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Conference on appetite offers fascinating food for thought

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

You don’t have to eat food for it to feed you. Sometimes food for thought can be as satisfying as a good meal.

I was in New York for the James Beard Foundation’s fourth food conference, a yearly gathering that brings together food experts of all kinds, from chefs to professors.

This year’s theme was “The Paradox of Appetite.” Complicated issue, appetite: Is it what we need or what we desire? Does it hurt us or enable us?

One speaker, author Raj Patel, defined the origin of the word appetite as “to seek or go toward something.” See if these highlights send you toward a thought:

• French social scientist Claude Fischler noted a study that found U.S. students are more likely to think that if something tastes good, it is bad for you. French students are more likely to think that if something tastes good, it is good for you.

• Patel, the author of “Stuffed and Starved,” shared an experiment from Malawi, where the government decided to end child malnutrition. Women do most of the farming, so they were helped to learn better methods to increase food production.

The amount of food produced went up, all right. But child malnutrition remained a problem. Why? Because women had to spend more time in the field, they weren’t cooking and feeding the children.

The effort had to shift to teaching gender equality, making it acceptable for men to cook.

• Grain is the secret to civilization. My favorite speaker was architect Carolyn Steel, the author of “Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives,” who talked about “The Hardscape of Appetite.”

Grain – like wheat, corn and rice – was the first food that let us stay in one place. We didn’t have to chase it, like game, or seek it, like nuts and berries. We could plant it and gather around it, and that allowed us to form cities. But then feeding cities became civilization’s primary problem. Think about everything that resulted:

The etiquette of eating shaped our behavior with one another. The need for food shaped our technology. Until about 1830, with the arrival of railroads, cities had to stay compact so we could all reach a central market.

I’ll be thinking about that when I drive to a farmers market and a supermarket every Saturday.

• Finally, the most intriguing point came from microbiologist Steve Goff, who spoke on “The Biology of Appetite.”

Sensory input tells you “there’s good nutrients there” and essentially guides what you want to eat. But you have to develop that instinct.

Goff says it actually takes time to train your brain to prefer higher-quality food. So, if you eat junk, you train your body to prefer junk. If you eat good-quality food, you train your body to prefer that, too.

Goff’s point: “Every meal is a training meal.”

Chew on that.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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