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How Do We Get To Love At 'First Bite'?


'Tis the season of lights, bells and food, lots of food - peppermint, gingerbread, latkes and stollen or however you pronounce that. Some people look forward to the likes of mincemeat and chopped liver. Others shiver at the thought. Bee Wilson, the acclaimed British food writer, has a book on how our food tastes are formed and follow us through life, even through our dreams, "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." And Bee Wilson joins us from the studios of the BBC in Cambridge. Thanks so much for being with us.

BEE WILSON: Hello. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So when it comes to food, Ms. Wilson, how much is nature? How much is nurture?

WILSON: Well, I think we all have a kind of instinctive idea that it must be mostly nature because we think of our likes and dislikes as such a personal part of ourselves. But when you look into the science of it, it seems that overwhelmingly, they're a product of environment. And I think it's partly we don't think of it as being nurture because so much of the influence that goes into our likes and dislikes happens in the first years of life, and so it's completely buried and forgotten. We don't think that we can change the way we eat because we've always had these habits. There have been studies showing that this sort of attitude someone has to food at the age of two will probably still be the way that they eat when they're 20. And yet, the evidence is that there's immense potential for change.

SIMON: Two - that doesn't give us much time to work, does it?

WILSON: No, it really doesn't (laughter). And therefore, what parents do is really powerful, much more so than I think parents give themselves credit for.

SIMON: You, in fact, say that despite all the lectures, all the publicity, vegetable consumption is actually down.

WILSON: Yes. The more people get advised to eat vegetables, the less it seems they wish to eat them. And it is quite a natural response. So I've said that the main way that we get to like food is through being exposed to them, but there's a second condition. We have to be exposed to them without feeling any sense of coercion. And I think as soon as we hear someone, whether it's a parent or the government saying you should eat this, it comes with a really unpleasant atmosphere of compulsion, whereas, you know, we want to eat the things we want to eat. And I think successive governments, both in the States and in Britain and across the world, haven't really learned this - that having advice doled out isn't the way to get people to change their diets. We're largely led through pleasure. We largely, give or take, eat the things we love. So what we need to do is work on changing our likes and dislikes.

SIMON: Tell us about the - I hope I pronounce this correctly - Sapere movement.

WILSON: Yes. So the movement originally started in France, the idea being that if you could just break taste down into its building blocks and get children to talk about sweet foods, salty foods, bitter foods - they could be educated in matters of tastes.

But in Finland, they were looking around and seeing that, compared to their neighbors in Sweden and Norway, they had far worse child obesity levels. So as a grand national experiment, they made it the case that in every preschool, a key part of a child's education would be to explore food through their senses. And what's so powerful about Sapere is exactly the opposite of governmental advice saying, eat your five a day of vegetables. There was a sort of freedom to it. It's still going on now, and it seems to have had really promising results so far. But the children were going home and saying to their parents - we've eaten different berries and deciding - do we prefer the sour ones? Do we like the sweet ones? Do we like lingonberries? Do we like cloudberries? But there was no sense of the children being lectured. It was just trying to expose them to food and all of its sensory possibilities.

SIMON: Do we keep looking for some kind of perfect, immaculate superfood that is nutritious, low-cal, abundant and affordable? I mean, I wonder - is such a food already here? Quinoa, kale, any of that stuff?

WILSON: I mean, I'd rather have a good food - lots and lots of different varieties of good foods than search for something perfect.

This isn't quite the same point, but the food writer Jane Grigson said something about we have more than enough masterpieces. What we need is a better standard of ordinariness. And I think there's a lot to be said for that. I mean, most of us have diets which aren't varied enough. Rather than thinking I'm going to eat kale because that's absolutely the perfect vegetable, think, well, I'm going to have carrots one day and eggplant another day and tomatoes and red peppers and lots of different things.

SIMON: May I ask, what will you have on your table for the holidays?

WILSON: So one thing I always make - and I'm sure this is partly to do with memory and yearning and because I've made it ever since my children were born - I make gingerbread every year. And it's partly just the perfume of the spices in the house, makes it smell like winter to me. And I love having big bowls of dates and nuts and clementines, all of those feel very holiday-ish to me.

SIMON: Yeah. And you don't sneak any quinoa into the gingerbread?

WILSON: No (laughter), I don't. I like quinoa. I like gingerbread. I feel they should be kept separate. I'm not in favor of this thing of making kind of raw, vegan chocolate cake and saying it's as good as chocolate cake. I mean, just eat cake and be done with it. And then have a separate meal of quinoa.

SIMON: Bee Wilson, her new book "First Bite: How We Learn To Eat." Thanks so much. Can I say bon appetit?

WILSON: Yeah, I think you can. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.