Many years ago, I used to see a therapist. Our conversations ranged wide and, at the end of our time together, he vouchsafed one particular piece of wisdom: “In the end, everyone comes to see me about the same thing. They think it’s emotion, grief, sex, booze, voices in their heads, money, relationships, anger, love, obsession, work . . . but whatever it is, they’re worried they can’t control it or that they control it too much.” A wise man. His words have stuck with me as, increasingly, I believe that food is all about control too.
A therapist of a more Freudian bent than mine would have talked about food control beginning at the nipple. Then a childhood in which, at least three times a day, we lost a power negotiation with our caregivers. Everything that passes a child’s lips is controlled by his parents, if not by what is served to them, then by a complex set of instilled beliefs around which foods are “good” or “bad” or, ultimately, by guilt. Guilt that doesn’t diminish, for most of us, when we shed every other form of parental oversight.
At least in those areas of society affluent enough to be unaffected by hunger, is it any surprise that entering adulthood we manifest guilt, and huge conflicts over control, in eating disorders? And far more widespread than these are elective food intolerances, diets and even regimes of “healthy eating”. In a society where there is sufficient food, it seems our natural tendency is to control it.
Like everyone else, I navigate these feelings daily. I am far from immune. I try to eat healthily. I occasionally panic and try to do something about my calorie or alcohol intake. But it’s also my job to think and write about food and our relationship with it.
On the face of it, nothing could be more open and friendly than writing about cooking. It’s just ruminating on a shared pleasure. It’s all very Proust and madeleines. That is until Claude Lévi-Strauss gleefully ruins it by pointing out that cooking is the act of exerting your will on ingredients. If you write a recipe and make the mistake of giving it to the world online, will you see comments saying “Yay, great recipe”? No, commenters invariably list their own myriad substitutions and tweaks or complain that their personal dietary peculiarities aren’t sufficiently met. A simple recipe for cupcakes, a set of instructions, becomes a dance of posturing and positioning. Readers don’t “follow” recipes, they adapt and control to “own” them.
Shopping for food is a battle for control, too. We are told that supermarkets offer us choice. We can choose which supermarket we go to: the downmarket ones, where costs are low but there is little choice. Or the premium ones, where we judiciously select from a wider range. We willingly pay a premium for an ability to control our selection, believing it’s self-expression.
Even the politics surrounding food is about control. We are told our NHS is collapsing partly because of chronic illnesses and obesity caused by our lack of self-control. Government could control things like junk food advertising, yet they are conflicted because “Nanny State” intervention is a vote-loser. And it’s not just Conservatives who are trapped in this. Since the state stopped controlling our diets through rationing, no party has made a reasonable fist of coherent food policy. If you thought your mum expressing love by controlling what you ate was messed up, the control issues between us, our government and our food industry are positively toxic.
It’s clear that many people want to visit the restaurant of a promising chef because they want to hand over control. They want to walk in, sit down and experience a performance at the hands of experts. Yet witness the fury surrounding “natural” wines, when older wine lovers, unable to leverage their familiarity or hard-won knowledge, are forced to yield control to young sommeliers. They experience impotence. They express it in rage.
It’s a bizarre dance. There are times I demand control, times I want to yield it. I wouldn’t dare correct someone’s cooking if they invited me to dinner, but I expect to be able to specify the type of milk in my coffee. I wouldn’t order an off-menu keto omelette nor, indeed, tolerate anyone else who did in my presence, yet I’ll specify my egg with mathematical precision when ordering brunch. I’m happy to be fed anything they want to give me at a roadside shack, but 14 courses with no substitutions countenanced utterly boils my piss. Except when it doesn’t.
Hospitality is about making sure someone has a good time in your care. You invite them to join you in an act of sensual pleasure, controlling the situation to meet their needs. We rarely talk about hospitality in the context of family, more usually around new friends or visiting guests. It’s an exciting act of intimacy, with all the nuances of consent you’d expect in an S&M dungeon.
I worried where this was all going when, as often happens, I found that Tony Bourdain had got there before me. “Writing and cooking are dominant acts,” he wrote. “Eating is a completely submissive act. It is essential for a food writer to submit to whatever happens. Good meals should be magic at whatever level. You’re not going to get it if you don’t let go of the reins.” As usual, he cuts right to the point. If you’re a cook, a writer and an eater, you’re pleasurably conflicted at almost every turn.
Almost all food writers end up making comparisons between food and sex, but I don’t think that goes far enough. It’s a far darker and more interesting story. If food is like sex, it’s with a very particular kink.
Tim Hayward is the winner of best food writer at the Fortnum & Mason Food & Drink Awards 2022
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first