Learning How To Eat

9780007549702When an author of Bee Wilson’s stature publishes it is not surprising to see reviews in the news outlets that we tend to source from in these pages. For the book to the right the first we saw was How Do We Get To Love At ‘First Bite’? on National Public Radio (USA), followed by reviews in the New York Times and the Guardian among others. We had even read the publisher’s blurb:

The way we learn to eat holds the key to why food has gone so disastrously wrong for so many people. But Bee Wilson also shows that both adults and children have immense potential for learning new, healthy eating habits. An exploration of the extraordinary and surprising origins of our taste and eating habits, First Bite explains how we can change our palates to lead healthier, happier lives.

But we had not gotten around to linking out to any of these reviews. Better late than never:


By Nicola Twilley

Until the twentieth century, Japanese food was often neither delicious nor nourishing. Junichi Saga, a Japanese doctor who chronicled the memories of elderly villagers from just outside Tokyo, in the nineteen-seventies, found that, in the early years of the century, most families scraped by on a mixture of rice and barley, accompanied by small quantities of radish leaves, pickles, or miso. Animal protein was almost entirely absent in the Buddhist country, and even fish, as one of Saga’s informants recalled, was limited to “one salted salmon,” bought for the New Year’s celebrations, “though only after an awful fuss.”

It wasn’t until after the Second World War, with the arrival of American food aid as well as new fishing and storage technologies, that Japanese cuisine became varied in both seasoning and substance. In the course of the twentieth century, consumption of grains in Japan fell by almost half, replaced by eggs, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and, most of all, fish. These new influences were incorporated into Japanese cuisine, adapted to fit traditional ideas about portion size and meal structure as well as traditional tastes for miso, soy, and pickled and fermented vegetables. By the nineteen-seventies, the country’s food culture had been utterly transformed. Today, Japan is one of the most food-obsessed countries in the world—the first perfect watermelon of the season sells at auction for more than two thousand dollars, and gourmet manga top best-seller lists—and yet it also has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the world.

In her new book “First Bite,” an exploration of how individuals and cultures learn to eat, for better and for worse, the British food historian Bee Wilson cites Japan’s culinary history as an example of how dietary improvements can take place on a national scale. The lesson to draw from the Japanese, she argues, is not that the West must move to a sushi-based diet to tackle its obesity pandemic, no matter how delicious that sounds. Instead, Japan is an example of how eating habits, far from being “inevitable or innate,” can evolve remarkably quickly, even in places where healthy practices are lacking. “We often convince ourselves that there is something vital within us that prevents us from ever eating differently,” Wilson writes. But “if the Japanese can change, why can’t we?”…

Read the whole review here.

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