Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” is a maxim attributed to the nineteenth-century food philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Culinary Institute of America program director Sophie Egan has put a modern twist on this wisdom in her book, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies — How What We Eat Defines Who We Are (William Morrow, 2016, $35.99). The book is divided into ten themes that deal with a multitude of topics about how our lifestyles can drive what we eat given the bombardment of food choices. Even with all its traditions and habits, food selection is a very individual choice based on what we love to eat, what is convenient, what we crave, what fits into our current diet, what is in season on the farm, or what menu items chain restaurants are promoting.
The book is rich in research details that statistically portray the human relationship with food: only 26 percent of Americans eat breakfast every day; Starbucks has 87,000 drink combinations; 66 percent of Americans eat more types of global cuisine than five years ago; 20,000 new items are introduced to the food market each year; pancakes and French toast recipes have the highest number of online searches. Where there are statistics, there are trends, and Egan writes about how these numbers translate into our food culture, from eating the free samples at Costco, to the astronomical number of chicken wings eaten during the Super Bowl, to the explosion of on-the-go protein bars that have replaced breakfast.
Egan’s book is a look into the food psyche of the United States, but given its heavy-handed emphasis on statistics, she throws in plenty of comparisons with Canada and other countries, such as how countries rank in alcohol consumption. Although mainly a journey through the American food world, the “mainstreaming of global cuisines” has given foods from many other countries a home outside their places of origin. Italian food, in particular, made its way across the Atlantic Ocean to find a permanent place in American meals. In a fascinating chapter called “The Story of Spaghetti” Egan explains what it is about Italian food that makes it, along with Chinese and Mexican, one of the top takeout choices.
Aside from survival, one of eating’s other main draws is that it has historically been a communal activity. In the modern world it is becoming less so, and one of Egan’s contentions is that office life has not been good for eating habits. Eating alone at our desks (one of every five workers takes a lunch break), constant snacking, and a workaholic mentality have messed up the three allotted times that we customarily consume food. On the other hand, brunch, or “secular church” as Egan calls it, could be the saving grace for communal eating, even though it is one big extravagant meal replacing two separate ones.
Egan also writes about “the democratization of wine” that started with the boom in cheap vino at Trader Joe’s in 1967. Since then, marketing ploys have succeeded in spreading wine’s appeal outside of its clichéd cliques, with tactics such as using cute animals on wine labels that have nothing to do with the product (critter labelling), using artistic license in the naming of wines (Bad-Ass Cabernet), and using unconventional containers (tin cans and Tetra Paks).
Fast food chains are expert in drawing in crowds by developing “stunt foods.” These stunt foods, such as Taco Bell’s tremendously popular Doritos Loco Taco, provide shock value even though they are “nutritional train wrecks” — an unhealthy backlash compared to the diet trends Egan discusses in chapters entitled “Diet Evangelism” and “The Selling of Absence” (i.e., low-fat, gluten-free, non-GMO, reduced calories). Egan writes: “As a people, we are health seeking on the one hand, while indulgence seeking on the other” and she finds no answers to the juxtaposition of fad diets with expanding fast food menus. Nothing defines these contradictions more than the feeding frenzy that is Super Bowl Sunday, as crowds gather around “snackadiums” before, during, and after the big game. Egan’s perspective is that “Americans love the Super Bowl because some of them like football, most of them like day drinking, and all of them like feasting.” And because we all like feasting, this book is a very interesting look at how trends, marketing, and modern life influence our tastes and eating habits.