Barbecue of the Vanities

Steven Shapin

  • Eating Right in the Renaissance by Ken Albala
    California, 315 pp, £27.95, February 2002, ISBN 0 520 22947 9
  • Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle
    California, 457 pp, £19.95, February 2002, ISBN 0 520 22465 5

I am thinking of making Tuscan bean soup for dinner tonight. (My wife is from Birmingham and prefers her beans with sausage, egg and chips, but I have my limits.) If this were an ordinary day, I’d just get on with making the soup. I’ve got the things I need: the beans, pancetta, garlic, olive oil, parsley and chicken stock. I’ve made it dozens of times, and, after I’ve decided that this is what I want to eat, I don’t usually think any more about it. But today I’m writing about the history and current politics of what and how we eat, so I thought I’d look at the panel of Nutrition Facts that appears on the label of practically any packaged food you can now buy in America – something I can’t recall doing before, or at least not with much attention. In the States these labels were mandated by the Nutrition Labelling and Education Act of 1990, and in Britain a similar sort of thing – though with significant category differences – is administered by the Food Standards Agency, established in 2000. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these labels are meant to be ‘helpful for people who are concerned about eating foods that may help keep them healthier longer’. I’m all for that.

The label on the tin of cannellini beans tells me that there’s no fat (saturated or unsaturated) in it and no cholesterol. That’s nice, I think. Like everyone else, I’ve heard that eating a lot of fat puts pounds on you, and that being overweight is bad for your health and longevity. Similarly, you’d have to be living on Pluto to miss the expert salvoes against dietary cholesterol, though the pancetta will probably do some damage here. The label also says that a serving of about 130g of beans will give you 22 per cent of your recommended daily dose of dietary fibre. That’s good, too: I remember reading about the virtues of fibre in warding off colon cancer, though I think there are two sorts of fibre – soluble and insoluble – and I’m a bit shaky about which sort is supposed to be good for preventing what disease. However, I also seem to recall reading in the papers a while ago that claims about the cancer-preventing virtues of fibre had been exploded, and I have an epidemiologist friend who maintains – if I understand him correctly – that you basically play with the cards dealt you by your genes and in utero development, so you might as well eat whatever you like. Then again, my own GP told me to eat fibre and lay off animal fat, and another doctor handed me a jar of herbal supplements, the name and purpose of which I now forget.

So far as the dietary experts are concerned, I’m not too sure what they now coherently say about the virtues and vices of Tuscan bean soup, though I know that they have a lot to say on all sorts of subjects and that they are very upset with people like me for not listening in the way I should. Quite frankly, I’d prefer not to think about the counsel of expertise in these matters, although that’s scarcely an option these days: dietary expertise is now inevitably a guest at the dinner table, invited or not. I suppose that in these respects I’m typical of people of my sort – age, sex, nationality, income-level and education. Sometimes I notice and care about dietary expertise and sometimes I don’t; sometimes I’ve got other things on my mind and other priorities; sometimes I know what expertise says and sometimes I haven’t a clue. It seems to speak with many voices these days, and I can’t usually be bothered to sort out real from so-called junk science, even if I could. I’d say I was full of contradictions about such matters – I take some of the fat off the pancetta but I feel a bit feeble doing it – if I thought about what I eat systematically enough to have contradictions. Like most people of my condition, I encounter expertise in different ways: sometimes friends tell me what the latest scoop is; sometimes I read about it in the papers; sometimes I hear about it from official pronouncements, governmental and professional; sometimes – and this tends to work on me – I encounter expertise face-to-face in a doctor’s surgery when I’m feeling more vulnerable than usual.

Neither the cacophony of expertise nor the incoherence of lay responses is new. The first European dietary books began appearing in the late 15th century. They were, Ken Albala shows, relatively respectful of existing patterns of consumption: not surprisingly, as they tended to be written for a courtly readership by deferential court physicians. It was well understood that the business of government involved banquets and drinking, and that a prince who was fussy about what he would or would not eat could scarcely do a prince’s business. As James I instructed his son, ‘your dyet should bee accommodatte to your affaires, & not your affaires to your diet.’ The job of the dietary writer was, therefore, to work within these conventions, fine-tuning them to ensure that courtiers, and those who aspired to that condition, could take into account empirical medical findings about what tended to be good or bad for individuals of different constitutions. So Giovanni Michele Savonarola – the grandfather of the Florentine killjoy – counselled the rulers of Ferrara that ‘Hare is not a meat for Lords,’ that ‘Fava beans are a food for peasants,’ and that, while beef was a food fitted for artisans with robust stomachs and coarse constitutions, the prince might eat it if ‘corrected’ by the right condiments. (Swans were then reserved for the Dons: like peacocks, pheasants, sturgeons and porpoises, they were meat for courtiers and aristocrats.) In general, however, the advice was quod sapit nutrit – if it tastes good, it’s probably good for you – and readers were understood instinctively and by habit to do right by their stomachs: ‘every man in his humour’; ‘you should eat what you are’; ‘chacun à son goût’.

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