In some ways Nigella Lawson's recent comments on clean eating demonstrate the enormous schism in the way we publicly talk about food. Food is either good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, clean or dirty, and if you don't subscribe to either of those factions, it's the age-old "everything in moderation."
We live in a time where you are often asked to make a binary declaration about who you are by what you eat, and those declarations come with an aura of a particular lifestyle around them. It's not a new argument that food choices can tell us something more about who we are. But I'm going to refrain from invoking the often-mentioned phrase by Brillat-Savarin, because while that saying has its historical merits, it's a reductive, get-to-know-you party trick at best.
Which is why I'm a little incensed that Nigella, who I was a great fan of for her ability to inform the conversation about what to eat without being patronizing, has taken up arms against clean eating. Her comment that "People are using certain diets as a way to hide an eating disorder or a sense of unhappiness and unease with their own body," is a very generalized response to what is a very personal decision — to eat more healthfully.
Surely the argument can be made that the label of this particular diet is polarizing in some ways because it identifies some foods as clean and pure and others as dirty and tainted, but it narrows the reasoning behind why we are motivated to elect certain diets. The push towards a healthier diet can come on the heels of a health crisis or the discovery of an allergy. And if it doesn't, if it is just a choice to make better choices, why does that come with the suspicion that something more perverse or pathological like disordered eating is at hand?
The generalized assumption that disordered eating is the culprit is a hypocritical generalization and indicative of a closer tie to a personal experience with that particular expression. Unsurprisingly, Nigella goes on to explain how she's witnessed this with her own mother.
On her "Late Late Show" show appearance, she added that she realized "later" in life that her mother likely had an eating disorder, saying, "I kind of put two and two together."
All of this is to say that eating is personal. And the personal choices we make about the food with cook, eat, and share deserve a more sophisticated understanding than the public assumptions they are often given.