In 2004, the kindergartens of Jyväskylä, a lakeside city in Finland, received funding to give all children aged one to seven instruction in “varied food habits”. These lessons were to have little to do with encouraging the children to eat their greens or even with attempting to steer them away from junk food. Instead, they were to explore ingredients with their senses: “the hard crackle of rye crisp bread, the soft fuzz of a peach, the puckering sourness of raw cranberries”. One morning, the children might go out foraging for berries; the next, they might play a sensory game involving the scent of lemons.
The results of this experiment were extremely positive: so much so, in fact, that the lessons were extended to all Finnish pre-schools. Attitudes to eating in children could, it seemed, be radically altered after all – and with them, levels of obesity. Children schooled in what is known as the Sapere movement (from the Latin for “to taste” and “to know”) were not only more willing to try new foods, but less likely to respond to the sweetness of fizzy drinks and other sugary treats, preferring, instead, more punchy flavours. Of course, the study surmised, there would always be some foods they dislike. But if a kid adores beetroot, cabbage, nutmeg and blue cheese, who gives a damn if they can’t stand mushrooms?
Bee Wilson’s account of the Finnish experience of Sapere, in essence, a more egalitarian take on the French concept of savoir vivre, and one in which some 7,000 professionals in the Scandinavian country are now trained, comes towards the end of First Bite, as she looks for pointers to a future in which children (and, by extension, adults) everywhere are saved from a life of addiction to bland and unhealthy processed foods. But in some ways, it encapsulates her message overall. As a food writer who had an overly close relationship with sugar as a teenager, Wilson set out to discover how much, or how little, is set in stone early on when it comes to taste – whether by genetics, gender or family dynamics. And the results are, for those inclined to worry about these things, generally encouraging. What she had felt instinctively – that it must be possible for people to switch from disgusted to delighted, picky to omnivorous, eternally guilty to blissfully guilt-free – was backed up by much of the available evidence. If a nation can change its eating habits for the better, as Japan did after the second world war, then there is hope not only for the toddler who will eat only strawberry fromage frais, but also for the adult who persists in believing, as my father-in-law does, that the merest hint of any fruit other than stewed apple will make them gag.
That said, the sections of First Bite that are devoted to the feeding of children are, for me, its least compelling. Finland apart, I’m not sure we need the help of experts to grasp that forcing a child to eat what he detests will, in the end, backfire. Surely it’s obvious that telling a small boy he cannot leave the table until he has finished, a line my parents used to trot out to my poor brother, who felt about peas as other people do cockroaches, is unlikely to do anything but cause him to dread meal times. Ditto the non-revelation that the best approach to the pizza-obsessed, veg-phobic child is a “high-warmth, high-control” parenting style, by which the studies basically mean: make sure that there isn’t too much rubbish in your pantry, yet equally, don’t drone on all the time about the evils of crisps and chocolate.
More enlightening and sparky by far are the chapters devoted to the effect of memory and gender on our tastes. Wilson is a brilliant researcher and in this, her fifth book, she has unearthed science that makes sense of our most intimate and tender worlds. In 2009, for instance, electrodes were applied to the heads of a group of French men and women, half with Algerian backgrounds and half without, after which they were asked to smell mint. All of them liked it, but the Algerians showed a significantly greater level of neural activity than the non-Algerians: a response to the way that the drinking of mint tea is imprinted on their very souls. Memory, Wilson shows, may be the single most important factor when it comes to our lifelong passions (and aversions) in the matter of food – and this is a process that begins, as it were, before the beginning. Gorge on garlic while pregnant and your baby, having spent nine months floating in garlicky fluid, will probably come into the world predisposed to love aioli.
We are, perhaps, on more ideologically loaded territory when it comes to gender, though as Wilson also reveals, male and female brains show different activity in response to eating. Women have a greater sensitivity to smells and flavours than men, and are better at remembering them – hence the notion, sometimes a reality, that girls are “pickier” than boys. But social pressures are at play here, too. Faced with a menu, some women will only choose a dish they believe to be appropriately dainty and “good”: chicken breast, salad, a small portion of herby risotto. (The ghastly and confused “clean eating” movement is only making this more likely, though First Bite resists attacking it.) Men, on the other hand, are required to disdain fish and souffles. Wilson thinks this is a shame and so do I.
As I read First Bite, I sometimes felt that for all its good sense, its tone was just a little too measured. A touch of anger wouldn’t have gone amiss; sometimes, you want to feel a writer’s engine thrum. But this is a small thing and for most readers its author’s intense curiosity will be enough. What’s ultimately wonderful about it is the way it sends you back to the development of your own palate. I thought of my parents, rather strict in the matter of food, and my siblings, some pickier than others, and finally my famously fussy husband, at which point bewilderment rushed in all over again – for the only thing in all the world that I would not choose to eat is celery. How did this happen? Perhaps I am not a woman at all.
As for Wilson, I suspect that she will have to come at all this again in the future. How could she not? In the end, eating is at once a simple thing and an endlessly complex one. Human beings are unfathomable and so are their habits, even when it comes to dinner. As the great novelist James Salter had it: “Life is meals.” And, as I suppose he meant, vice versa.
This feature is written by Rachel Cooke originally appeared in The Guardian.