Book Review — First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

Book Review — First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

March Book Review First BitReviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

When I think about my childhood home I think about Buddy’s pizza, Leo’s Coney Island Greek salad, and Lelli’s zip sauce. In other words, I conjure up memories of food—tastes, settings, celebrations. According to Bee Wilson, food critic and historian and author of the recent book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, this is not at all surprising. Wilson writes, “Memory is the single most powerful driving force in how we learn to eat; it shapes all of our yearnings.”

I can confirm that when I was pregnant I indeed had yearnings for comfort food. After my boys arrived though thoughts changed to do things: how best to feed them and how best to lose my “baby weight.” In reading First Bite, I have come to see these desires as interrelated, and almost certainly in ways I still do not fully understand, but which will surely influence my children’s eating habits, and thus those of all my descendants.

Over eight chapters Wilson takes us on a food journey that roughly parallels a child’s development, with detours into disorders (turns out that “eating disorders are as numberless as snowflakes”) and meditations on hunger. After each analytic and reflective chapter, eight specific foods get a mini-essay about themselves, like beets, birthday cake, chocolate, and potato chips.

Two of these food mini-essays—chocolate and potato chips—capture the tone, factual research, and complexity of First Bite. When it comes to chocolate Wilson convincingly explains that, “Female chocolate cravings are an archetypal learned behavior.” As for potato chips, she argues that our love of them may go back to our primate ancestors for whom crunchy insects were an important source of protein.

In a somewhat controversial move, Wilson departs from the worldwide guidelines that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. But she rationally makes her case for this, explaining that between the ages of four and seven months, “there is a window when humans are extraordinarily receptive to flavor, but by following current guidelines on exclusive breastfeeding, parents tend to miss it.” While Wilson discusses Baby Led Weaning in Chapter 4 on feeding, she generally thinks that picture is not all positive, instead suggesting that parents expose children to a range of whole foods as early as four months, making repeated attempts even if a child first resists by making a face. The trick is persistence. And listening to a few simple “rules” like those listed in the epilogue. Two of my favorites include: 1) Eat soup, and 2) “Sugar is not love. But it can feel like it.”

For parents interested in learning more about how to feed their younger children the focus should be on the first half of the book, especially Chapter 1 on likes and dislikes and Chapter 5 on siblings. But parents should also be thinking about their own relationship with food, as that is essentially the single biggest predictor of how your little ones respond eat. In Chapter 6 on hunger, Wilson explains:

The latest January diets often claim that if only you follow all the steps, you will never feel hungry again. It’s taken me a long time to realize that part of eating well is making friends with hunger. We are not the starving children. To feel mildly hungry two or three times a day—when you are lucky enough to know that another meal is coming soon—is a good thing. All my life—except when I’d been attempting weight—I’d responded to the gentlest of tummy rumbles as something that needed to be urgently canceled out. It is only now that I see you can easily live with an hour or two of slight emptiness. In fact, it makes the next meal taste better (‘Hunger is the best sauce,’ as the proverb goes).

I have certainly become a more varied eater as I have gotten older, moved around, and reconstituted my social experiences from the restaurants of my suburban Detroit youth. But as I now seriously strive to last the last of that baby weight (or, more appropriately now, “toddler weight”), I am having to learn to live with some hunger again, and remind myself that this is not in and of itself a bad thing.

In reading First Bite I also learned why I am one of the few people I know who dislikes both coffee and beer. Wilson explains that I am likely a supertaster, or someone who tastes more, so bitter things (oh, like coffee and beer) aren’t my thing, despite being two of the most popular beverages in the world.

When people find out that I don’t drink any coffee at all they are often shocked, explaining they would be far less productive if they did not drink some brew each day. Somehow I get through each busy day without coffee (though I do consume caffeine through either Diet Coke or tea!), but starting next month I will have one less thing on my full plate as I will be stepping down as Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor. As I wrote in 2014 when I began this position, I hope books suggested by our magazine have helped you find meaning as both readers and parents, and not just in the words, but in the spaces in between them.

Whether it has been sharing books or meals with Brain, Child readers and writers I’ve enjoying our interactions. And, don’t worry, I won’t stop reading, writing, or eating for that matter, and you can continue to follow me through various forms of social media or on my website, linked below. Although I might be able to cut back on the caffeine just a touch…

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the outgoing Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.