When it comes to kitchen gadgets, I’m most likely to reach for a knife. As food writer Laurie Colwin puts it, most kitchen tools are frills and few are essential, after all, “Most of the world cooks over fire without any gadgets at all.”
Our obsession with buying the latest kitchen equipment is, I think, a symptom of our being ever sold to. More pertinently, however, it also points towards our increasing neurosis about food. I read a brilliant piece by John Lanchester in the New Yorker last year, discussing the transition of food from being about where we come from, to being about the person we want to become.
The most common statement we make about our eating now is by purchasing this cookbook, or that product, and displaying it proudly. Since I started this blog, I’ve been fascinated by the role food plays in connecting us to our family, and yet in spite of my digging, I rarely hear people say: “I eat this all the time, just because Mum did.”
As Lanchester points to in his article, contemporary eating habits are tribal in a commercial sense: we consume branded goods that make us appear well travelled or healthier. We are no longer ‘tribal’ in a familial sense, in that we eat what our kin always did. Michael Pollen says we would be better off eating like our grandmothers. Instead, we’re more likely to follow the nutritional advice of a machine that comes with a book, like the Nutribullet.
The Nutribullet sounds like a sex toy and purposefully so. It’s being marketed to people like me: conscientious women, mostly, who are concerned about their weight and/or preserving their health. Except, this offer is nothing but a false shortcut to what I think is now a lifetime’s work: nurturing a relationship with food as sustenance rather than as a route to becoming comforted, sexy, or otherwise special.
What the Nutribullet does is grind fruit and veg down to a smoothie – seeds, stalks and skins – so that you can drink it all down without needing to chop or chew. “The Nutribullet system is so easy… anyone can use it,” says the website. (What, even me?) You can then go to work feeling sure that you’ve efficiently ticked off your five-a-day. Even better for fussy kids – just blend up some kale with loads of sweet pears and they’ll glug it down without a thought. I’m no scientist, but as I understand it, your mouth, teeth and stomach are designed to grind down the food you eat so that nutrients can be extracted. If you can’t trust your body to do this, you have a problem.
My views on this are enhanced by the negative associations I have with pureed, or liquid, food. Complan: from when my dad nearly died of appendicitis; Ensure, from when my mum’s MS got so bad she could no longer swallow. My mother-in-law also endures a number of health problems, one of which is Barrett’s oesophagus. The other weekend, she showed me a ‘dysphagia diets’ brochure from Wiltshire Farm Foods, which contains such abominations as ‘pureed sandwiches’. It made me wonder, when soup is one of the most nutritious and diverse dishes known, why anyone would think it a good idea to puree fish and then reform it into a fillet shape.
Products like Nutribullet medicalise nutrition in the same way as these unappetising, illogical hospital foods, but they’re not marketed at sick people. Those of us in good physical shape are encouraged to put a prescribed amount of roughage into the machine and drink it down obediently like a sugar pill. We think ourselves healthier as a result, but are we?
One of the hot topics of the moment is that we should cut down on sugar, whether it’s alcohol, high fructose corn syrup, refined cane sugar, or concentrated fruit juice. By drinking juices and smoothies, we consume more sugar than we need, and our guts are also spared necessary effort in digestion. A Nutribullet may retain more fibre than a conventional juicer – well, it promotes giving access to “unused nutrients in the whole food” – but if we couldn’t eat the equivalent as solid food, or if our guts can’t process it naturally, it just doesn’t seem quite right.
Unlike old-fashioned soup, smoothies take the storytelling out of cooking and eating. Smoothies aren’t warming or soothing, they aren’t simmered and stirred, they are macerated mechanically and consumed quickly. While a soup can be made from scraps, a smoothie requires bulk. They are a capitalist’s dream food: you need an expensive gadget in your kitchen and an unending variety of fresh fruit and veg in your fridge.
Now, in spite of my prejudices, I do make smoothies now and then. My daughter thinks they’re fun. She chops up some bananas and we put them in the freezer overnight. In the morning, we put the banana in a flask with some berries, oat milk – target demographic or what? – and a spoonful of honey. I whizz it up with a hand blender, and then we drink it through colourful straws. No Nutribullet required.