Do we need rules for living?

Never mind particular diets for particular outcomes (losing weight, not dying, etc.), I’ve long found it ridiculous that anyone would need to send a set of “food rules” into the world, like those compiled – or collected, rather – by food “guru” Michael Pollan, as if people can’t figure out how to eat by themselves (some great responses by an international group of food scholars below to Pollan’s initial request in the New York Times for food rules they grew up with):

Sadly, the evidence does indeed suggest that despite the excellent advice to rely on martinis and cigarettes for the first course of a dinner party, they – “we” – apparently can’t look after ourselves: at least that’s the message conveyed by examples like Jamie O’s decades on telly of (ostensibly) teaching people how to cook and feed themselves, and, somewhat embarrassingly, South Africa’s ranking at the very bottom of the latest “Wellness Index”, thanks in part to high rates of diabetes and obesity – and booze (bollocks as such rankings are, but still!).

Derren Brown’s new book, Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Fine, has (mostly) nothing to do with food. It’s about how to live your best life as a Stoic; that philosophical commitment to being quiet and calm through all events (basically the equivalent of NO visible excitement about a Nando’s chicken burger arriving imminently).

I jest – Stoicism is something it sounds like we could all embrace: being less angry, and (therefore) less shitty, in much the same way as we could probably also make better decisions about what we put in our mouths (and why). Generally, it involves trying to be a rational person who doesn’t lose their cool when things don’t go their way.

It would be ideal if we could live our lives without the need for guides about how to eat, or behave. Back then, I found Pollan’s project incredibly irritating and condescending, yet Derren Brown’s inspires me to be a “better” person (and I have, indeed, found myself being more “restrained” on his advice). Still, it’s kind of amazing that we should need so many rules to be our best selves – shouldn’t we be better wired for this by now? .

Perhaps our big undoing is precisely having become “unwired” from something which ought to come naturally, like choosing the food that will nourish us, or behaving in a way that will make people around us appreciate rather than despise our presence. A recent BBC Food Chain podcast investigated the growing number of educational programmes dedicated to teaching young children to “smell, taste, touch, and even listen to” food, which sounds kind of ridiculous – they’re small and often annoyingly loud, yes, but children are humans, after all! Shouldn’t having something to say about food be something that comes naturally?

Apparently not, when said small humans have lived their entire short lives not eating anything that doesn’t come out of a packet, so they literally can’t even understand how a potato is involved in becoming a chip. Which is sad, and much more forgivable than large humans who should know better than to be assholes on Twitter or Facebook because a Jack Dorsey or a Mark Zuckerberg invented a space for everyone to forget their manners. 

So maybe having some “rules” for living in a time where we’re encouraged to forget the obvious isn’t so bad after all. And asking children to talk about vegetables they’ve never encountered before can even be rewarding for the rest of us – have you ever heard a tired old food critic describe the taste of a mushroom as brilliantly as “a cupboard”?

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