Suppose that you and your partner go out for dinner tonight. You order steak and salad while your partner has chicken with rice. Now inspect your plates. Your cow spent almost all its life in a shed, burping methane that heats the planet. It was then slaughtered, often incompetently: it may have been still alive when its head was skinned and its legs cut off. Your “salad”, doused in dressing, is really “fat with a little lettuce”.
Your partner’s chicken lived for six weeks, diseased and crammed so closely with other birds that it cracked several bones. After torture, came slaughter: the bird was shoved into a truck, taken to the slaughterhouse, and shackled upside down. It died screaming and excreting on itself in terror. The rice comes from plants bred by scientists in the 1960s. Both your meals are lathered in the extra fat, sugar, salt and chemicals to which you have become addicted. Enjoy your meal.
Three sterling books by Jonathan Safran Foer, David Kessler and Tom Standage examine a new era in food. Until about 20 years ago, people mostly thought about how to obtain food. Then, in rich countries, they began thinking about how to enjoy it more. Cookery and diet books invaded the bestseller lists. Now people are increasingly wondering whether they should enjoy today’s food. Jamie Oliver’s passage from British cook through global TV chef to scourge of the food industry captures the trend. Foer and Kessler have written manifestos that support Oliver’s assault; Standage provides the historical context.
Almost everything we eat in rich countries nowadays has been invented or reinvented in recent decades, largely without us noticing. Our great-grandparents would not have recognised most of our food. Even today’s chickens have been genetically engineered into virtually new species. And we have far more choices than any previous generation did. What we eat is now who we are: we have the unprecedented luxury of choosing our diets. These authors guide us through our new virtual supermarket, steering us towards decisions that require a radical breach in our eating habits.