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Book Review: Just Food

30 Nov

“What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.”  – Lucretius

In discussing genetically modified (GM) food, most people’s views fall into one of two groups: categorically for or against. Rarely do you find shades of grey in this debate. It’s not hard to see why when you hear stories of animals being injected with antibiotics and farmers being forced to use government-issued seeds that have been modified so that they will not reproduce at the end of the season. In the last ten years or so, a locavore movement has risen, preaching the concept that people should only eat food that is grown locally.  The idea is to visit farmer’s markets to purchase local and seasonal food, thereby eliminating reliance on Big Agribusiness and reduce pollution created via “food miles” – the distance your food traveled to get to the store.

Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams takes issue with the “food miles” theory. He speculates that food  miles are not the biggest issue with our current *gastronomical* methods but that there are myriad other factors that must be taken into account if we are to save our planet from ourselves. He raises excellent points, namely that the transportation of food products accounts for a percentage of food-related pollution, but not all of it. Other factors must be taken into consideration, like the energy needed to raise the product, feed it, the energy used to harvest it and, of course, to cook it once you’ve brought it home.

McWilliams also brings up a valid point that is often overlooked but is of tantamount importance: the world’s population is increasing at an astronomical rate and if we continue to grow, purchase and prepare food the way we do currently, we will have no way to feed the projected 8 billion people expected by 2025.  Without question, a locavore movement is not practical: how are people in drought-plagued nations supposed to live without food being brought to them from other countries? He states that, “…if poor countries do not develop the resources and infrastructures to mass-produce their own food and a surplus to trade, the developed world will have to donate that food to them…now is not the time to retreat into locavore isolationism.”

Just Food provides a counterpoint to the locavore argument. Without condemning the movement entirely, McWilliams seeks to point out flaws that are often glossed over by the media and to postulates his own theories for the betterment of  society’s relationship with food and its origins . For those who are serious about food issues, environmentalism and the future of food sustainability, I definitely recommend giving this book a read. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of McWilliams’ arguments, I think it’s important that books like Just Food are written. The topics tackled therein are not black and white but rather many shades of grey and they need to be brought to light.

A Little Home Cookin’

30 Sep

Once again, the Hot Biscuit has contributed mightily to my food world! She stumbled upon The Kitchen Reader and knew I needed to check it out. A site dedicated to reviewing books about food? Sign me up! This month’s pick was Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking…

A few things became crystal clear as I read Cooking:

1. Colwin was a good writer with a gift for telling charming, funny stories;
2. She had great insights into late-bloomer cooks and what they want to achieve;
3. That this book was definitely written in the 80’s. Some of those recipes? They practically have crimped hair and acid washed jeans.

Home Cooking
 is a great, fast read that touches on many topics but succeeds at its highest level when the author simply tells stories of how she arrived at certain recipes, especially when she first began to cook in her tiny apartment. I got many hearty chuckles at tales of dinners gone hilariously awry and nodded along at her assessment of those who came to cooking later in life. I didn’t start really cooking until my 20s and when I fell into the classic trap of trying to do too much at once. Fortunately for me, I have very patient friends and family who were kind enough to keep encouraging me! Colwin’s descriptions of meant-well-but-failed dinners hit home in a very personal way for me and, I’m sure, to many others. I kind of wish I’d read this book before my culinary journey started – I might have avoided some minor culinary…missteps.

Where Home Cooking occasionally lost me was its pretentiousness. There are a few passages that had me rolling my eyes. For example, I can most definitely say that I have never felt a deep desire to cook up stuffed veal or paté-stuffed chicken. Have I wanted to make fancy dinners? Sure. The assertion that “every” cook wants to make the above dishes, however, was a bit much. Maybe a product of the times, maybe a product of the author’s opinion but either way I felt that there was a condescending tone that occasionally crept through.

Having said that, I felt that Cooking was packed with some great stories and broadcast  important messages: that nothing ventured means nothing gained. It’s okay – and expected – to make mistakes in the kitchen. That your friends will forgive you your “crispy around the edges” fish that stayed in the pan longer than you intended.  Try new things and be creative! You never know what amazing recipe or technique you’ll stumble upon in your next kitchen adventure.

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