What kind of idiot gets salmonella poisoning on her long-awaited and much- anticipated first trip to Paris? Who disregards all the caveats of well-seasoned travelers and makes such a rookie mistake as to order not one but TWO soft-boiled eggs that came a few degrees above raw in a sweet Montmartre café, lop off the top of one which spurts directly onto her chic black top while two soignée French women on either side of her look away with delight at the American’s poor table manners, and then commence to dunk two plates of trempettes into the swirling maw of the liquid egg without even the barest hesitation? Moi-même, of course, and the realization hit me at the same time as the stomach pains did, a half-hour later, but by then it was too late. Luckily, this was not my first day in Paris, but towards the end of my trip, though walking through Versailles with a fever and chills wouldn’t have been my first choice of travel enhancements. Worse came later, but then, I WAS in Paris, and there are not many better places to be, except that it makes it hard to eat all that incredible French cuisine.
And so on the long flight back, still sick but unwilling to decline the free champagne you get on Air France, I thought a lot about the taste of the croissant I had on the first day, and the incredibly fresh baguette I devoured with my daughter on the second. These would have to be the only tastes I had, since after I fell ill, I couldn’t eat at all. It’s the potency of how we encounter these first tastes and how we learn to eat that Bee Wilson writes about in First Bite. I managed to read the entire book while I recovered for two days in my stepmother’s empty loft in New York, stretched out on the sofa with a pillow on my stomach. I’d read Wilson’s Consider the Fork for the Winter Challenge, and I loved her writing, so this was an inviting read, and not being able to eat made it easier for me to concentrate on the words, even if my brain wasn’t functioning at full speed (although my gut was).
Wilson writes that eating is a learned behavior, and that the environment we grow up in has a profound effect on what our relationship to food will be when we are adults. She contends that the concept of “disordered eating” should not apply only to those who suffer from anorexia or bulimia, but rather anyone for whom food and eating has become a fraught subject and is not able to balance taste, desire, and hunger. Our food environment has been built by corporations that do not have anyone’s best interest in mind, with the overpowering message that consumption must only increase along with our waistlines. Food has become almost mindless–we have in large part lost connection to the simplicity of responding to hunger, since many of us fortunate ones no longer remember what hungry feels like. But Wilson remains optimistic. She raises the example of Japan which entirely changed its food culture in less than a hundred years–something I had no idea about–from one in which meals were pleasureless, unvaried, and meant to be consumed in total silence to the prevailing custom now in which it is considered rude not to slurp your ramen noodles. Japan had never developed its own culture of food the way South Korea did, but World War II and the rapid influences from the West soon insured that now Japanese cuisine is considered, by many, to be the best in the world. And so Wilson contends that change, though hard, is possible.
This is a wonderful book to read, full of insights and information, and Wilson always offers a new perspective on things. She is an engaging writer, and I would recommend this book even if you are not flat on your back unable to eat (I hope nobody ever does what I did).