This is a kind and sensible book. Lyons wants to remove our guilt about food, and get us to relax and enjoy it.
Today we worry about obesity, additives, and convenience foods. We're wary of industrially produced food, and of supermarkets. We're guilt-tripped about not buying locally. Yet our diets have never been as nutritious, varied and inexpensive as they are now. Refrigeration, better farming methods and imported foods have all made feeding a family - especially on a low income -- easier than ever before.
Panic on a Plate argues that there is no technical obstacle to our being able to feed everyone on the planet. Indeed, up to a third of the world's food supply is destroyed before it ever reaches us, via poor storage, vermin, and other avoidable disasters. My gran used to guilt-trip us to clean our plates by reminding us of starving black babies in Africa. Lyons rebuts this, pointing out that food shortages today are a political, not a natural problem, for which ordinary people are entirely blameless.
Lyons shows how our fears about food coincide with countless other contemporary neuroses about everyday life, Today we are inclined to fear the worst about everything, regardless of the facts. He's good at drawing together umpteen apparently isolated trends, to show the common thread of irrational paranoia and morbid distrust running through them.
Panic on a Plate is particularly reassuring about obesity scares. It explains that only a tiny percentage of people are truly obese, and that there's no proof that being moderately overweight is bad for your health. Indeed it's likely that the authorities' obsession with our diets is directly responsible for the rise in food obsessions among young people. In the past, people with eating disorders were pretty much left alone to get over it. Today children are taught about anorexia and bulimia right from the off, with school lunchbox inspections and mass weigh-ins. I can't think of a better way to encourage an obsession with your weight than to stick it on the curriculum at school.
My mother used to say she'd quite enjoy cooking if she didn't have to do it all the time. Parents who can now buy cheap ready meals from Aldi can celebrate the fact that feeding a family no longer involves daily slaving over a hot stove. Lyons' widowed mother was a school dinner lady, and he grew up on the sort of homemade, meat-and-two-veg meals that would tick all the right boxes today. This being 30 years ago however, it was hard work for his mum, as well as dull; thus "corn on the cob appeared like some fluorescent exotica when I was in my teens". And yet, even those of us raised on the traditional British diet of `something hot and fill up on stodge' still survived, and now we're living longer than our parents.
While variety is key to a healthy diet, our bodies are surprisingly able to adapt to make the most of what they get. And nowadays it's far easier to eat a varied diet anyway. As Lyons says, "things have never been this good; let us relax and enjoy our good fortune while striving both to make things even better here and to make sure that everyone in the world can take a seat at the feast'.
Significantly, he also points out that `All this handwringing about food has provided a way for governments to connect with the populace, through telling us how and what to eat.'
Rather than beat ourselves over the head about food miles, we'd be better off saving our anger for the things that really matter. Top of my list would go such things as government policies which ignore real social problems - housing shortages, dreadful hospitals, unemployment, wars - in favour of trying to micromanage our eating habits as if we were naughty children.