It’s amazing how our ideas change around food. When writing FoodWISE, I had to choose from many family stories to retell. What follows is one of my favorite family stories—and I retell it at almost all my readings. I probably should think abut a new story!
Clearly, ideas we have about food influence our eating behavior. We’re surrounded by contradictory messages about what we should eat, how much, and when. Experience, association, and memory tell us so much about what we “should” eat that it’s hard to listen to our stomachs or our rational minds. Food is never “just food.” It’s food with associations. This means that the same food can be experienced by two different people in entirely different ways…Sometimes we make those associations in surprising ways.
Years ago our then–twenty-month-old son was cooking side-by-side with his twin sister and stirring a thick batter with chocolate chips, supervised by my friend Teresa while I went out to do errands. Teresa, seeing the look on my face, said, “Don’t worry, he won’t eat them.” But, sure enough, when I returned home I heard that he’d eaten a chip that had fallen out of the bowl—his first taste of chocolate. Alas, I thought, (this, I realize now, was an expression of my own food beliefs) the slippery slope to self-indulgent eating, an obsession with chocolate, a life of unmitigated snacking on sweets. However, my son merely reported: “That was a really good raisin.”
To me, chocolate is an emotion-laden food. It’s chocolate: the ultimate gastronomic vice (or delight)! Not in my son’s world, though. He had no associations: chocolate wasn’t yet romance or indulgence, heart attack or reward. My son, like every eater everywhere, expected one experience and got another: for him, that food now was a “raisin,” never mind that it didn’t taste or look quite like any raisin he had had before. The actual experience of eating this “raisin” was different than everything he already thought he knew about what he was eating; his perceptions changed his belief about raisins. And from that, they changed his choices; for sure, from then on he was on the lookout for the (really) good raisins.
Maybe our son didn’t notice the slightly different shape and texture of the “raisin”; maybe he did and was game to experiment. If so, then something he didn’t have was neophobia, being fearful of trying new things. In the process of trying new foods, he was building associations, part of a memory strategy. For those neophobes among us it’s simple: no new foods, no new memories. But we can’t spend our entire lives sustained by childhood foods, right? Instead, let’s embrace a bigger consciousness about food.