Sam Van Zweden's Eating With My Mouth Open is a fascinating examination of the way society treats food, eating and appetite

  • Eating With My Mouth Open, by Sam Van Zweden. NewSouth, $29.99.

This non-fiction book is a beautifully written exploration of the author's relationship with food.

Far from being a simple memoir, it reaches out to explore the way that food is at once a universal necessity and interest, and a deeply personal one.

To extract a traditional narrative from Eating With My Mouth Open seems almost indecent, but the author does map a movement from revelling in food as a young child, to painful struggles with a society that rejects women who do not conform to a certain body image, to a gradual acceptance of herself and her appetites.

Van Zweden touches on the desire to replicate the exact taste of a childhood recipe and the reflections of well-known authors who have written in various ways about food (ranging from Proust to Nigella Lawson).

She also addressed the way that different cultures are reflected in cuisine, the specificity of each person's kitchen and family, are all touched on here.

The old crude division drawn between body and mind, as if the mind is somehow outside the body, is also scrutinised.

She examines the appalling attitudes of some doctors towards those classified as obese, the way that our society has "an obsession with limitations".

The book also astutely observes the simultaneous ubiquity of advertisements for food and food programs, and endless new diets. The idea of fitness at any body size is here too.

But the main attraction of this book is the way it is written: circling back on itself, registering moments and incidents that have occurred, but giving weight to memory and desire.

An image of the author as a young girl sitting at the family table and slowly unpicking every pea to get to the centre seems an apt metaphor for Eating With My Mouth Open as a whole.

She slows things down to get to the guts of her relationship with food, and every reader will find similarities and differences as the book unfolds.

I, for one, found the sections on eating offal literally nauseating, which is, strangely, a compliment to the strength of the writing.

At times, reading Eating With My Mouth Open reminded me of reading a good poem, with small images of great significance. At other times the amount of research the author has undertaken shone through. (A useful guide to further reading is included.)

At the centre of the book is the way we regard our bodies, and particularly bodies that don't conform to social ideals.

And food is unpicked; that everyday thing that embodies memory, family, and ourselves.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
This story Unpicking the way we treat food and eating first appeared on The Canberra Times.