Up Until The 20th Century, Japanese Were Primarily Vegetarian

Japan19thCentury

One of a series of hand-colored photographs of Japan circa 1880. – The Public Domain Review

Virginia sent this article:
Teaching Grownups How To Eat, Nicola Twilley, The New Yorker, 25 November 2015

Twilley is discussing British food historian Bee Wilson’s book “First Bite.”

There are a couple notable kernels here. One, Wilson says that animal protein was almost entirely absent in Japan until the 20th century. That includes fish:

Even fish, as one of Saga’s informants recalled, was limited to “one salted salmon,” bought for the New Year’s celebrations, “though only after an awful fuss.”

Another kernel is found in the following two excerpts, describing what it will take to reform the American diet. The first, from a public health perspective:

Adam Drenowski, the director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, blame the country’s poor eating habits on structural issues: economic inequality, an obesogenic environment, and a national agricultural policy that favors the production of calories over nutrients. Change, seen from this perspective, will only come about through government action.

The second from an individual perspective:

Chef and activist Alice Waters, take[s] a more didactic approach to food reform. If individual Americans were taught to grow and cook healthy food, she and others argue, they would learn to eat that way—and the country’s food system would shift to meet that demand.

Growing your own food and cooking from scratch, as I have argued, are activities of the privileged. Nonetheless, Waters has a point. Reforming the American diet will require changes from the top down (government) as well as the bottom up (individual).

“Just because dietary change can happen on a national stage,” [Wilson] writes, “does not make it easy to enact it at a personal level.”

Once you give people choice, you’ll want to nudge them in the direction of healthy. But is that possible? Will people ever select broccoli of their own volition? Wilson argues that our taste preferences are not hardwired, they can change, e.g.:

In Sweden, an experimental “taste school for the elderly” managed, through repeated and enjoyable cooking and dining activities, to get a group of eighty-year-old men to not only try fennel and sweet potato for the first time but to actively choose to eat them.

She offers another example where children, “freed from the expectations of their parents … chose to eat liver, sour milk, and beets just as happily as they chose chicken and bananas.”

Have you ever tried to change what you eat and found you preferred the new food after a while?

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