A little bit of what you fancy
By Dr Desmond Morris
© Copyright Desmond Morris / SIRC 1999
It was a meal to make a food faddist swoon away in horror. My mother was piling her plate high with a greasy, fatty, fry-up of a mixed grill and tucking in with gusto. When I say 'with gusto', I mean she was eating with the urgent pleasure of a predator at a kill. Although she was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, she was more in tune with the robust food pleasures of the eighteenth century, when a feast was a feast, and nobody had heard about health foods, diet regimes, or table etiquette that demanded you chew each mouthful 32 times before swallowing.
Watching her in action and trying my best to match her appetite, I glibly remarked that if she kept ignoring the words of wisdom of the health gurus and diet experts, she would die young. This may sound like a cruel thing for a son to have said to his mother, but the fact that she was in her 99th year at the time of the meal in question, helps to put my remark into perspective.
The simple truth is that my mother had lived through almost the whole of the twentieth century without ever giving a moment's thought to what was 'correct' to eat. She never suffered from even a momentary pang of anxiety concerning the possibility that certain food objects might be bad for her. If they tasted good, they must be good, and that was an end to it. I think it was her lack of anxiety concerning diet that kept her so fit. If you are perfectly relaxed about what you are eating, your parasympathetic nervous system rewards you by helping you to digest it well. If, on the other hand, you are tensely nibbling a lettuce leaf and agonising over whether to indulge yourself with another spoonful of low-fat yoghurt, the tension of your mood ill-suits the pleasures of the table. Your system rebels and the small gains you may have made from fashionable culinary restraints are massively outweighed by the cancer-inducing ravages of acute nervous tension.
There is a breed of modern pontificators who feel it is their social duty to tell the rest of us what we should and should not eat, as though they have somehow discovered the secret of eternal life. There are two flaws in their arguments. First, they keep on changing them. One year it is bad to eat something and the next year this same, vilified food object is suddenly discovered to be good for you. Second, they all seem to overlook the fact that the human species evolved as an omnivore. Eating the widest possible variety of foodstuffs was what gave us our special advantage over our animal rivals. And this is about the only rule that one need apply when sitting down to a meal. The bigger the variety of foodstuffs we eat, the better off we will be. End of story. Our alimentary system can easily dispose of excess, unwanted matter, and a varied diet will give it the chance to pick out what it needs and discard the rest.
If it is this simple, then why do so many people today suffer from obesity, indigestion, and various diet deficiencies? The answer lies in our lifestyle. If we are inactive we should be less hungry and therefore eat less. But so many of the inactive urbanites of modern times also happen to be bundles of nervous tension and anxiety. If they feed themselves when they are in this state, their autonomic nervous system will be in the wrong mode for good digestion. Worse still, they may start 'comfort-eating' to an alarming degree, not because they are hungry but because they are stressed. Food should be savoured, relished, enjoyed, and digested at leisure.
In the West today we have a better range of foods available to us than at any time in the history of the human species. Much of this food is greatly improved, when compared with its primeval equivalent. Despite recent scare-stories about geneticists interfering with our foods, we have in reality been genetically modifying them for about ten thousand years. That is what agriculture does. It takes a wild food and then starts improving it by selective breeding, and we have been benefiting from this process ever since man first put a plough to a field.
It is worth asking why, if we are such devoutly omnivorous creatures, we have so many food taboos. Why do some people refuse to eat pigs, or cattle, or shellfish, or insects, or horses, or – in extreme cases – any kind of animal food? There are two answers. One has to do with totems and the other with poisons. From ancient times, it became a local custom to select one particular animal as a tribal mascot – an emblem, a god-figure, a totem – and to protect it. This protection included not eating it. If the animal in question was an ibis or a falcon, there was no harm done to the human diet, but when it happened to be a basic item such as pork or beef, then a whole culture was denying itself an important potential food source.
Aiding and abetting these totemic taboos was a deep-seated human fear of being poisoned. Many plants and animals have protected themselves from the attacks of predators by becoming poisonous or foul-tasting, Our ancient ancestors countered this with a natural caution and it is this caution that can be exploited all too easily, even where it is not appropriate. If people belong to a culture that will not eat, say, pork, they will convince themselves that, in hot climates, pork is dangerous to eat. They ignore the fact that in many hot-country cultures, pigs are considered a delicacy, and they continue to prey on their own, primeval fears of poisoning, to keep their taboo alive.
It is this same, ancient fear of poisoning that comes to the aid of the modern-day misery-makers when they tell us that we should not to eat certain foods because they will damage our health. We are irrationally keen to accept their views because they fit neatly into the corner of our brain reserved for protection from poisoning. Even as we defy them and enjoy another unit of salt, sugar, fat, red meat, or whatever is currently frowned upon, there is a tiny black cloud of worry floating in the blue sky of our pleasure. The anxiety-makers have scored again.
One answer, of course, is to defiantly proclaim oneself in favour of a short life and a merry one. Then, if having fun leads to a longer span of years, one can always enjoy the extra time as an unexpected bonus. Personally, I expected (purely on statistical grounds) to die ten years ago and I made sure that, in the short time I had available, I tried every dish known to cooks, at least once. Something has gone wrong with my prediction because I am still here, and I have a feeling that part of the reason could be that I have managed to maintain a deep disrespect for all the health police, the faddist gurus and diet fascists who plague our bookstalls, radio stations and newsagents.
When my mother was dying (just in time to avoid putting the Queen to the trouble of sending her a telegram, as she expressed it) I asked her if there was anything she wanted, 'A gin and tonic' she whispered. I had to feed it to her through a straw. 'If you've got to go, you might as well go with a swing' she said. And where food and drink is concerned, you might as well stay with a swing.
© Copyright Desmond Morris / SIRC 1999