Halfway through our interview at her home in Cambridge, food writer Bee Wilson picks up a mint plant from the kitchen table and thrusts it towards me.
“It’s really rare for somebody now to just … taste some mint!” she exclaims, breathing in the plant. “And smell it, and just say what you remember, and say what you feel.”
She takes another sniff. “Isn't that good?”
I pluck a small mint leaf, rub it between my fingers, and bring it to my nose. The crisp scent reminds me of raita. For Wilson, it’s mint tea. My photographer, who grew up in Barbados, says it reminds her of home.
This sensory moment in Wilson’s kitchen—a chance to really consider the food we have in front of us—is what her new book, The Way We Eat Now, offers its readers. Released this month, it examines the transformations in modern food and the effect this has had on how we eat, from Reykjavik to Seoul, grapes to bananas, Deliveroo to HelloFresh. Wilson unpacks the issues behind changing food trends, dipping into subjects as unexpected as how volcanic rock was once considered the key to growing bananas in Iceland; why snacking is a myth purported by the food industry; or how we’re now more likely to die of food-related diseases than from the lack of food. It’s vast.
“The phrase I had in my head was ‘kitchen census’,” Wilson tells me, her dog wandering in and out of the kitchen. “I wanted to sort of, take stock.”
“I wanted to kind of look at how much of this or that do we really eat, but once you try to look at how much of this or that do people actually eat … it just blew my mind,” she adds. “The story evolved I think, from something more lighthearted to do with a nosy look in people's shopping baskets, [to] something bigger.”
Wilson’s aim to cover a topic as enormous as modern-day food will come as no surprise to those already familiar with her work. After studying history, then political science at university—two subjects that would heavily inform her writing—Wilson began a career in food journalism. She wrote a food column for the New Statesman and went on to publish a number of acclaimed books on food history and culture, including Sandwich: A Global History in 2010 and First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, awarded Fortnum & Mason Food Book of the Year in 2016. She writes expansive Guardian long reads on topics like the British curry house, the death of clean eating, and the dangers of bacon. She helped found TastEd, a charity that gives sensory food lessons to school kids. The Way We Eat Now is ambitious, but Wilson is clearly qualified for the job.
“I was always interested in the beginning by food and something else,” she explains. The table in front of us is laden with a chickpea salad and yogurt curry she made ahead of our meeting today. “That to me was the interesting thing. Obviously, to really hone in on the smell of mint or the look of some perfect brunch is fascinating but to me, I'd always be more interested in the people eating the brunch. Or why are we eating this brunch, or why are we fixated with eggs all of a sudden?”
The Way We Eat Now is an interrogation of this “why.” Its opening chapter, a virtuosic feat of non-fiction, gives a taste of what to expect. Look at the humble grape, Wilson writes. Feel it with your tongue. It seems pretty natural, pretty uncomplicated, right? Not quite. The modern grape, you see, “has become a piece of engineering designed to please modern eaters.” Over the years, it has been genetically modified to lack seeds. Not only that, but grapes weren’t always so sweet—they were engineered to be this way, which has limited their nutritional value. Neither were they so available: we now produce “twice as many grapes as we did in the year 2000.” Suddenly, something you thought you knew, something you trusted—the simple grape!—has been turned on its head. By the end of the first chapter, you are left winded by the sheer scope of Wilson’s reach, like a camera sweeping over landscapes, each mountain and crevasse exposing a new idea on foods we encounter every day.
“Food is this wonderful, magical thing, but I also think it's taken a huge wrong turn, and it's not going to right itself until we take it seriously.”
And it’s not just grapes. Whether quinoa, turmeric, or snack bars, The Way We Eat Now takes everything you thought you knew about food and turns it on its head. What shocked Wilson the most when researching the book?
“Some of the most surprising things were the things like the [rise in consumption of] soybean oil,” she says. “I'd presented a radio programme about sugar, and the history of sugar, and I'd assumed while I did that, that sugar was the single substance that had gone up most in our diets, because that's what everyone talks about.”
