November 22, 2019

You are what you eat

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826) the French lawyer and politician who gained fame as a gastronome and who published his famous work, Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), in December 1825, two months before his death was the first to say “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”. I reckon if he was around today he would get quite a shock strolling down the aisle of any of our food emporiums.

Next time you go into the local supermarket take a few moments to survey the scene. In every aisle there’ll be bewildered shoppers, male and female, grasping tins or packets of food in their hands, pulling strange faces, wrinkling their noses, looking over the tops of their glasses, trying to decipher exactly what is in the packet. The information is of course all there, albeit in minute print and strange E numbers whose real significance is only known to the inner sanctum of the local Freemason’s Society, a sort of Da Vinci code for food producers, but the information is there. Either giving up in desperation or satisfied that no dolphins were unnecessarily slaughtered in its production, the tin is tossed into the trolley and the trawl for fat-free, low sodium, non-tartrazine, salted peanut-free whatever, continues.

A few hours later that same consumer is sitting in their local restaurant, listening to Billy Joel singing that bloody Piano Man song for the umpteenth time that evening and gazing into the eyes of their significant other across the table. What have they just eaten? They haven’t a bloody clue!

Never mind that the chef has put a “new twist” on the Beef Stroganoff, has whizzed, jizzed, fizzed all manner of dubious chemicals, has thrown all stringent food production regulations out the window and had stomped off earlier in a pair of dirty old wellies to forage the hills or shoreline with his trusty flea-bitten canine companion for ingredients last consumed by Palaeolithic man. Forage……that’s a strange pursuit, for me, it is a word more often associated with those people who miraculously appear out of nowhere in that short time frame between you putting out your bins and the council truck arriving. Anyway back to your romantic dinner a Deux, don’t you find it strange that there is just no information available on the menu or even printed in small print on the back of the plate to give pointers to what you have just consumed.

Don’t think about asking the bloody waitroid, she doesn’t even have a clue what the table number is never mind if the curry has any Sudan Red in it. Now, this might sound a little extreme, but you also don’t know if the fresh linefish was previously frozen if the rump steak was C grade or what gum was in the salad dressing to stop it separating?

Isn’t it a little bit bizarre that we spend so much time scrutinising sell-by dates, avoiding food additives and unwanted chemical cocktails but when we go into a restaurant we blindly trust the guy in the white jacket who incidentally requires no legal qualification, licence or even experience before masquerading as a food producer and this very evening may be helping you along the primrose path to a night of intestinal discomfort that you’ll remember for a long time. Visible, honest policy statements on the source of raw materials and the use of chemical additives are long overdue on menus. And it’s about time we had less “gifted cooks” and more professional chefs.

 “Brian owns the Food Biz, a Cape Town-based food consultancy, and instead of working spends his time telling other people how to work. Contact him at,, 0824929239”

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