EDIBLE PURITANISM


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If you go back to the roots of America, there was an anti-epicurean tradition – specifically, people wanted to overcome that which went on in France. Tom Parker Bowles asks if we have returned to that age, all the while remembering Oscar Wilde’s remark, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.

Illustration: Neil Kerber - www.neilkerber.com

Illustration: Neil Kerber – www.neilkerber.com

“Clean eating!” spluttered my father, his hand clasped firmly round a glass of wine. “What the hell’s that? Breakfast after a bath?” Well quite. For a generation that grew up in the shadow of rationing, he has little time for such vacuous, self-indulgent tripe. And nor should anybody else. Because this heinous new trend, increasingly popular among the young, impressionable and easily duped, is one where sugar is poison, meat, murder, dairy deranged, carbohydrate toxic and gluten the very devil incarnate. It’s not only purse-lipped, sanctimonious and joyless, but downright dangerous too.

The world of faddy eating has long been populated by crackpots, zealots and floggers of snake oil. Extra virgin, of course. And the majority of these so-called ‘diets’ have all the scientific depth of a puddle. On the Sun. From blood type to baby food, cabbage soup to cayenne pepper, tapeworm to toothless (ok, so I made that last one up, but would a diet that removed all your teeth, so you could only eat mush, really astound you?), we’re suckers for that magic pill. Something that will make us slim, lithe and healthy. Without having to eat less or sweat more. And that’s fine by me. Hell, even I occasionally subscribe to the 5/2. Where for two days of the week, I consume a maximum of 600 calories. Not because I particularly believe any claims about fasting, fat burning and the rest. Rather because a regular break from boozing and stuffing my fat gob is no bad thing.

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Clean eating, though, is a whole lot more worrying. Because rather than being the usual passing fancy – a story in search of a headline, a silly if ephemerally enticing prospect to banish that belly – this new wave of edible Puritanism is far more insidious. Not just with all those endless white-teethed lectures and fresh-faced exhortations about avoiding dairy, or gluten. Or sticking to raw food. Or trying to make something edible out of kale. But in the deep and erroneous belief that clean is the only way. And that anything that isn’t clean is, by its very definition, dirty. And very, very, wrong.

Mental health experts are warning that growing numbers of teenagers are taking clean eating to perilous extremes, too often resulting in a psychological condition known as ‘orthorexia nervosa, a ‘fixation with righteous eating.’ Doctors, who work with very real, and often fatal, diseases such as anorexia and bulimia, have been reporting surges in such diagnoses. Food becomes synonymous with fear, disgust, self-hatred and despair. That is, if you stray from the well kept clean eating path. It’s little more than culinary fascism, chewable self-flagellation, a sorry cultish exhortation – ‘Drink deep, my dear, from the cup of Kool-Aid (sugar free and flavoured with birch) and all your worries, fears and insecurities will melt away.’ The philosophy of clean eating is fundamentally unhealthy.

Yet to blame those taut-abbed, fresh-faced fundamentalists who pound the pulpit with such thrusting, pulchritudinous allure is to miss the point. I’ve met a number of them, and they’re neither swivel-eyed loons, nor deviants, cult leaders nor mass murderers. In fact, they’re rather nice, smiley people who happen to believe that their way brings health and happiness to all who follow. And that’s fine. Ish. If it works for them, with their super foods and kombucha, spiralisers and ‘guilt-free’ muffins (urgh!), who am I to argue. I can always ignore them. And do. But it’s when people take this clean eating as gospel (rather than mere faddish dietary tittle tattle, to be picked up and discarded like a copy of Metro), that the real problems start.

There will always be people plugging miracle cures. It’s up to us to take them with a pinch of Maldon. And make it clear to the young that these outlandish claims, of curing cancer, or lifting depression or any other totally unsubstantiated medical claim, are simply not true.

Now we all know that a sensible balanced diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables (plus claret, cheddar, chips, good chipolatas, bone marrow, potted shrimp, well marbled beef, treacle sponge, butter, dripping, lard, steak and kidney pudding, Malteasers, crisp streaky bacon, carnitas tacos, pie and the occasional puff of Havana), is an eminently sensible thing. Hell, as I get older, I rather embrace the idea of Meat Free Monday, and find beauty in brassicas, love in lentils and passion in pulses. In the eternal sensible words of Michael Pollen, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That, and good meat, meat raised by farmers who care about the welfare of their beasts, which in turn means flesh with flavour worth singing about. I’m no finger-wagging hippy, but I would rather spend more on properly produced meat, and eat it less, than suffer the bland iniquitous of factory farmed tucker. Here endeth the lesson.

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So why is this ghastly clean eating suddenly so popular? Since when did food suddenly stop being about pleasure, and turn into this, barely digestible guilt? It’s a product of our self (and selfie)-obsessed age, a symptom of a wider malaise. If they say it on the Internet, it must be true. But food is the great uniter of men. We may be celibate, or tax dodging, or agnostic. We may not even be interested in what’s for lunch. Or support Trump. But it’s our one shared human experience. Because good food is about so much more than base sustenance. It’s a prism through which we can see history and society, culture and economics, the ever-burning hearth of health and happiness. The shared table is an icon of civilisation, a paean to the eternal joys of breaking bread. Good food brings people together. God, even bad food does the same, albeit in a very different way. It’s about pleasure, relish and delight. Soother of souls, fluffer of taste buds, deliverer of succour, solidarity and good cheer. Dystopian visions of the future invariably involve food reduced to the taking of a pill, and hell is a place where the food is plentiful, but invariably awful. Rather like British prep school. Much does indeed depend on dinner.

Now there are plenty of people who choose not to eat meat. Or eggs. Or cheese, fish and fruit gums. For reasons moral, religious or otherwise. And I have nothing but respect for their views. I may not agree with all of them, but neither do most of them agree with me. It’s only the insufferably pompous and idiotic who would think any other way. As for those with genuinely awful diseases, coeliac, Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes and food allergies (be they fish, peanut or anything else) – eating fraught with pain and peril, every dinner out potentially deadly – I simply doff my cap. Life must be very tough indeed.

But all those self-righteous fools, the preening popinjays and terminally dumb, who claim they’re glutose intolerant because they once read that it made them fat – a pox on your house. You’re an insult to the truly afflicted, an ill-informed sot, a softhead, a muggins, a goof. We should no more live on over-processed fast food, than we should subsist on chia seeds, rice cakes and hemp. When it comes to eating, balance, pragmatism and common sense are key. Along with a little of what you fancy. Or in my case, rather a lot. So enough is enough – take up your rib eyes, your legs of lamb, your sourdough loaves and your pats of butter. Arm yourself with salami, bottles of burgundy, fistfuls of pasta, and sacks of potatoes. Gird your loins with cream, lard and dripping. And fight, for our right, to eat well and wisely. Not ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, no good or bad. Nothing to hate, fear or abuse. Rather worship, venerate and adore.

Tom Parker Bowles is a Restaurant Critic for the Mail on Sunday, as well as Food Editor of Esquire. He is also a food writer, broadcaster and author of 5 books on food. The latest, Let’s Eat Meat, was published last year. @tomparkerbowles

Tom Parker Bowles is a Restaurant Critic for the Mail on Sunday, as well as Food Editor of Esquire. He is also a food writer, broadcaster and author of 5 books on food. The latest, Let’s Eat Meat, was published last year.
@tomparkerbowles


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