on 14 July 2012
Chapters in this book survey the history of our eating, our experience of taste, the quantities of food we eat, our memories of eating and our looking forward to eating, food and creativity, our categorisation of food into types (such as good and bad in e.g. religious terms) and finally suggests we have a 'theory of food', a bit like a 'theory of mind'. The first chapter is about our liking for crispy food.
That's an interesting prospectus and the book delivers interesting insights in each chapter. Sometimes they are not incredibly persuasive: does our liking for crispy food have that much to with the crispiness of high quality lettuce or the crispiness of some insects (as you crunch through the bones etc)? These are the sources of crispiness in nature. Sometimes also the book strays from what's of most interest about food (is the cassowary seen as a bird by the Karam of New Guinea - answer, no it's more of an honorary human so special rules apply to eating and killing it).
Sometimes the insights are very interesting: historically we traded off a long intestinal system against a bigger brain. There's something really interesting about the fact that cooking enables you to make more of the meat you kill. And there's no reason, historically, not to pig out whenever it's possible to do so. There's leptin in the body which says (as the case may be) there's plenty of fat available at the moment - but though this is low in anorexics it doesn't impact their eating, and having lots of leptin around doesn't stop you eating if you're obese and inclined that way. Successful dieters don't let up on their planning around food - planning responses take over, rather than food responses, when you see food. Increases in BMI cut back on the grey matter in the brain. Caffeine has a protective effect against Alzheimer's and in mice can even reverse this...
The book would benefit from a stronger overall theory about humans and food. The final chapters on a 'theory of food' is disappointing. Despite much interesting speculation about what a 'theory of mind' is and whether chimpanzees have one (they DO have some rudimentary view about what other chimps and humans are up to but it's not sophisticated), a 'theory of food' is obviously not much like a theory of mind. It does, of course, impact on us and our thinking bout the world in many ways and deeply - as the book does show throughout.