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Book Review: "Panic on a plate"

On my holidays here in Kerry, in between the Olympics and the rain I have been reading several books. Last week I blogged on the “Locavore’s Dilemma” and this week I’m going to cover the book “Panic on a plate” by Rob Lyons. Rob runs a blog ( which is well worth connecting to. He is deputy editor of Spiked ( which has the magnificent objective of being “...dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture of war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, Luddism, illiberalism and irrationalisation in all their ancient and modern forms”.Wow, don’t you love it!

“Panic on a plate - how society developed an eating disorder” is an excellent book for those who want to read behind the headlines of doom and gloom or shock and awe stories from the mass media on the dangers of the modern food chain. It is a small book, concise but covering all of the important issues myths that need to be addresses. The chapter which most interested me was the one entitled: “How has our food changed”. Here Rob Lyons looks deep into the past eating habits of the poorer social classes in London and he also explores the middle classes assumptions about the diets of the poorer classes. Thus he shows that todays obsession with such issues is over a century old and probably older if we had access to the right data.  He cites a study of the diets of the poorer classes in 1901.The following are daily averages in grams and the figures in brackets are the intake data of the Irish population from a recent national nutrition survey: 435 for bread (115), 104 for potatoes (71), 57 for sugar (75), 11 for cereals (57),  91 for meat  (140), 114 for milk (195) and 20 for fats (14). The quantitative differences between today in Ireland and then in London hide several problems The first concerns micronutrients because we know that these limited growth and development in the early part of the 20th century to such an extent that mandatory food fortification was introduced base on the appalling rate of rejection of military recruits to the Boer war based on poor nutritional status. The second hidden problem was access to adequate cooking facilities. He cites studies of eating habits  in 1914 by Maud Pember Reeves:“ Another difficulty which dogs the path of the Lambeth housekeeper is, either that there is no oven or only a gas oven which requires a good deal of gas, or that the stove oven needs much fuel to heat it. Once a week for the Sunday dinner, the plunge is taken. Homes where there is no  oven send out to the bakehouse on that occasion. The rest of the week is managed on cold food or in the hard-worked saucepan and frying pan are brought into play.” I had never heard of a bake house! On the plus side was the fish and chip shop and In the latter part of the 19th century, one study showed that “working class families in industrial areas use the fish and chip shop three or four times a week”.   And of course, there were critics of these fish and chip shops. He quotes from J K Walton’s ‘Fish and chips and the British working class, 1870-1940’: “...Critics alleged that fish and chips was indigestible, expensive and unwholesome. It was seen as a route to, or an aspect of, the ‘secondary poverty’ which arose from the incompetent or immoral misapplication of resources that would otherwise have been sufficient to sustain an adequate standard of living”. Apparently, in 1906, the English sea side town of Blackpool had 182 sweet shops, 79 fish and chip shops and 58 restaurants. The point that Rob Lyons  is making is that it is a common myth to believe that “....there was a Golden Age in which everyone ate well, with lots of locally produced meat, fruit and vegetables, lovingly prepared at home....Eating out was rare and convenience food non-existent”.

A second issue which he covers in this area, is that the present day obsession of the well heeled with the diets of the Hoi Polloi is nothing new. He cites George Orwell who in The Road to Wigan Pier wrote of: “Parties of dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed”. He cites a government commission of 1904 on physical deterioration who decry the food choices of the poor: “It is no doubt that with greater knowledge, the poor might live more cheaply than they do but ..the tendency is to spend as little as possible on food”.

Lyons tackles the myth of ‘junk food’, and I particularly like his quotation of A.A.Gill of the Sunday Times in relation to organic food: “What I really mind about all this is that organic is making food into a class issue. Organic brings back this prewar system of posh, politically correct food for Notting Hill people and filthy, rubbish chemical food for filthy, rubbish chemical people. Either you are a nice organic person or you are a filthy, overweight McDonald’s person. I find that really obscene. It has very little to do with food and a lot to do with weird snobbery”. He has an excellent chapter on school meals and the efforts of the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to right the wrongs of the school menu.

He writes about fear and how key words are used about the fears that are stoked up in relation to food:‘epidemic’, ‘time bomb’ and ‘plague’ and quotes the sociologist David Altheide: “Fear does not just happen; it is socially constructed and then manipulated by those who seek to benefit”.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in food and health and because Rob Lyons is a journalist, I’d particularly recommend it to that profession.


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