Why is our relationship with food so complicated? Why can't we just go to a restaurant blind (i.e. without having googled the menu and pre-decided our order) and casually scan the menu, not for the most "health enhancing" choice (whether that's a lettuce-wrapped hamburger or the raw bowl with a side of ferments), but for whatever is calling our name from a flavour perspective? The concept of health food is hardly novel, and "diets" designed to keep you fit and trim have been around for decades. But over the past few years, the conversation has intensified. We have been bombarded with messages about the power food has over our mood, longevity, immunity, skin (the "perfect skin diet"? Seriously?), hair, sleep, hormones & more. Our expectations of food are now astronomical; more than pleasure, culture, family, love or even figure and physique goals, it's like the type of food we consume is part of our identity, speaking to who we are as people. And not in the Italian way.
It's been an intense moment for food. Feeling depressed? You aren't eating enough healthy fats. Skin breaking out? Try cutting out dairy. Energy low? Lay off the caffeine and sugar. Want to save the world? Stop eating animal products. Hormonal, menopausal or fertility issues? That's a whole other mess that we'll be diving into separately, but here's a little teaser: your diet is to blame (at least in part).
Look, we will be the first to say that most of this is actually incredibly positive. I grew up on a diet of fast food, pop tarts (brown sugar cinnamon baby!), "fruit" roll ups and basically everything in packet form. Honestly, this was a really fun way to grow up; convenience food is specifically crafted to be amazingly flavourful and downright addictive (seriously, oreos are as addictive as cocaine, and the casein in cheese triggers the same part of our brains as opioids! No wonder cheese is the last thing many vegans give up.). Looking back at photos, however, and remembering how I felt at the time, I'm convinced it didn't do me any favours. 😕 So I am delighted to see a resurgence of real food. And once your palate adjusts, the flavour, texture, beauty and pure sensory delight of real food is pretty incomparable. So when we choose to prepare more of our own meals from scratch (or those hand-made by others), we are benefiting not just from a health perspective, but enjoying high-quality, delicious food. Unless you are making cinnamon chicken. Sorry, but that did not work out for us!
That said, some aspects of new wave cooking are troubling.
First of course are the health claims, which do not convince everyone. I'm not going to go down this rabbit hole, but essentially the medical community is not universally convinced that gluten and dairy are unsuitable for the vast majority of us. Google it if you want to lose hours of your life in the detail and expose yourself to some angry rants on both sides. And yet, so many of us clearly look and feel better for eliminating (or at least reducing) our intake of these ingredients. Is that because, when cutting out gluten and dairy, we are typically replacing processed foods with our own cooking, or is there more to it than that?
My own take is that science is of fundamental importance in advancing an understanding of how to treat, improve and enhance both the human body and human experience, but there is still so much that science cannot explain. Over time, we will learn more about how food affects us both as a species and as individuals, but in the meantime, we should feel empowered to experiment and see what makes us feel good. Most of the time, that's probably going to involve lots of greens. But sometimes, that is going to be the pizza, addictive as it is.
Someone asked me recently what I think it is we are all trying to remedy through clean eating. Because if the promise of so many of these regimes is "healing", does that mean that they are appropriate for the well? Do we all have autoimmune diseases, early-onset arthritis, adrenal fatigue, imbalanced hormones, anxiety and depression? And is there a reason why dairy and gluten free menus perhaps aren't on the agenda for health workers in Africa and Asia who are trying to help the clinically malnourished?
But actually, I'm less interested in de-bunking the health claims of this new modern way of eating, and more interested in exploring the other ways that food feeds us, and what are are potentially missing when we cut out a huge swath of edible substances by going paleo or raw vegan.
Because I've been downing green smoothies and saying "can I substitute..." in restaurants for years, and adjusting my diet really has helped me with a whole host of issues (as it has helped so many). But I've grown uninspired. I'm tired of being told that a bowl of greens with some roasted veggies is "amazing" and will make me feel sexy. Because it doesn't; it makes me feel "good", like I've been virtuous. And that is just feeling really boring these days. Do I want to be the good girl who has salad, alkaline water and maybe a square of dark, refined sugar-free vegan chocolate as a treat? Or do I want to be a sensual, free-spirited, fun explorer of the world who partakes in its delights? Didn't Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow have this exact conversation once?
Food is nourishment. It is also entertainment, culture art (or can be), and love.
I want to eat with all of my senses, enjoying the visual beauty, the texture, smell, context, history, culture and taste of food. Of course I want to feel amazing, so I'm not going to abandon the principles that have worked for me...but I'm changing my expectations of food. I want to feed my hair, make my skin glow and have endless energy...but I also just really, really want to have fun.
I recently picked up the Moon Juice cook book (quick summary: lots of raw plants & nuts. Get a juicer, a blender, and a dehydrator). I've been in a bit of a cooking rut, and this book inspired me immensely. Unlike the vast majority of "clean eating" superstars, Amanda Chantal Bacon has been to culinary school, & has a fine dining background working in well-known restos. She's also travelled the world, and her recipes evoke the magic & romance of, say, an afternoon in Beirut, or a warm Tuscan evening. To say that her approach to eating is unconventional is a massive understatement (the reaction to her "what I eat in a day" for ELLE magazine was INTENSE - and hilarious). But I find her way of looking at what food can do for us refreshing, because it truly pairs the promise of food's power (she is the creator of Sex Dust & Beauty Dust, after all) with the delivery of its pure sensory pleasure. I don't have a juicer, but I have tried quite a few recipes from the book, and so far, they are all actually delicious! They have also been fun to prepare (mostly because they are very different). Are they gorgeous? Not in my every iteration, but I see the potential. I'm going to try a few more of the especially vibrant dishes, and report back. Watch this space!
The other book that has been inspiring me? Another Californian who is equally polarising (though more mainstream popular) - Chrissy Teigen. I'm not sure if she wrote all the recipes, but I do think she wrote all the headnotes, and they are both funny and inspiring. This is someone who loves her food, loves her body and loves life. She's a swimsuit model, so it's easy for her to make cooking look sexy, but all I know is that when I flip through this book, I want to jump into some of the pictures and get in on the party. Will I be eating her meatloaf every week? Doubtful - I gave most of it to my dinner companions...who said it was amazing. I rarely get that reaction from the "amazing" dishes I pick from one of our more health-focussed cook books.
I'm tired of food making me feel virtuous, guilty, confused, expectant or just meh...I want food to make me feel alive.
So with this as our backdrop, I'll now be diving into Life Butter's look at food. You can expect recipes, videos, and tonnes of fun on the Radio show. Come along for the ride - let's inspire & be inspired. ✌️