Starbars for breakfast and Twiglets for tea – I still remember the sudden, electric thrill of realising, as I fruitlessly ogled the Opal Fruits as a child, that one day I’d be able to eat exactly as I liked. It’s a joyful freedom that’s often lost on actual adults – that as a grown-up, as Ruby Tandoh exalts in her new book, Eat Up!, “all the world’s pleasure is at your fingertips… You can have ice cream any time you want.”
Perhaps oddly, Tandoh’s is the second book I’ve read recently by an author recovering from an eating disorder that argues powerfully for the simple power of food to please. Laura Freeman’s rich, beautiful, often painful memoir, The Reading Cure, describes how books helped restore her appetite after a decade of severe anorexia. She also tastes victory in a single scoop of sweet apple gelato. “No one needs ice cream,” she writes. “It is a want, not a need, and wanting is wrong. But I am getting better and more determined at quashing that feeling of wrongness and telling myself that, for one April evening, I am allowed to be Empress of Ice Cream.”
Freeman describes a world made smaller and greyer by her illness, starved by arbitrary rules imposed by “the chaos, misery and misrule of an anorexic’s thinking”. Though her case is extreme, I was struck by her observation that we all live in a world increasingly concerned with policing what we put into our mouths.
Calorie-counting may be out of fashion, but it has been replaced by the more insidious discipline of cutting out entire food groups on spurious health grounds, or pledging allegiances to a raw or paleo lifestyle. While we, as a nation, have never been so fat, hospital admissions for eating disorders have almost doubled in the past six years.
Those of us fortunate enough not to be in the grip of mental illness, who are lucky enough to be able to both afford and appreciate food, might try thinking a little less about what we eat, and more about why and even with whom we eat. To stop obsessing about the details in favour of the basic pleasure of fulfilling hunger and sharing with others.
Too much mindful eating or too much worrying about grams of protein is perhaps as bad for your health as not giving it a second thought: why waste energy feeling bad about that 2am kebab, or the sugary pop that brings you back to life the next morning – enjoy them in the moment and then forget about them. However much pleasure food brings, it all ends up in the same place.
Freeman pulls some inspirational examples from the literary larder: the generous appetites of Parson Woodforde, whose 18th-century diaries are stuffed full of “boiled Fowls”, “puffs” and “raspberry cream”; or the Rat’s wonderful picnic –“coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater” – in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
One of the most significant for Freeman is Thomas Bewick, a contemporary of Woodforde, who recalled of childhood lunches in his father’s fields only that they were “eaten with a relish that needed no Sauce”.
There’s no such thing as the perfect diet, but you’ll rarely go wrong eating with relish. Not every dinner needs to be a feast, or a nutritional powerhouse; sometimes beans on toast or a packet of biscuits under the duvet is just what the doctor ordered: as my grandma used to say, a little of what you fancy does you good. Especially if it’s ice cream.
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left