Joylessness is one of the prime engines of Wilson’s new book, which sets out to examine all the ways in which, in a world of seeming abundance and choice, our food is becoming degraded to the point where it makes us ill – and to unpick our current strategies for coping with this toxic environment... But such things have already been widely written about. Wilson, a food writer whose appetite for research seems to know no bounds, is much better when she is on more surprising territory, ground that remains invisible to most of us and, by being so, is all the harder to navigate, let alone evade... A much bigger problem, though, is that books like this preach only to the converted. Nobody who disagrees with the essence of what she has to say is likely to pick it up – and even those who are on her side, as I broadly am, cannot read her in isolation.
All this data might easily have been overwhelming, but there is not a moment in the book where you feel like you are drowning in information. The facts and figures are woven seamlessly into the narrative. Wilson writes with such clarity and grace that the chapters slip by like the courses of a delicious tasting menu. I devoured the book in a single sitting and immediately set about researching arcane vegetable varieties to grow.
By the final pages, in which Wilson offers some simple solutions for improving the ways we eat, such as using the crockery of our grandparents in order to reduce portion sizes, what emerges most clearly is how far food has come to divide us.
Above all, I find myself returning to how thoughtful it is. It may sound a little insipid or lukewarm to term a book ‘thoughtful’, particularly one which is scientific and sociological in approach, but I mean it as the highest compliment. It is this thoughtfulness that gives Wilson the empathy which makes her book so engaging, and allows it to end optimistically, looking at the successes seen in other countries and pointing to the future as one in which our eating habits have the potential to change for the better.
The Way We Eat Now, Strategies for Eating in a World of Change is the British food writer’s sixth book, and her most ambitious... Wilson is hopeful for a future where the arc bends back in a healthier direction. For this reader the glaring gap in the book is the question of whether humans can get to that utopian stage five before the plenty is reversed by climate change, much of it caused by vast food systems marching across the globe. Wilson has stories of hope from Chile and Amsterdam where political action has had positive effects on public health. Collective human action is needed to bend the arc.
Encouragingly, Wilson is an optimist. She argues convincingly that it is possible to reverse the damage to our modern eating habits through government intervention and a little reorganising of agriculture. There are already signs that diets are picking up, with sales of raw ingredients on the rise. Innovative solutions to nudge us into eating better are also on their way. Take the honeynut squash. In America, squash was typically laced with syrup or oil — anything to make up for its blandness — until the arrival of a shrunken variety that has a wonderfully concentrated taste. Now the honeynut is sold by the million. If that’s a sign of things to come, there is much to look forward to.
If readers are hoping for an easily digestible snapshot of our relationship with food, they will be disappointed. As the extensive bibliography and list of references at the back demonstrates, this is more of a scholarly work and you have to put in the hours to winkle out the many intriguing nuggets. The epilogue, in which Wilson tries to provide a roadmap towards healthier eating — use smaller plates; favour protein and vegetables over carbs — has the feeling of having been bolted on.