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First Bite – Food, Family & More

First BiteI have always liked eating. As I child, my mother channeled my interest in food into cooking. “If you want to eat well, learn to cook.” The years, happily, have been good to my palate. I’ve often been able to cook and eat well. I greatly enjoy restaurants, and that, with a little travel, makes for enjoyable and adventurous eating.

My thinking about food changed when I became a parent. “What should the children eat?” and how much of it quickly became an ongoing topic of discussion and inquiry. Pediatricians recommend more of this and less of that. Books make things harder as warnings abound. Too much sugar! More vegetables! Watch out for genetically modified foods, chemicals, and certain kinds of fats. My wife and talked with other parents and no one ever seemed to have it sorted out.

Adding stress to it all, what parent doesn’t encounter family eating as a high stakes endeavor? One would hope for a family meal with love, great conversation and nutrition. Instead, it is often power politics at its worse: negotiation, ultimatums, and a seesaw bouncing from indulgence to punishment simply through the addition of a wrong side dish to the table. Or maybe the wrong foods touch each other. We cook, we serve, plead, argue, and hope for the best.

What happened? What’s so difficult about figuring out what to feed one’s family?

There are a slew of books and studies about the changing nature of the food industry. We now know a lot about how things are raised, grown, processed, packaged and marketed. We have learned much on the scientific front, too, from what is a healthy diet to how lead a more healthy lifestyle. All is to the good. What remains, though, are difficult questions about why we eat what we do.

Bee Wilson, a well-known food writer, tackles these questions in First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. It’s a rigorously researched study into how humans learn to eat, something I had never given much consideration. I thought that each of us is born with individual preferences. Some like salty foods, for example, and others have a “sweet tooth.” Turns out it that taste and diet do not work that way at all. Yes, biology does matter and for some people, it plays a large role in what one likes and eats. For most humans, however, tastes are learned.

We start to develop tastes while still in the womb. A pregnant woman’s diet has an impact on her child. From our first foods as babies – breast milk or formula – our brains and bodies create complicated rules and relationships with our food. That dynamic continues through childhood. Wilson explains how this works. Food is hard-wired into emotions, memories, understanding and preferences. What makes First Bite special is that Wilson expands this to show how we can teach ourselves and others how to eat differently. We are much more in charge of our palate than I ever thought.

Wilson is neither scold nor food dictator. She has strong opinions, but even her advice is offered as “not advice.” Wilson knows that our relationship with what we eat and how we eat is personal and powerful. She cares and gives stories of adults who are held hostage by their food likes and dislikes, fussy eaters who have been unable or unwilling to graduate to a broader and healthier diet. She is eminently reasonable and moderate. Birthday cake is a lovely treat and for most children, will create with its sweetness happy associations. But we do not have to eat birthday cake everyday. Nor do we necessarily birthday cake flavored ice cream or frozen yogurt.

The example is telling. Food companies are effective at promoting the strong tastes of childhood and marketing them to adults. The consequence is that many adults today eat as a spoiled child might. They simply have never developed mature tastes for wide range of healthy foods. If we are to have a healthy society, they tastes and diet will have to grow up. Counselors and therapists are helping adults and children make this important transition.

First Bite is a considerate and thoughtful book. It has made me reconsider my own food likes and dislikes, as well as what we regularly serve at the family table. Now if only she had written it when the kids were toddlers . . . .

David Potash

Yes Sir, Chef

Marcus Samuelson’s memoir, Yes, Chef, is a tough and unsentimental book that carries with it an unexpectedly emotional punch. Born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden, and then a wildly successful chef, Samuelson is famous for who he is and what he has done. His story has appeal. It to speaks to opportunity and advancement, fitting within a comfortable western middle class narrative. But that is not really his story.Yes, Chef

Samuelson steadfastly resists simple narrative arcs. He does not present his life as rags-to-riches, or as a testament and example of the benefits of hard work. He is appreciative of where he is now, to be sure, but the memoir is not a work of gratitude. Samuelson’s book is a critical look at self and personal history. Although he is not a particularly self-reflective man – he tells us how he repeatedly bottles up deeper emotions – Samuelson challenges himself in this very engaging work. He challenges the reader, too.

Driven and extraordinarily competitive, Samuelson’s personal journey began when his mother, dying of tuberculosis, walked for 75 miles to deliver him (then named Kassahun Tsegie) and his sister to medical care. As child in Sweden he desperately wanted to be a professional soccer player, and it was only after he was cut did he turn to cooking. All his energy and passion turned to food; he was, and remains, obsessed. He writes of food and its preparation with enthusiasm that leaps from the page.

Samuelson’s commitment to his career was not without cost. It prevented him from maintaining a close relationship with both of his adopted parents and from developing a meaningful relationship with a child he fathered. With ever greater successes, particularly at Aquavit, ,an extremely successful high-end Swedish restaurant in New York City, came more work. It was only after the success that he was able to work for himself, enabling the possibility of this book and a return to his past. Samuelson takes a tough look at his choices. He also stakes out a claim for trying to become a more complete person. He possesses a very powerful fundamental human decency.

