I visited the inaugural Stoke Newington Literary Festival over the weekend. It was great - some great speakers; great debates; great venues; great topics.
One of the events I attended was this one:
Eat Your Words: Niki Segnit, Pete Brown, Elisa Beynon and Ian Kelly
There are only a handful of words that really describe taste and flavour, but collectively we have a seemingly limitless appetite for reading and writing about food and drink. The author of The Flavour Thesaurus, Britain’s leading beer writer, the winner of the Waitrose Food Illustrated writing competition and the biographer of Anton Careme, the world’s first celebrity chef, discuss their struggle to pin flavour to the page.
It was bloody brilliant. For lots of different reasons. I'm a Pete Brown fan and have read a couple of his books, so it was great to finally meet him and hear what he had to say about the difficulty of explaining how things taste - beer specifically for him.
The point of this post is inspired by something Niki Segnit said though.
She was talking about five things that make up the flavour of things. I can't remember all five, but I do remember the first and last - which is useful for this post. She expressed that everything we eat has these 5 factors, and she expressed it by talking about concentric circles.
At the middle of this circle are the tiny atoms that make up the item. So it's science, it's rational - it's about the tiny little things that collide that we can't see that helps make a strawberry taste like a strawberry.
Now, for the outside of the circle is the emotional stuff. You see, one of the other things that helps a strawberry taste like a strawberry are the social things going on around you - the ephemeral stuff. And it's true - Pete Brown expressed it better than I can:
"I like to ask people what their favourite beer ever was. They always answer the same way. They'll say something like: "Oh it was amazing. I was on a beach in Greece. I'd just watched England play - Shearer was amazing - and I had some pistachios..." They never talk about the brand - they talk about the stuff around it that made it special."
So, if you eat a strawberry at home alone in winter watching Antiques Roadshow it'll probably taste different than if you were with your family in a beautiful garden in summer.
Right - so what does all this have to do with you Mark? Well, I think without knowing it, she's explained exactly how I eat on a daily basis.
I'm from a working class family in the North East. (Sorry if you're bored of hearing that, but it is important to the post... and it's true.) Food when I was growing up was this very very simple equation:
[Reformed meat product], chips and beans. Slice of buttered white bread if you're still hungry. Maybe a tin of fruit cocktail with condensed milk once a week for pudding.
That's no slight on my parents at all. My mam used to make a wicked Panacalty once in a while - she was a great cook - but she worked long hours. My dad worked long hours. Sometimes I'd get home from school and I'd do the cooking because of this.
For this reason, food was there as sustenance. To fill us up. There was no thinking about nutrition as such, just what do we want? ('Want' from the stuff available in the pantry.)
It was Quantity then Quality.
It was Emotional then Rational.
Due to this, I always want to eat food such as mashed potato, chips, soft white bread, reformed meat stuff, fried eggs, cheese on toast... ooooh I love a bit of cheese on toast.
But I don't. In fact I very rarely eat much of that stuff up there even though I want to. I'd probably go so far as to say I'm a bit OCD when it comes to food.
You see, I find it very difficult to eat anything that doesn't have any nutritional benefits. I need to know that what I'm eating is going to do me some good. Sure I can eat a bag of chips but I'll feel ill after.
What's more, this has changed the way I look at food and the way I select it. I'll regularly eat an item on the menu I don't want but is more beneficial nutritionally to me. Not just occasionally, but most of the time - probably about 90% of the time.
It is Quality then Quantity.
It is Rational then Emotional.
(Ironically I probably spend less on food than my mam spent on me back then - it's not necessarily expensive to eat stuff that's good for you.)
As I said though - it's gone a bit too far. When walking out of a restaurant I worry less about whether I enjoyed it and more about whether it was nutritionally beneficial to me. I'll poo-poo restaurants if they don't have a selection of food that is nutritionally beneficial. (Why has no pasta/ pizza restaurant got a 'wholemeal base/ pasta' option? Wagamama has wholewheat noodles but that's it.)
- I never order pasta with a creamy sauce - it's always a tomato-based sauce because tomatoes are good for you.
- I never order pork as a main course due to the fat - I'll always go for grilled chicken.
- Even if I want a main course of lamb - I'll probably order the fish if it's an oily fish.
- I never buy Heinz beans in the shops - I always buy reduced sugar/ salt beans.
- My cupboards are always bloody full of tinned mackerel and sardines...
(The only anomaly to this is cheese... I still eat too much cheese...)
But after the talk at the weekend I really feel I'm missing out on stuff. I'm limiting myself to such a slim portion of the menu everywhere I go. Where my dad would automatically ignore things on the menu due to price - I'm now doing the same for anything that doesn't have an apparent nutritional benefit.
So, from now on, once in a while I'm going to not look at anything from a nutritional point of view. I'm not going to box myself in a corner. I'm going to indulge in the best equation of all:
I'm gonna be Quality then Quantity.
I'm gonna be Emotional then Rational.