There used to be a joke in our house when I lived with my parents that went something along the lines of if you went into space for an indeterminate period of time, upon returning home you would be able to tell what day it was by the food mum served you at tea. It’s fair to say that, growing up, I ate conservatively. I was well into my teens before I ate pasta or pizza. That wasn’t so unusual as it sounds for someone born in the UK in the 1960s. Had I been born a decade earlier it would have been worse, post-war rationing in Britain officially ended in the mid-50s, so many food stuffs had been unavailable and what there was came in very limited varieties. Cheese, for instance, came in one flavour until much later in the century due to the tight control of milk production and supply. For a nation that has always been somewhat cautious in the food its inhabitants habitually consumed, rationing, whilst being a right pain for all concerned, didn’t eliminate lots of exotic treats (tr. foreign muck) from the menu, they had never been on there in the first place and wouldn’t be until the 70s and beyond. I should like to say that it is very different now but I am not entirely certain that it is. We now have access to virtually any foodstuff we desire at almost any time of the year and yet many people seem perfectly happy to consume heavily processed, bland tasting, food. Every household owns a fridge and everyone has practically 24 hour access to a shop and yet we buy products packed with preservatives and chemicals to make them last longer. Natural flavours are replaced by the industrial use of sugar, salt and artificial ‘enhancers’ and far too much of it is deep fried in tasteless oil you could use to fuel your car.
The ‘national diet’ in the UK is terrible and diseases like obesity, diabetes and cancer are out of control. Our very concept of what food is needs to be urgently redefined, reframed and reformed.
We hold many concepts in our brains that we are constantly evoking in an attempt to predict what is going to happen next and to try to make sure we are ready for and, most importantly, that we survive it. A concept is basically our idea of what something is. When I say that we hold these ideas in our brains it isn’t that they are fixed necessarily. Our concept for a chair is largely going to involve us sitting down in it but occasionally we are going to use the chair as a ladder or a weapon depending on the circumstances. Our brains will categorise the concept as it arises and then simulate what is likely to happen next. These predictions are then tested against other sensory input – is there a fight going on – and if it is incorrect we will try another until we hit upon what we think is the correct assessment of the situation. If we are affected by the scenario – risk of getting punched perhaps – then we will construct an emotional response according to our goal – fear or anger perhaps – and act according to that, flight or fight. The other significant aspect to this constructionist view of how our brains work is in how well our response will fit into our cultural understanding – is everyone else fighting or sitting down? – the social realism inherent in every scenario. The single most important activity our brains are engaged in is managing what is described as our body budget. Through a series of signals our interoceptive network is passing messages around to ensure that our organs are doing what they should and that life’s vital necessities are getting addressed. Put simply, is there sufficient oxygen in blood, good flow of blood when needed and the expulsion of that which we don’t need or might be harmful. Central to the management of your body budget is fuel, in our case that means food.
I have a friend for whom, in most of his life, food was purely fuel. He would eat the same meal every day for lunch in the works canteen. If we were every away together on business, in the hotel restaurant he would have steak, it was the only thing off the menu that he liked (he has subsequently become a vegetarian and I often remind him of his early omnivorous days). If we ever went to a ‘fancy’ sandwich place where you could choose what bread to have and which fillings to go inside he would flip, this took him so far out of his comfort zone. There was no other concept in his head as to what food was for and he had a very limited diet in terms of what he considered was food at all. If you compare that to a chef or a food writer then you might be forgiven for believing they were actually referring to completely different things. That is because they are. Food as fuel is not the same as food as pleasure or enjoyment, yet they are essentially the same thing. Or are they?
One of the biggest advantages humans have over other species of mammal, over all non-human life, is in our use of language. Because we have words for things we can convey concepts to one another or to ourselves without the need for an actual ‘thing’ to be there. If I say the word ‘chair’ then you are perfectly able to picture one and, given the context of your thought or our conversation, this will be the specific concept of chair that I intended. Moreover, it doesn’t actually have to be a thing at all. If I say I am angry then immediately you will picture my rage because you have experience of the concept of that emotion. You won’t know what has caused me to feel this way, you don’t need to in order to understand me. The word ‘angry’ is quite a generic term that encompasses a broad spectrum of feeling ranging from mild vexation all the way over to seething rage and it would be more helpful, if I want you to understand my emotional state, for me to use a concept that more accurately describes my mood. Hence, the more concepts I have – the more words I know – the better we are able to understand one another and communicate together.
In the same way, the more concepts we have for what food is the richer our experience is likely to be. When I was growing up I had a very limited diet but that didn’t concern me because I had an equally limited number of food concepts. I couldn’t miss pasta because I didn’t know about it. My friend was aware of other foods but considered them to be outside of his narrow definition of food and fuel. I had my conceptual range limited for me whereas he had imposed the restrictions on himself but the net effect was the same.
The title of this essay is a reference to part of a routine by the British stand-up comedian Peter Kay. The set up is a depiction of an English holiday maker encountering new food whilst on holiday in Spain. In the past, holidays would have been the predominant way in which one might encounter food concepts that were outside our experience and the climax of this routine by Kay is someone’s reaction to their discovery of garlic bread. Kay repeats the words but separates them to convey how the two concepts are separated in his brain. The concept of putting garlic and bread, both easily understood on their own, together is something he amusingly struggles to get his head around. This resonates so well because we have all had moments like this. I was in Belfast a few years ago and the first time I came across something called ‘Cheesy Naan’ was a moment of just such a revelation. I know and like cheese and I am partial to the Indian staple of Naan bread but I had never combined the two conceptually (it takes great by the way but gave me terrible indigestion). I would be hard pressed to suggest that this culinary carbuncle had somehow changed my life, or even my diet, but it did expand my understanding of what could be eaten with what and that would allow my brain to perhaps create its own conceptual combinations that could have a transformative effect on me and the way I live my life.
And so, my suggestion here is that we should all basically try something new for tea one night. This might be a previously unheard of foodstuff that you liked the look of when you were in the international aisle of the supermarket or it could be a combination of familiar food items that you had not thought of putting together before. If you predominantly eat meat go veggie and vice-versa. You might like it, you might not but you will have learned something along the way and your life is always richer when that happens.