“You hear people going on sugar-free diets, or whether all these clean eating sugars are all just sugar,” she continues, “but I didn't think anyone says, ‘I should be eating less soybean oil.’”
It’s a scary realisation that, a lot of the time, we don’t know exactly what we’re putting into our bodies. But who can blame us? Whether it’s sugar, maple syrup, soybean oil, or coconut oil, after the clean eating trend of 2016, misinformation around food and nutrition has arguably never been higher. Even as a largely unanxious eater, on an average day I will debate with myself over the ethics of numerous food choices. Is peanut butter fatty or healthy? Is fatty necessarily unhealthy? Is it full of palm oil? Or is that actually OK because it’s sustainable? Should I have more fruit, or not too much because of all the sugar? Is an occasional Spicy Veggie Deluxe from Maccy D’s fine, or is that what the fast food industry wants me to think? It is, frankly, a fucking minefield.
“You would not have 4,000 kinds of snack bar for sale in America were it not for the fact that people feel really conflicted about food, and whether they're allowed to eat a cookie,” Wilson says. “I think it's so complicated. I do think it's the best and worst of times.”
Tackling food misinformation is difficult, but navigating the politics of food is almost impossible. One of the trickiest issues The Way We Eat Now explores is how societal advancements, such as the increase in living standards or the emancipation of women, go hand-in-hand with the rise in less healthy eating habits. It is tough to condemn the effects of a supermarket sliced loaf, or frozen pizza (and conversely, fetishise expensive sourdough bread and artisan pizza) when their popularity coincides with women no longer being expected to prepare three meals a day, or low-income families having access to a wider variety of food. On the other hand, the poor suffer the worst effects of easily accessible fast food. Wilson works hard to qualify most judgement of “good” and “bad” food behaviours (limited terms in themselves) with an acknowledgement of economics and government regulation, never attributing blame on individuals, but does at times depict a slightly romanticised view of home-cooked dinners, made from ingredients sourced at the farmers market, served with fresh rye bread and dollops of Greek-style yogurt. This aspiration, we have to admit, is often only achievable for the middle classes.
Even if it’s impossible to write about food without coming off a little bougie, especially when food media is largely white and middle class, there’s a refreshing humanity to Wilson’s writing. Her books and articles aren’t just about nutrition, or the distribution trends of a certain ingredient—they’re about how we interact with these things and how they affect real people. Fast food may be damaging to the health of low-income families in Britain, Wilson writes in The Way We Eat Now, but she understands that “the pleasures of fast food … can be every bit as intense as the emotions you may feel at a ten-course tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant,” and that she has often felt the “the siren call of a 99 cent hamburger.” The book is an informative, but importantly, empathetic understanding of changeable global food culture.
Even viewed through this empathetic lens, it’s hard not to feel depressed by certain areas of modern food—whether it’s rising global childhood obesity or the spread of orthorexia. Does Wilson feel pessimistic about the future?
“Food is this wonderful, magical thing but I also think it's taken a huge wrong turn,” she says, now kneading chapatis to go with our lunch, “and it's not going to right itself until we take it seriously.”
“Various things now have got so bad. If you look at child obesity, if you look at diet-related illness, and the number of people having amputations from type 2 diabetes,” she continues. “We can't allow this to carry on—it's completely preventable human suffering.”
So what’s the solution? Wilson thinks, then lists the elements that need to improve to fix our failing food system: agriculture, eating preferences, and mainly, government legislation.
“The thing that makes me deeply pessimistic,” she tells me, “is that I don't see any appetite in governments, especially here where Brexit has ruined this, along with everything else.”
But it’s not all depressing. Wilson pauses. “I always, ultimately, feel quite hopeful about food,” she adds, chapati in hand. “Any of these things could change really, really quickly for the better.”
Looking at the technicolour spread of curry and tomatoes and mint on the table in front of us, I can’t help but feel optimistic too. Or maybe that’s just hunger.