Monday, November 11, 2019

On the Coffee Table: First Bite

Title: First Bite: How We Learn to Eat
Author: Bee Wilson
Image result for first bite bee wilson
via Goodreads

First Bite explores how we acquire our eating habits, mostly as children but also as adults.  I didn't plan it this way but it's a really good book for me to be reading now as I have been putting a great deal of thought into my own consumption recently.  There's a lot of ground to cover so let's get cracking...

Taste test - My wife is a supertaster.  I am a non-taster.  That doesn't mean I don't taste food.  Rather, it means I am not as sensitive to certain flavors, particularly bitter, as she is.  There's a test you can take and as part of her job, not only did she get to take it but she was also able to bring the tasting strips home for me.  Anatomically, what it means is that she has more taste receptors per surface area on her tongue than I do, much as those who are color blind have fewer cones in their eyes than those who are not.  Simply put, we taste food differently from each other and that explains a lot about our preferences.

Interestingly, what it could mean, at least according to Wilson, is that she should be a pickier eater than I am.  If more food tastes more bitter and bitterness is a turn off for most people, she should be less enthusiastic about a lot of food than she is.  In reality, I am the pickier eater.  In particular, this difference between us has interesting implications regarding wine, an example of a food that likely tastes a lot more bitter to her than it does for me.  Yet, she is definitely more enthusiastic about wine than I.  On the other hand, it does provide insight into our beer preferences.  I like it hoppy, which implies higher bitterness.  She likes the sweeter and more floral varieties, like a gose.

Sibling rivalry - Once past physiology, Wilson covers the many ways in which our families influence our food habits: our parents, certainly, but also, interestingly, our siblings.   My sister and I would drive our parents crazy.  She liked spaghetti and hated pizza.  I loved pizza and hated spaghetti.  She would only eat the flowers of the broccoli.  I would only eat the stalks.  Typical, right?  We both grew out of this fortunately but apparently a lot of people don't, such childish squabbles influencing their tastes for life.  According to Wilson, it has more to do with our rivalry with each other than any sort of deliberate power play with our parents.  My sister and I get along better now in general, too.  Perhaps that's not a coincidence!

Wilson also addresses the food "preferences" we generally impose on kids as they enter adolescence and how that breaks down by gender.  Girls eat less protein and boys fewer veggies at the very biological moment when both should be doing the exact opposite.

The power of soup - As I rethink my meals in general, I am in search of foods that will help me feel fuller longer.  Wilson suggests soup.  Apparently the Campbell's commercials are right and the stuff truly is magic!  It's the warm liquid that casts the spell.  Soup doesn't have more calories than other food - in fact, it often has less - but the brain registers the stuff as more filling.  According to Wilson.  I'm not actually sure it's true for me - might be a worthy experiment anyway.

Eating disorders - My high school girlfriend was bulimic.  We had an unusual relationship after we broke up in that we genuinely became friends after the dust settled - good friends.  I learned from her the importance of having one person in your life who isn't afraid to be completely honest with you.  Things were never going to work out for us long term but her friendship has always remained important to me.

About a year after I left for college, I got a letter from her telling me about her eating disorder.  I was shocked.  I always saw her as so stunningly beautiful that I couldn't imagine self image being a self-destructive concept in her life.  A couple years later, she called me from a treatment center, just wanting to hear a friendly voice.  The revelation changed every assumption I ever had about women, body concept and food.  Yes, I know men have eating disorders, too, but bulimia sufferers are overwhelmingly female.  I still feel the shockwaves in my parenting, breathing a sigh of relief when my daughter gave up ballet in favor of music and steering away from sports where one has to make weight or where delayed puberty is prized.  I panic a little whenever her generally healthy habits exhibit any sort of change.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Wilson asserts that parenting has very little to do with it except in cases of abuse or neglect.  In hindsight, I'm grateful my girlfriend wasn't anorexic.  Both the recovery and survival rates are much higher for bulimia.

Wilson goes beyond the usual suspects of anorexia, bulimia and overeating.  Disordered eating comes in many forms, including those who are disastrously picky to the point of starving themselves.  Disorders correlate with other issues: depression, anxiety and, surprisingly to me, autism.

Japan - Looking back over posts, I have written about Japanese cuisine quite a lot.  Whether or not I would claim it as my favorite - Thai food is in close contention - there is no denying the impact Japanese food has had on my life, from birth onward.  Wilson, as many food writers do, presents Japanese food culture as an ideal: low fat, moderate, balanced.  However, she brings a new perspective for me:  Japanese cuisine as known to the world has not existed in its current form for very long.  In fact, during the first half of the 20th century, much of the population lived on the brink of starvation.  Things now seen as staples - ramen, tempura, curry rice - only became popular and accessible after the War.  Sushi and sashimi were delicacies exclusive to the well to do.

Wilson's real point with Japan is that entire cultures can change for the better when there is collective will to do so.  While it may seem we are trapped in our current habits, either individual or societal, there is hope.

Sapere - Speaking of personal habits, there is still a bit of the picky eater in me.  I'm a lot more open than I was as a child but there are still blocks.  Wilson offers Sapere, a tasting program designed in France, naturally, and implemented in Finland, naturally, as standard curriculum in early childhood education.  The goal is to increase the number of things a person is willing to eat.  The process has shown some promise with adults, too.  For me, it might be a good way to tackle beans.  I'm not big on legumes.  One adjustment I should probably make to my own diet is eating less meat, or even occasionally none.  I have no desire to go completely veg but I know I should be more open to veg dishes.  Liking beans more would help.

My apologies.  That was a bit of a notebook dump.  Thanks for sticking with me if you made it to the end.  Obviously, First Bite has given me a lot to think about.  You should read it, too.


  1. I'm going to add this to my list.
    My younger son is a super taster, which he gets from me, but, for us, it has to do with having more sensitive noses. Maybe there's a separate word for that, but I've always seen it referred to as being a super taster.
    Anyway... I could say a lot, here, but it might end up being longer than your post.

    1. You're most welcome to do so!

      Yup, the olfactory nerve connects taste and smell. Interestingly, my wife is also more sensitive to smells than I am.

  2. Very interesting article, the power of broccoli soup has been a total game changer for me because I have tinnitus. When you walk into a restaurant and order food, thats great.. but theres no way to tell what else ends up in the soup I make my own brew and sleep soundly at night.

    1. You've definitely piqued my curiosity. Please explain, what is the connection between the soup and the tinnitus? Does it have to do with the sound of swallowing?

  3. interesting article....we love soup, vegetable soup, include Brocolli

    1. I have to admit, I'm not big on vegetable soups. Generally, I do alright with veggies but I prefer them raw - perhaps another area of potential growth for me!