Like lots of us do when there’s an important essay to write, I am procrastinating. Well that’s what others will tell me I am doing. I like to think that I am actively engaged in some metacognitive activity, for while I am writing on an unrelated subject, I am also pondering on the ‘real’ one (the real one, by the way, is the write-up of the research I’ve been doing). The topic here is food. A fellow Tweeter described her offspring’s eating habits as ‘self-imposed’ and while I understand her point, I am inclined to disagree.
Somewhere back in the late 70’s, our class teacher wrote a load of different types of food on the board and divided it in two. On the one side, there was traditional ‘British’ food – the meat-and-two-veg kind of stuff, along with fish & chips, burgers, sausages etc. On the other side of the board was fish, pasta, fruit, nuts, pulses etc. We were asked who ate mainly from each side. Only one person failed to raise their hand to the ‘British’ fare – me. Later, I did an ‘O’ level in Food and Nutrition. We learned all about the food groups, what they do and how to balance a diet. We didn’t do the types of topics seen in modern exams, we did more chemistry/biology in the theory lessons and did ‘real’ cooking in the practical. We researched menu, bought the ingredients and cooked. No ‘tin of this’ or ‘ready cooked that’ – or even – just bring in £X to pay for school-supplied ingredients for school-supplied menus.
I learned that we needed protein for muscle and cell repair, carbohydrates for energy and an array of micronutrients for things to work well. Back then, there were no leaflets given out, no Eatwell plate to copy. We had a book. A big book. The book contained recommended doses of X & Y to create the optimum diet, both on the macro and the micro level, which foods they were found in and in what quantities. Looking back, we learned some tough stuff! I took away with me some important information. Too little protein and we become weak, our bodies won’t self-repair. The body burns carbs to fuel itself, too little and not only will you not have energy, your brain will start to get confused. Too much and your body will not burn surpluses in its fat stores, so you will put on weight. Fat stores are our safety net, our rocket-boosters for when we find ourselves being chased by a lion, or for pregnancy. Women store a little more around their waist/hips/thighs just for that job!
More recently I’ve been amused by the talk on the news that ‘fat isn’t bad for you’ and ‘eating too much carb’ makes you fat. Hmmm. I had this discussion with a chemist in a spa pool at the local gym some 10yrs ago. She didn’t follow, she said she had a PhD. I was confused – I learned this stuff doing an ‘O’ Level in the dying age of Glam Rock and the advent of the Punk one……. Why is it only now that it’s news?
So, back to food. I am informed. I know what it all does and why. I love reading those magazines at Christmas with their glorious pictures of ‘the big dinner’. I get excited. I plan the menu. I don’t eat it. I never eat it. I don’t like it. And there it is, the elephant in the room. Is it self-imposed though? I have no memories of eating ‘normally’, even though I have some fairly strong memories spanning back to about 3yrs of age. I’m smiling – my dad grew some peas at the bottom of the garden, just in front of the shed. I’m not sure he saw the fruits of his work because I couldn’t help popping a pod here and a pod there. I love raw peas, I like mushy peas, I hate frozen, tinned or otherwise cooked peas (don’t ask me why I like mushy ones!). I like other raw veggies, such as carrots and cauliflower. I hate cooked veggies (except potatoes). I discovered I like raw cabbage in my teens – the usual night out then everyone went for a kebab….
Back in middle school, our dinner ladies used to serve us our food to us at the table, but dessert was a big bowl of something plonked in the middle of our table, which we served ourselves. More often or not it was a milky pud, such as sago or semolina which was ignored by most of my peers – bliss. I got to pig out! The only thing I didn’t eat was chocolate flavoured blancmange. I don’t like chocolate cake either, yet I like chocolate.
I have, for as long as I can remember, a very uneasy relationship with food. Not food in general, just certain types of food. I’m not sure I can fully explain this, but for those whose children are ‘picky eaters’, I’ll have a go.
When we eat, we don’t just eat food, we eat flavours and textures. We eat with our eyes, ears and noses. We see it, we hear it coming, we smell it. Restaurants have popped up which serve you in pitch darkness, the experience is changed. Wine tastings have been done to music, the same wine but the taste is changed. We know that serving food on smaller plates leave you feeling fuller than the same portion on a bigger plate. Like cats hearing the biscuits being shook, we start to anticipate. Dogs salivate on the opening of the tin. We salivate to get the gastric juices ready to receive the meal. What happens when you don’t get the cue? When your mouth doesn’t water when you hear the pans go on, or smell the food cooking, or see the meal in front of you? What happens when the food tastes like battery acid or smells bad? Will you salivate then?
I have become aware of the fact that what I am tasting is somewhat different to what others taste – even when eating in front of the TV, when people generally stop tasting what they’re eating and just shovel it in anyway. There’s appears to be a taste-bypass for many, because they’ve already ‘eaten’ the taste when they smelled the food before arrival? I drink my coffee black usually, without sugar. I gave up sugar in the shortage of ‘74. I can taste if the spoon used to stir my coffee was used in a cup with sugar in it first. Many foods ‘leak’, especially celery, onion and peppers. You can’t simply remove the offending item from the meal because it has touched other foods and ‘leaked’ its flavour. ‘But it’s not even touching it’ is something I’ve heard so many times, but you used the same knife, the same chopping board didn’t you? Like the spoon you used to stir my coffee. ‘But you’ve never tasted it’ is another cry. No, but I smelled it. I could smell it cooking, I could taste it cooking. Can you taste it in the air? Can you taste the heady perfume of the lady walking ahead of you? Can you taste the smoke when passing the pub? I don’t need to put foods to my lips to taste it. I can taste it in the air.
Then there’s the texture. The thought of texture is new to me, something that was suggested on Twitter. I like crunch, I like foods that make my jaw work. I also like to eat slowly, I savour each mouthful. I’m inclined to eat breakfast and dessert with a teaspoon. Even cake, nice small mouthfuls at a time. I like flavour too. I like herbs and spices, lemon and grapefruit. While ‘normal’ people are salivating over the cake counter at the sticky buns on offer, or the deli counter at the cooking meats or ready-to-go meals, I can be found in the fruit & veg section. What fruits are there? What’s in season? Is there something I haven’t tried? What about nuts? How much are they? Should I have a tomato pasta for dinner? Maybe some Lemon Sole goujons over a salad with some walnuts and sour dough rolls, maybe a touch of homemade sweet chilli sauce?
It’s not that I don’t like food. It’s not that I’m in some kind of self-exile (except chicken, I choose not to eat chicken) or following a fad (I am actually both allergic & intolerant of milk). It’s like what my high school teacher did. I just don’t like your side of the board.