“If I may…”
My boyfriend interjects as I wax poetic ramble on about a food writer’s lecture that I just listened to.
“That’s going to be the phrase this year, isn’t it,” he predicts. “Tom Parker Bowles.”
I open my mouth to object, but I have to agree. Tom Parker Bowles is indeed the noun of my trip to Southern California. We were lucky enough to attend the 2018 Rancho Mirage Writers Festival in the Coachella Valley, which was an absolute feast for readers and writers alike, but the highlight of it all was the one-on-one conversation I had with Parker Bowles.
I devoured Parker Bowles’ 2006 book, The Year of Eating Dangreously: A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes, when I saw he would be speaking at the Writers Festival this year. On the surface, it’s a fascinating book that is both funny and serious as Parker Bowles takes the reader from plate to plate, city to city. But dig deeper, and it’s clear that this is also a writer who’s well-researched. Our conversation gives me confirmation of both.
“People think about food as a hobby and it’s not,” Parker Bowles tells me. “Food is health and wealth and happiness. Food is the one shared experience we all have. You don’t have to love food, but we all eat it.”
He pauses for the briefest moment, then launches right back in.
“You could argue that food is where civilization started, as we moved from hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. It gives more time to write, to paint, to play music. Food is so fundamental, not just in anthropological and historical terms, but in finding out more about the tummy, about the gut, the organ, the brain, how it connects. Diet affects behavior, you know. Food is everything.”
Food is everything, certainly, and it’s everywhere, thanks to the rise of supermarkets. In the year of 2018, I don’t have to live near a farm or know how to properly prepare skin and roast a chicken (but I learned). I can go to a supermarket and buy a small package with a few skinless, boneless chicken breasts, season them and slide them into the oven, giving me plenty of time to write a post like this or watch the latest episodes of my favorite TV shows. It’s good and it’s bad. In The Year of Eating Dangerously, Parker Bowles writes,
“My problem is not with our methods of preservation –so essential for survival in the days without electricity –but the fact that we accept the mediocre, the desperately dull, as everyday.”
I ask Parker Bowles if, 12 years later, he has the same concerns.
“Listen, you’ve got to be pragmatic,” he tells me. “Supermarkets bring cheap food, so I can’t stand around wagging fingers, saying cheap food is a bad thing. I still feel that the long-term costs of intensive farming of pigs and chickens, of too many chemicals and pesticides, is not good at all.”
Back in 2006, he wrote,
“Although the organic movement moves from strength to strength, I worry that the big corporations just see organic branded goods as a way to make bigger margins. We should care about organic as a sustainable system of farming, not because it’s this week’s new trend. Intensive farming is at the heart of all of our problems, not nonorganic food.”
Referencing this idea, I ask him if he still believes producers treat the trend of buying organic food as a means to make money and not something that they believe to be their responsibility.
“I wouldn’t buy organic ketchup and say because it’s organic, it’s good,” he begins. “There’s very good organic stuff. There’s also very good farming without the label. Trust your butcher, trust your fishmonger, speak to the people, the farmers who know these things.”
On his culinary adventure, Parker Bowles tried foods that were truly physically dangerous – you couldn’t pay me to try the fugu, or puffer fish, he ate in Tokyo, as it could be fatally poisonous if your chef cuts the fish improperly. He also ate foods that were dangerous based on our preconceived notions of what is and isn’t food, such as the protein-filled insects he ate in Laos. Parker Bowles often points out in his book that no matter how you look at it, food can be dangerous, even if it’s something as mundane as a bag of lettuce.
“It’s our perception of different foods, of offal or blood or unusual beasts, that’s usually the biggest obstacle to trying new things, not the taste itself.”
During our conversation, Parker Bowles tells me one of the so-called dangers of food isn’t necessarily what’s on the plate in front of you, but rather the conversation around the plate. He believes one of the most common, seemingly innocuous phrases you hear about food nowadays is actually one of the worst: guilty pleasures.
“I hate the idea of clean eating,” he declares emphatically. “There’s a big movement in the U.K. and it’s nefarious and horrible. It’s stigmatizing food. ‘That’s good, that’s bad,’ therefore there’s a huge rise of children – boys and girls – with eating disorders.”
That idea of avoiding terms like “guilty pleasures,” really resonated with me. And full disclosure, I’m sure if you combed through my blog and Instagram posts, it’s a phrase that’s bound to pop up. But, like in life, labels aren’t always a good thing.
In short, it’s all about balance.
In fact, I asked the culinary explorer where he went when he arrived in Palm Springs for the festival.
He’s had puffer fish in Tokyo.
He’s had blazing hot chilies in New Mexico.
Snake stew in Hong Kong.
Gluttonous amounts of award-winning barbecue in Nashville.
He tells me not only did he go to a well-known steakhouse here, but also to a chain.
He goes to In-N-Out Burger.
It’s guilt-free. As it should be.