Why We Eat the Way We Do

If it isn’t clear already, I’ve developed an obsession with food this year. That obsession is great for cultivating a sense of adventurousness in my cooking, but not so great for my waistline. For the past ten years, I’ve had periods of life where I have been too aware of precisely what I’m eating and other periods where I’m not paying enough attention to what I’m eating. I’ve eaten through stressful periods, not eaten through breakups and surgeries, and through it all, I’ve ridden the roller coaster of indulgence and self-condemnation.

In the past few weeks, my inclination toward food has been present in the books I’ve read. I’ve already mentioned Julia Child’s My Life in France and the cookbook Super Salads  but I haven’t told you about two other books that I think are absolutely phenomenal. I just finished reading one last night after two weeks, including the week off in Texas. This book is another one that I found while scanning the shelves during my weekly volunteer shift at the library. Written by Sallie Tisdale and published in 2000, The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food is part memoir, part cultural commentary, part history of eating. Tisdale uses examples like the development of milling and the marketing power that made white flour a coveted item (due to its purity, obviously), and the creation of the microwave as a gateway for all kind of instant meals to talk about how our relationship to food has evolved over the centuries. From Joy of Cooking to Betty Crocker to Julia Child and James beard, Tisdale engages with some of the most prominent cooking books and personalities that emerged in the 20th century. She talks about her own experiences with Velveeta and miracle whip grilled cheese sandwiches as a child, and her teenage vegetarian and anti-establishment years. I loved hearing her ambivalence about food as she speaks of slow, decadent meals and quick trips to the drive-through, about how salt, fat, and sugar have been added to food over the years, and how backyard gardens have grown in popularity. Tisdale presents her readers with a lot to think about, and for this, I am grateful.

The other book that I’ve recently finished and greatly enjoyed is Mindless Eating:Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink, PhD. In it, Wansink point to many different experiments and tests that have been conducted to determine what external and internal processes encourage people to eat certain amounts of food. He throws in some obvious reasons people eat more– like the fact that you are more likely to have a second helping if everyone around you has one, or the fact that you will eat more if you put more food on your plate in the first place–but he also pulls in other factors that restaurants, marketers, and industry specialists know that you wouldn’t necessarily think about. He points out that restaurants who want you to eat quickly and make room for another set of guests will decorate their restaurant with bright colors and play upbeat music with a fast tempo. Conversely, restaurants that want you to buy a drink, appetizer, entree, and dessert will play slower music and have dimmed lighting as to encourage you to stick around long enough to purchase each of these elements of a meal. Wansink also talks about how the size of your serving dish can influence how much you eat, how individually doled out portions tend to cause you to eat less than one large container without pre-measured portions do, and how having a greater variety of options for what you’re eating (read: potluck, Superbowl party), will often result in a higher caloric consumption. It never ceases to amaze me how many tricks out minds, stomachs, and desires can play on us. Wansink ends each of his chapters with tips for people looking to be more mindful about their eating, and though his book also contains an ambivalence to food and eating patterns, it’s worth reading for people looking to see behind the portions on their plate.

Now, onward to Julie and Julia at last.