That same integrity shapes Samuelson’s many descriptions of how his race has shaped his life. The book is not a polemic or an airing of grievances, yet it conveys – with directness and clarity – the insidious ways in which he was not seen, listened to or respected. A triple-outsider, Samuelson is aware that his search for identity will never resolve. His past will always be, in many ways, inaccessible. The memoir is a powerful way that he can assert his own identity and change the expectations of others.

Samuelson’s current restaurant, Red Rooster, is in Harlem and “celebrates the origins of American food.” Samuelson found an appropriate location, and it is close to his home, too. I finished the book looking forward to a visit and possibly some of Helga’s meatballs – delicious and prepared with thought and care, I’m sure.

David Potash

Gotham Locavores Rejoice

Robin Shulman’s Eat the City is a cheerful account of the idiosyncratic passions that allow for the making of food in New York City. Lightly mixing history with contemporary interviews, Shulman makes it clear that the city has always been a place where some make, find, grow or catch their food. Further, while many of us no longer thing of New York City as no longer playing that role, it is.

Broken into chapters by food group – bees and honey, meat, wine, sugar, vegetables, fish and beer – the books nimbly covers the geography and history of the city. Shulman is more interested in people and tastes than production or society. Restaurants rarely rate a mention and it is mighty difficult to find a recipe in the pages. It is difficult to tell is Shulman is motivated by curiosity or a deeper love of food. I would have wished for the latter, even at a price of her professionalism. Her subjects all display a singular passion for their pursuits, be they ale or smoked pig from a Queens farm.

The book’s structure reflects the long shadows of John McPhee, for narrative description, and Michael Pollan, for argumentation and structure. But this is no polemic. Shulman’s text is grounded in close observation. A practicing journalist who has spent extensive time overseas, Shulman has an eye for detail. Implicit in the work is an ideological agenda, however, these people are doing something important and interesting. But that raises questions. Are the locavores merely characters? Hipsters?  Or do they represent something larger or something more important?  I would argue that they do, but Shulman shies away from bigger arguments. She could have – but reading this one has the sense that she never really settled down with a clear of idea of what she wanted the book to say.

It is, however, a tasty read – particularly the chapters on bees and meat. And a welcome addition to the study of the world’s most interesting city.

Tasty Neuroscience, With a Dollop of Evolution and Anthropology, Please

Brain science is cool and getting cooler. Scientists from different disciplines are collaborating, researching, wiring brains up and proposing ever more provocative insights into how we think, why we think, and how we ended up the way we are. The pace of discovery is increasing and there’s every expectation that it will continue to amaze.

Within that ever-changing environment of what is known, suggested and considered, John S. Allen has written a solid book, The Omnivorous Mind. Accessible but not simple, the work grounds contemporary neuroscience with an anthropological understanding of evolution and change. Food is an important and relevant fulcrum for observation and argumentation. Eating is fundamental, yet carries with it so much more than basic biology. Allen uses the centrality of food as a framework for his book and to engage the reader. All in all, he is surprisingly effective at balancing tone, topic and narrative. It’s a fun read and imparts a sense of wonder and curiosity.

The book’s fundamental question is how do humans “think” food. We know how to obtain food, we know how to cook and to eat. What do we think about it all? And why? The ultimate answer that Allen proposes, a theory or network of food akin to a theory of the mind, is somewhat problematic. But that doesn’t discount the value of the journey. Allen enlightens on many subjects, from chimpanzee sex to the brain’s limbic system. He does so clearly, with a light but firm touch. It is a pleasure to read.

Starting off with an extensive discussion of “crispy” – which is different from “crunchy” – Allen sketches out linguistic, cultural, historical and anthropological frameworks for analysis. Crispy, for example, often carries with it cooked (a good thing for many reasons) or fresh (another good thing). Working more from a biological perspective next, Allen offers a high-level review of what the human body needs to eat and how it has gone about obtaining it. The senses figure prominently in this equation and they are part of what makes us want to eat more and more, and not necessarily wisely. Food decisions, too, are grounded in experience and memory. In fact, food memories may be more important than other kinds of memories as triggers. These memories and meanings, woven together, establish a food-view something akin to a world-view.

What this means in real life is that we think of some birds as food as some as not. Further, this distinctions exists across cultures and is not necessarily related to caloric output or taste. Whether we realize it or not, all potential “foods” are understood within categories of what is or is not good or tasty. These categories are richer, too, than what we think of as good or bad food, which are freighted with personal and cultural meaning.  Eaten any insects lately? Allen weaves these themes together in a discussion of how foods evolve, from the creativity of opportunity to the brilliance of chefs. His narrative here works less effectively as strays farther from the underpinnings of the book.

In building his conclusion, Allen goes deep into neuroscience and the approach begs the questions as to whether he is more interested in brain or mind. They need not stand in opposition, but it is clear that any theory of the mind has a profound impact on our thinking about any other systems, real or proposed.

My takeaway was not dissimilar from a tasty meal that doesn’t fill me up – really good fun but more is needed. I am very much looking forward to more works by Mr. Allen and more studies that render neuroscience digestible for the rest of us.