Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Books about Food

Over the past year I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and then Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. As a mother and a commuter, I am squarely in the middle of their target audience. The Kingsolver book is easier to read and has more compelling arguments, at least for me. The Pollan books remind me of an older book with the same advice, Richard Watson's The Philosopher's Diet (and to a lesser extent, Martha Beck's The Joy Diet). My favorite part of The Omnivore's Dilemma is the second section, especially the chapter on "Big Organic" and the one entitled "Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir." Here is a section from "Big Organic:

What better way to test the outer limits of the word "organic" than by dining on a springtime delicacy that had been grown according to organic rules on a farm six thousand miles (and two seasons) away, picked, packed, and chilled on Monday, flown by jet to Los Angeles Tuesday, trucked north to a Whole Foods regional distribution center, then put on sale in Berkeley by Thursday, to be steamed, by me, Sunday night?

The newer book, In Defense of Food, argues that we need to think more about foods and less about nutrients. It includes a list of rules like "don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" (which actually convinced my almost-12-year-old to give up gogurt) and "avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup" (which has made my 14-year-old unduly proud of her consumption of cheddar bunnies). There's also another rule that I particularly enjoyed, as a commuter: "don't get your fuel from the same place your car does."

The Kingsolver book, though, is absolutely fanatical. It's like an argument where you exaggerate to see if the most absurd example will still hold true...and it does. There's no way I'm going to be able to even plant my own garden, much less raise chickens and turkeys, and even though I'm lactose intolerant, like Kingsolver and her oldest daughter, I'm not going to be embarking upon cheese-making anytime soon (she describes a process for making cheese without lactose, which must be what Kraft does too--check out their labels). But I am entirely convinced by her argument, which is that if we all ate more local food in season, the world would be a better place.

For me, this is just going back to doing what my mother taught me. She remembers choosing a watermelon from the field, cracking it open, and then picking another one if it wasn't ripe enough. She has always shopped at farmer's markets and been very careful about where she buys her meat.

Since, like Kingsolver, I have more free time for preparing food in the summer, I subscribed to a CSA last summer, and my family got to taste food they'd never tried before (boy was it good timing with the movie Ratatouille--we kept making versions of the dish and attempting to make it layer so it looked pretty). Since darn few of us are writers or tenured college teachers, we can't do the kind of picking and cooking in August that Kingsolver describes as necessary for year-round local eating. But her pre-prepared January meals sound lovely:

The blanched, frozen vegetables needed only a brief steaming to be table-ready, and the dried vegetables were easy to throw into the Crock-Pot with the chicken stock we made and froze after every roasted bird. For several full-steam-ahead weeks last summer in countless different ways, we'd made dinner ahead.

My favorite chapter of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the one entitled "You Can't Run Away on Harvest Day." It is a thoughtful argument for raising livestock, especially heirloom varieties:

Animal harvest is at least not gratuitous, as part of a plan involving labor and recompense. We raise these creatures for a reason. Such premeditation may be presumed unkind, but without it our gentle domestic beasts in their picturesque shapes, colors, and finely tuned purposes would never have had the distinction of existing. To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte's Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Next, erase civilization, brought to you by the people who learned to domesticate animals. Finally, rewrite our evolutionary history, since Homo sapiens became the species we are by means of regular binges of carnivory.

See what I mean about how she always pushes the argument further, towards absurdity? She had me at Charlotte's Web!

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