The night I finished reading Bee Wilson’s “The Way We Eat Now” I asked my youngest sons, James, 5, and Hugh, 7, a question I’ve often asked myself during lockdown: What would you have for dinner tonight if you could fly anywhere in the world from Islay?
After much consideration, they whittled down their choice to a top three:
- Sushi, at Sushi Joe’s near our old flat in Rome
- Chicken Korma, at Nawabs in Stirling
- McDonalds, from a drive-in
Growing up on another Hebridean island (Lewis), I’d never heard of any of those, far less tasted them. I was in my early 30s when I first had sushi. My first chicken korma was eaten in the old Shezan, in Rusholme, Manchester on my 18th birthday, in 1984. The city’s first McDonalds had only opened the year before. The food world my boys take for granted was still in nappies.
This is sort of what The Way We Eat Now is about, and why it’s so interesting. It’s the story of all our lives.
At seven, I’d never been in a restaurant, thought rice was exclusively for pudding and understood dinner to mean a meal eaten at lunch time, that involved potatoes and everyone coming home, from school or work.
At the same time I did know at that young age how good wild salmon tastes; my boys may never find out. I could gather mussels growing wild and abundantly on the shore at the bottom of our croft and knew how to wield a safety pin to tease a winkle from its shell. Sweets were no less delicious for being a once-a-week treat from the grocer’s van that came round on Wednesdays. Stornoway bakers sent out plain loaves, cream buns and soft rolls to die for three times a week and Prince Charles would have approved of the raw milk we had straight from our cow.
I wasn’t fazed by the fine bones of salt herring or fried ‘cuddies’ and I can’t remember not liking anything until I was nearly a teenager. I laughed when Wilson cited soggy leeks in white sauce as an example of the dreary British food we’ve left behind: Mum sometimes added (never soggy) leeks to her cauliflower in white sauce and I loved them.
And it wasn’t like we never had new things to try. Mum remembers us being very excited by the arrival of a machine for making toasties – panini as Hugh and James would call them.
A lockdown refugee from University, my eldest son cooked dinner the other night: jerk chicken with peas and rice, a Jamaican classic. The Empire strikes back, I began to think before recalling that some of the staples of my grandparents’ lives – tea and sugar, most notably – were also the product of our Imperial past.
And when I came to think about it, I was surprised by how much of the range of Scottish fare I was brought up on has survived. I don’t know how representative we are, but, in the MacKinnon family at least, home-cooked lentil soup and Scotch broth, beef stew and butcher’s steak pies, clootie dumpling, scones and fruit loaf have all survived to co-exist alongside the new competition from pasta and pizza, chillis and curries, fajitas and felafel, takeaways and ready meals.
Some things have fallen by the wayside. My Mum reminded me of two tinned staples we used to enjoy: Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie and corned beef, which was either served in cold slices or turned into stovies, mashed with onions and potatoes.
Others have been tweaked by time. When we make a sausage casserole these days, essential ingredients are thyme, chili and bay leaf – incomers that, like many of their human counterparts, struggle to endure the salt soakings of a Hebridean winter.
On Islay our bath is never full of the quartered carcasses of lambs, as the one on Lewis sometimes was. But we are fortunate in having easy access to local beef, lamb and venison and the means to treat ourselves to a cut of the crab, langoustines and lobster landed across the bay from us.
Vegetables are more problematic, taste and food miles wise. As I was writing this, my partner came in from shopping with news that there were no British-grown greens to be had. From late November until Spring, much of what we’ll be consuming to maintain our five-a-day will have been swaddled in plastic and flown from Kenya, Egypt, Guatamala and Peru into the south of England before being carried 500 miles by lorry and diesel-fuelled ferry to our local branches of the Coop.
It can seem a depressingly long way from the days of eating, in Mum’s words, “whatever Murdo had on his van”.
Yet, as Wilson argues in her book, it’s not all doom and gloom on this front. Like many others, lockdown 1.0 spurred us on to produce our own tomatoes and broccoli, expand our potato production and start taking better care of our apple trees, which kept us in juice till early November. We now make most or our own bread.
