White food

We sit down and peruse the lunchtime menus. I know how neurotic she is about her weight and what she eats and I assume she will, as she always does, order the fish. Except not this dish, served as it is on a ‘bed of mash’. ‘No white foods’, she explains to me – and it is all I can do to stop myself snorting with laughter.

When will this madness end? Despite all the informed and intelligent literature now available with regard to living healthily, there continue to persist the perpetrators – often informed and intelligent people themselves – of food fads and loony diets. I believe one of the latest is the Paleo Diet in which, light years after the determining circumstances, we are instructed to emulate the eating habits of cavemen. In and of themselves those dietary regimes may possess merit but what I find unacceptable and positively counterproductive is that they perpetuate the notion of bad food and good food; they apply moral attributes to an insensate object, namely food; and above all they contribute to the obsession, both dangerous and precious, with self-nourishment.

Research constantly proves that people who go on diets more often than not regain any weight they may have lost within the first year – if they lost any at all; that it’s moderation the key, and exercise, and a wide variety of all types of foods. That it is an issue of such extraordinary complexity anyway, bound up in factors which extend well beyond the physical fact of consumption, so that suggesting a particular diet will address the problem is breathtaking naivety, or arrogance, or both.

Having got that off my chest I will concede that, yes, white foods are largely those that have been processed beyond their nutritional usefulness – refined, the fibrous outer layers stripped off, valuable vitamins and minerals shed in the process and the body’s ability at metabolising compromised. White flour, white sugar, white rice – were these not the very villains pointed at by Dr Atkins back in the seventies when he declared war on carbohydrates? Because surely this is just a dreary rerun, this White Food nonsense. Was he not denounced, and if so, what have we learnt from it all? Apparently vey little.

When I recover from my friend’s comment I remember the Italian expression mangiare in bianco. Literally translated as ‘to eat white’, this little mantra you will hear frequently in Italy, and it constitutes one of the endless, endearing old wives’ tales of which Italians, no matter how educated and sophisticated, are inordinately fond. Whenever a digestive problem presents itself the stricture is to ‘mangiare in bianco’ – to eat plain boiled rice, or undressed pasta, or chicken broth – anything that is bland, unspicy, presumably gentle on the constitution. In other words Italian white food possesses this nurturing, curative function and association, its very whiteness lending it the symbolism of purity.

Besides. Isn’t yoghurt white? Milk, the ‘complete food’ white? Vanilla ice cream – bearer of almost universal joy – very white?

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