology that says we will grow up dreading vegetables and craving fudge. The trouble is, we do not tend to see it this way.” Wilson explores startling food disorders from all over the world and clears up the commonly held misconception that disorders are all about losing weight, like anorexia or bulimia. She simplifies them as “extreme versions of the dilemmas and pitfalls that all of us face in learning how to eat” and identifies some shocking similarities in selective eaters from all over the planet. For example, did you know that picky eaters take a liking to potato chips and consider them a “safe” food that is easy to tolerate? Wilson points to the universal love of crispy textures and the satisfaction that comes with the sound of loud crunching as the connection between chips and fussy eaters.
Wilson also investigates the ways in which we approach feeding our own offspring and reveals that as a new parent she did what many of us do: she force fed and coerced her young children and used the age-old practice of the utensil turned airplane coming in for a landing, a tactic she now recognizes as futile. She emphasizes that parents have to give up the power and recognize that you can’t make a child start or stop eating just because you think that’s what’s best.
You probably also didn’t know that in Hungary, parents have mastered the art of the lie when it comes to feeding their children. They are taught to enjoy eating carrots by being told that they bestow the ability to whistle. Remember your parents telling you the truth about carrots and their magical ability to improve eyesight? That never worked on me as a child. Wilson constantly tests the limits of what we think we know about foods and how we should raise our children to be adventurous eaters. Surprisingly, telling kids a lie now and then is not always a bad thing. Fortunately, for those of us who are all grown up, we still have the potential to learn to love the foods that we avoided as children without being lied to.