Why we eat, what we eat

As a sector we have a passion for food and provenance and many seek to increase consumer understanding of the consequence of their choices. Food is at the heart of human culture so it is no surprise that operators are now placing it at the centre of their offer. Food, design, ambience and service combined create an experience which ultimately satisfies the customer and makes them return to the provider Professor Rebecca Earle teaches possibly the only module in the UK on the global history of food. The cultural historian of Spanish America and early modern Europe looks at how ordinary every-day cultural practices such as eating, shape how we think about the world. The course is in its first year and allows the students to think about the place of food and eating within an historical analysis. As well as looking at contextualising current attitudes to food. It is a fascinating course and one which arguably crosses into the hospitality industry which should always be looking at the food offered.

“Food and cooking has played such an important role in history. Language and the human species itself may have developed out of our desire to cook and share food. It is deep sign of humans being humans.” explains Rebecca who has a calming yet passionate persona. “If we look back just a hundred years ago everything was different. The ingredients, cooking practices, infrastructure and the economy have all changed and now the majority of the western world live in cities.” Rebecca describes that as the population changed and created densely populated urban environments, the food we eat changed with it.

In hospitality often the argument is made that trends influence what the food offer is, but where do these develop from? “People have always cared about taste. Whether it was the produce they were able to grow, trade for or could afford, the public wanted something that was an enjoyable flavour. In the eighteenth century people started to think about the relationship between the state and the individual in new ways. We began to think of the population as a group whose wellbeing would make the country more powerful.

By fuelling the nation with energy, it would become more powerful. Therefore it became quite two dimensional, on one side people thought “what I eat is my business and no one else’s” and on the other, the nation was starting to want to look after itself. It can be argued it’s linked to the ideals in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith, the growth of economic wealth depended on a strong workforce.”

It has been argued that food considered bad for humans have increased with all the recent changes taking place in society.

However, so much is now known and the need for a balanced diet is increasingly promoted in many areas, as well as moderation, nutrition and exercise.

“Society has always known there is a special relationship between humans and food. Even thousands of years ago they were looking at models of how the human body worked and what food was for. People made the connection between lifestyle and health and diet in ancient times. If you were ill, it was advised that a change in exercise and environment was needed and a diet carefully constructed to nurse you back to health. If you had a temperature, a cooling melon or cucumber was recommended.”

“The changes in lifestyle have strongly impacted the food we eat and are offered. We all have a shrinking amount of time and this has made a big difference. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the lunch break was often removed so there was more time for work. Highly calorific foods emerged such as very sweet tea. Tea was boiled and the worker added heaps of sugar. It was affordable due to slavery making sugar cheap.” So the desire for convenient food can be traced back to the country’s transition to new manufacturing processes. EP has long argued that people must stop and relax and the lunch break needs to be an important part of the working day. Lifestyle has long influenced how and what we eat, but lessons are clearly taking a while to be learnt.

The desire for local and organic food is a trend many have observed in recent years. Rebecca explains how students of her module recently interviewed a Michelin star chef who explained that Aberdeen Angus steaks were seen as local and ingredients from Paris were seen as not local. The chef and class found it surprising because geographically Paris is closer to the restaurant located in Warwick. What does the ‘local’ trend really mean now?

It is fascinating to observe that a long time ago the nation was informing people to drink less and eat more fruit and vegetables. The state was trying to sell an idea to the public which can be argued it is still trying to make. Perhaps the strategy isn’t working and the education piece needs to be looked at?

Whilst campaigns for healthy eating have been adopted by many in the industry and especially food service providers within companies, it is still seen as being down to individual choice. Maybe that is not the right strategy. “We argue that people shouldn’t spend money irrationally, but people still do.It was difficult to change attitudes back then and it seems that still applies today.” Rebecca adds.

“We now know so much about food and its role on humans and society. My current research is looking at the potato and how this was successfully adapted to most of the world. It’s a starchy food which many diets were built on, having originally been famed in the Andes. We didn’t know about calories really until the 1870s and 80s and a real emphasis was then placed on these foods. Scientists of the time would laugh at those who chose to eat an apple and there are accounts of writers in New York laughing at Italians ‘wasting’ money on tomatoes.”

It is important to trace back the role food has played in our lives. In the workplace the need for a productive workforce is deeply connected to the type of food offered and consumed. Energy allows for a well-fuelled working machine. The sector must continue to ensure the food offered is of high quality and matches or beats the advancement made in design and ambience in food spaces. Convince, locally sourced, organic and taste have all existed in some shape or form, so why are they considered ‘new trends’ in recent years? The sector may have forgotten some vital parts which create an efficient organisation and it is the basics – good quality, healthy and convenient choice.

Professor Earle and her module looks back at our relationships with food and the importance it has played. The hospitality industry must ensure it does not forget the significance and how far we have come.