Eating habits are intensely personal. So much so that, only now that I think about it, I’ve found myself often describing people’s personalities by drawing attention to their food quirks: “Remember my weird housemate from last year who ate three bowls of porridge a day?” Or, even worse, “I knew we couldn’t be good friends because she didn’t like chocolate”. So I’m going to hold my hands up to start with and say that I am at least as guilty as the next person for judging people on what they eat. But it got me thinking – when did food become so political?
Only last week, a colleague told me they were doing a juice cleanse, and I couldn’t help but respond that five days with no solid food sounded like hell, while simultaneously suppressing the sense of guilt I felt balancing three different types of cake from the office Bake Off on a paper plate. Living in London, especially, has opened my eyes to two drastically different worlds of food, both of which I’ve tried and have enjoyed – they’re not mutually exclusive, though your Instagram feed may suggest otherwise.
On the one hand, there are the fashionable, often overpriced places that fit into the health food or ‘clean eating’ fad. Each one’s USP might be slightly different from the last, be that vegan, gluten free, raw or dairy-free, but are often grouped together as part of the ‘wellness’ movement (on which more later…) Menus might include, say, an ‘ayurvedic’ salad or ‘courgetti’ with ‘cashew cream’. One well-known brunch spot offers a bowl of coconut porridge for £8.50. For porridge?!
On the other hand, there are innumerable restaurants, street food stalls and outlets that pride themselves on overindulgence. There’s The Breakfast Club’s Pancake Day Challenge, where you can get your stack of 12 pancakes on the house if you guzzle them in under 12 minutes, and the Big Easy’s offer of as much barbecued meat and booze as you can handle in a two-hour sitting. I myself have a mild addiction to the Instagram account Tom’s Big Eats, which is unapologetic, brash and hedonistic (and I mean that as a compliment) in its slow-mo clips of the melting of chocolate inside a ‘Christmas Candy Croissant Waffle Sandwich’, or the intensely satisfying pull of cheese in a gorgeously beige ‘Mac and Cheese Croissant Dough Toastie Pocket’. His accompanying website and YouTube channel offers such visual feasts as ‘The 7000 Calorie Cake Eating Challenge’, which makes for oddly compelling viewing. You just try and pull your eyes away.
The phenomenon of extreme food habits and politicising food seems to be a hot topic throughout the UK, but in London it is especially pervasive. Writer Arwa Mahwadi observed this phenomenon well in her article on veganism: “Trends don’t become a legitimate ‘thing’ until white people claim them”. It sometimes feels that in London there is no middle ground, and that restaurants fall into either health food or gluttonous extravaganza. I suppose that is because it’s these places that garner the most media coverage and online buzz.
Both of these food camps, though wildly differing in their ingredients and nutrition perhaps, have one crucial factor in common: neither of them are really about the food, and the actual chemical compositions of what we are putting in our mouths are a tiny and insignificant proportion of their respective behemoth cultures. The real obsession (and money) lies in the imagery, the branding, the marketing. For example, Deliciously Ella’s café, the Mae Deli, could never be anything other than brightly lit and spacious, with Scandi-style stripped wooden benches and smiling young female servers excitedly telling you that they hope you enjoy your Mae Bowl. At the other end of the spectrum, the borderline pornographic ‘freakshakes’ popping up at diners and cafes all over the city, most famously at Molly Bakes, are designed to be Instagrammed first, eaten second. You eat with your eyes first, as they say.
More important than the foodie trends themselves is the language that accompanies them. The rise of ‘clean eating’ brought with it words like ‘nourishment’ ‘wholesome’ and ‘natural’. Many critics have denounced the language and image of the ‘wellness’ lifestyle, leading to a backlash of the notion of ‘clean eating’ that has become as loud as the trend itself. The very term implies judgement into someone’s eating choices. One of the ‘raw’ eateries in London boasts that their desserts are “guilt-free”, which must by default make a heavenly slice of Nutella cheesecake, laden with sugar, butter and additives, somehow guilty?
Several major figures in this trend have, in the last few months, distanced themselves from the phrase ‘clean eating’. The Hemsley sisters, authors of best-selling cookbooks The Art Of Eating Well and Good + Simple, recently denounced it as a “fad” and a “media-coined term”. At the same time, their Selfridges café menu boasts a £4 cup of tea or a £7 “hardcore” smoothie. If you’re looking to save those pennies though, don’t worry – “remineralised” still water is totally complimentary! The brilliant Angry Chef mocks the hypocrisy of this culture with remarkable insight. “The criticism is not just of the word ‘clean’, it is of the moralising about food choices, it is about the guilt and shame attached to completely sensible and harmless dietary options”, he fumes. He adds that health food bloggers and entrepreneurs have a massive influence on eating habits purely “because of how they look, because of how they are perceived, because of the power of their brand”.
The recent BBC Three documentary ‘Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets’ (available to watch on BBC iPlayer) by the body-positive blogger and vlogger Grace Victory, suggested a strong link between the image projected by the ‘clean eating’ brigade and orthorexia, which translates literally to ‘a fixation on righteous eating’. Indeed, the prevalence of orthorexia does appear to have grown rapidly in concurrence with the ‘clean eating’ image. This is largely anecdotal, as the condition is not yet recognised as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, meaning there is a lack of statistical evidence for the numbers of people who’ve experienced it.
Language and imagery are equally important in the indulgent side of the food market. Nigella Lawson – the undisputed queen of decadent, sumptuous foodie descriptions – says she loves her quadruple chocolate loaf cake “late at night when its melting squidginess tends to fall darkly on to my white sheets”. Her rhetoric has no doubt contributed to the rich food oratory that has wriggled into a raft of London menus in recent years. For example, the Bad Brownie Co (which makes the best brownies I’ve ever eaten by a long way) describes their bestselling offering as a “layer of liquid, gooey salted caramel sauce sandwiched between two rich, fudgy bad brownies”. Even before you’ve seen the food, you’re salivating.
For now at least, the phenomenon of cult and image-based food habits in London shows no signs of dying down. Is anyone else ravenous? I’m off to make myself a snack.