Lionel Shriver, Big Brother
Back in December I read Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, an excellent and thought-provoking novel, which left me feeling uncomfortable. At some point in the book Shriver addressed our society’s obsession with food to the point where we seem to have forgotten how to enjoy ourselves unless every leisure activity is accompanied by a meal or a snack. I remember closing my Kindle and biting my lip in recognition. It was as if the author was talking to me, nibbling on fried plantains as I was reading.
It’s impossible to miss out on food becoming a cult in what is commonly referred to as ‘the first world’. Imagine going to the cinema without buying popcorn, strolling in the park on a hot summer day without getting an ice cream, flying on a plane and not tucking into the frequently dreadful tray of food, looking up your Instagram feed without encountering dozens of pictures of elaborately presented food bowls… More often than not we meet friends for a drink, for dinner, for brunch, as if going for a walk or meeting at an art gallery is so much more complicated. Meanwhile, popular media bombard us with “then best burger joints in London” and the pressure to check them out seems irresistible. The new cohort of rich kids are teaching us how to 'eat clean’, insisting on medjool dates, raw cacao and gluten-free oats, which cost a small fortune, but the holy message sends hundreds of thousands of health fanatics on a weekly pilgrimage to Whole Foods.
Of course, the reason that it took me six months to write about obsession with food is because I am food’s biggest fan. I live to eat. A couple of weeks ago in Greece I bought an olive tree board to treat my breakfast creations on Instagram to a new look. I often cook for friends at home, I love eating out, I drool over cookbooks and food magazines, I go to farmers’ markets and take more pictures of food than of my friends and family. I watch Masterchef and the Great British Bake-Off, invariably nibbling on something, usually unhealthy. When I travel, my greatest delight is sampling local food like wilted fern in Bhutan, grilled octopus in Croatia or arepas in Colombia. Appreciating foreign food culture is one thing, but being unable to resist Italian gelato I have ‘sampled' on many occasions is another.
Food is such an essential part of our culture, no childhood memory is vivid without nan’s pies or mum’s pancakes. Everyone who loves to cook knows how wonderfully satisfying and therapeutic it can be. People like me call ourselves foodies with pride, and like any community, appreciation of cavolo nero, z'atar and salt caramel gives us a sense of belonging. An excellent meal can give so much pleasure but if we are honest with ourselves, that sensation does not last. “More concept than substance, food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself, which is why diet can exert the sway of religion or political zealotry. Not irresistible tastiness but the very failure of food to reward is what drives us to eat more of it”, writes Shriver.
Snacking when reading or watching TV, travelling on a train, feeling stressed or bored are things too embarrassing to mention but now that I’ve done it, perhaps I am finally ready to do something about it. For personal health reasons I recently gave up all sugar, coffee and alcohol for a while, which has suddenly restricted my “meet me for a drink or a coffee” options. At home my diet hasn’t changed dramatically but I am no longer baking gluten-free cakes to comfort myself on a rainy day. I am going to try to be more creative when it comes to meeting friends: a pub quiz, a new exhibition, a country walk, a live gig in Camden. I won’t ever stop loving food and there is no need to bounce to the opposite extreme (some people eat the same cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner - believe it or not!), but I’d like my relationship with food to become … less intense.This probably means giving #foodporn on Instagram a rest.
In the afternoon after I'd written this I met a friend in Highbury Fields. We have been barely walking for ten minutes when the conversation turned to food. Before I could stop myself I was recommending my friend looking up The Art of Eating Well by Hemsley and Hemsley, my favourite ‘healthy’ cookbook and then I made a conscious effort to turn the conversation elsewhere. Like with anything else, shift does not happen overnight, but good intentions count.
Next time you are arranging to meet a friend, suggest going for a walk. Conversations have a special flow to them when you are walking or sitting side-by-side with your companion. Intimate or difficult things are easier to share when you are not forced to meet someone else’s eye.