A young couple has started a market garden on the island and, until a few weeks ago, we were receiving a weekly box of their organic vegetables. I still find myself longing for the exotically shaped aubergines and the courgette flowers of the Mercato Trieste, our local covered market when we lived in Rome, but there are reasons to be cheerful, at least for people like us, with the money and skills to make the most of the brave new food world depicted and dissected in The Way We Eat Now.
The book made me appreciate how lucky I’ve been with food – served up tasty, healthy fare from infancy, learning to cook at an early age, living with and being friends with some great cooks, living around the world and mostly having enough money to maximise the eating pleasures life presented me with.
It made me reflect on another, less obvious, aspect of my good fortune – the fact that every home I’ve lived in has had a table at its heart.
Even the Toblerone-shaped self-catering blocks in which I began University in the 1980s were designed on the assumption that at least some of us would want to sit down together to eat our cornflakes, curries and kebabs.
Three decades later, when I helped my eldest son move into his own purpose-built student accommodation, I discovered assumptions had changed. In his shared digs there was a kitchen, a tiny breakfast bar and a communal sitting area around a wall-mounted television. But no dining table. I felt sad for him.
From Wilson, I learned there’s a word for what I feared would be missing from his student experience: “commensality“, literally the practice of eating at the same table.
As she writes, citing the food anthropologist Claude Fischler, this disappearing word embodies a culture that, for centuries, has provided “the fundamental human ‘script’ of eating in every society” – but now appears to be on its way out.
“Our loss of shared eating time has consequences,” Wilson writes. “This is not a plea to turn back the clock to a patriarchal dinner table where a mother cooks and a father keeps order. It’s about holding on to the principle that time to enjoy food remains a basic human need …”
Of that, I didn’t need convincing. Commensality was part of what drew me to journalism, an even bigger part of what drew me to France and Italy. Its joys were, for me, the best thing Hong Kong had to offer; its comforts and attendant duties helped me navigate a bereavement that left me a single father in my late thirties and the grief that followed.
Wilson’s discussion of the decline of the table’s place in modern eating begins with a review of a 1969 study of Japanese men who had emigrated to the San Francisco bay area. Researchers found the 4,000 men they tracked had significantly worse heart health than their peers who stayed at home. Why? While the obvious answer might seem to be ‘burgers and fries instead of raw fish and greens’, closer examination of the study group revealed that a much more important factor was the degree to which the men had retained a traditional Japanese approach to life.
A key element of this was treating mealtimes as a section of the day dedicated to rest, togetherness and the mindfulness that comes with showing respect for what you are putting into your body. Even if they had adopted a Happy Days diet, the study concluded that consuming it in Japanese fashion appeared to provide protection against its worst consequences.
This is just one example of how Wilson grinds down complex academic studies into an entertaining, highly readable narrative that sets out to answer an important question: how did our globalised economic system unleash the powerful, often invisible, forces that have reshaped what gets onto almost every plate on the planet on an unprecedented scale and at an unprecedented pace.
It’d be easy for a complex undertaking like this to veer towards the dry. Wilson avoids that thanks to her eye for the amusing backstories behind many a food fad and her willingness to season her text with glimpses of her personal relationship to food.
Of the recent trend for home-delivered meal ingredient packs, she writes: “Happiness for me is a chopping board, a sharp knife and a lemon. But trying out meal kits revealed to me that my feelings about being the cook of he household were more ambivalent than I had realised. I found myself unexpectedly crying at the kitchen counter when I recognised that, for once, I was not the one responsible for deciding what we would eat for dinner ….”
She recalls her time as an overweight teenager when the prevailing – now discredited – public health advice meant she “feared fat more than carbohydrates” and resulted in her eschewing the likes of salad dressing and butter in public, while comfort eating biscuits and peanut butter in private “as if my life depended on it.”
Much of the story of modern food is deeply depressing but Wilson’s account simmers to an optimistic conclusion: “Here is the consolation of eating in these strange times: the best of it is better than anything that came before and the worst of it won’t stay the same forever.”
On the societal front, I’m not so sure about that. The example set by the city of Amsterdam (reviewed in the book) shows how much can be achieved in a short-time frame when political leaders get serious about tackling obesity, yet still Scotland dithers and dallies on the issue.
On the homefront, I agree. Our boys are happy and healthy having Islay lamb stew one night, sushi or fajitas the next. Who would want to go back to a life without lemongrass?