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WHY BEING A ‘FOODIE’ IS ABOUT SO MUCH MORE THAN THE FOOD

9th May 2019

I am often asked, by people who are rather less obsessed with food and drink than I am, what it is that turned me into a self-confessed ‘foodie’.  Is a fixation on flavours?  Or an appreciation for the creativity of those who produce great food?  Or a feeling that eating should be about more than just refuelling?  Or just pure and simple greed?

The answer, if I’m honest, is that it’s probably a bit of all of those.  But I think the reason I am into food so much is that eating and drinking are above all social activities, and there are few things which bring people together so closely as sitting down at a table to share a meal.

This is why I hold so much contempt for restaurant designers who create spaces with no soft furnishings, seemingly with the express purpose of making the eaterie as noisy as possible.  And restaurateurs who then bombard diners with music so loud that any attempt at conversation is doomed. 

What exactly is the point of going out to eat with friends if you can’t then talk to them?  Surely that’s pretty much the whole point.

It is also why I am slightly sad about two new studies released this week, which seem to confirm that the social side of food is not fully valued or understood.

The first is a report by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research for Sainsburys, which claims that a third of British adults are eating alone all or most of the time.  The same study claims that eating alone has the most negative impact on people’s reported wellbeing levels after having a mental health disorder. 

This isn’t really surprising.  Loneliness is a well-documented cause of poor mental (and indeed physical) health, and surely mealtimes must be one of the times when isolation is most noticeable.

The second depressing study claims that amongst couples, what happens in the kitchen is more likely to cause tempers to flare than anything else, whether it’s rows about what to eat, who should cook, or whether one party is doing their fair share of the washing-up. 

As a result, according to the research at any rate, more couples are choosing to eat separately, with a claimed one in ten adults admitting to ordering a takeaway for themselves but not one for their partner.

Now in the Newman household, we are both competent cooks who enjoy being in the kitchen, but a sure cause of disagreement is if we try to cook together – I think we are both too much of a control freak to tolerate the other getting in the way.  But food is central to our togetherness, and it is over the meal table that Mrs N and I connect after our busy days.

Likewise, for both of us the perfect evening out is a meal shared with friends, simple as that.  It doesn’t need to be Michelin-starred cuisine (although perhaps we pay more attention to what’s on the plate than many); it genuinely is the company which counts.

We are a country which is facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.  And yet one of the fundamental ways of tackling that problem – sharing a meal with other people – seems to be becoming rather rare. 

Either we are tucking into solo meals behind closed doors, or else we are rowing with our partners about what we are eating, or sitting with other people in restaurants which are so full of noise that any kind of social interaction is limited to hand signals and shouted requests for the salt.

And if we’re not doing any of those, we are spending our entire mealtimes communing with our smartphones, ignoring our dining companions.

In a world where so much of our communication happens electronically, the importance of face-to-face human contact is being forgotten.  Sitting down together over a meal, without electronic distractions, and making an effort to actually talk to each other (imagine that!) should be something that we all aim to do at least once a day.

You don’t have to be a ‘foodie’ to achieve that – although you may find that your whole attitude to eating changes when you realise that it really is about so much more than what’s on your plate.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.