Sunday, November 2, 2008

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; In Defense of Food; Twinkie, Deconstructed; Harvest for Hope; The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've been meaning to do this for a while, but I suppose that it's better late than never.  There are a few books that have really changed the way I think about food, so I'll say a little bit about each one (in the order in which I read them).

1) "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver.  Barbara and her family buy a farm in North Carolina and pledge to only eat locally grown and produced food (with a few minor exceptions like spices) for a year.  They grow a lot of produce and raise turkeys and chickens, and find everything else they need at farmers' markets and nearby farms.  It's a really good read because she combines humorous stories about learning how to successfully farm (like figuring out how to sneakily give away tons of zucchini) with some really important lessons that they learned.  She also points out many health (and taste!) benefits of eating locally produced organic food.  And the best part is that there's no hint of an elitist attitude.  She makes a good case for eating completely locally, but fully admits that it's not possible for most people.  But, there are some great resources for a few changes that everyone can do.

I was hesitant to read this book because I knew it would change the way I think, and I figured it was easier being ignorant.  This didn't radically change my habits, but afterwards I did start shopping at the market occasionally, and I started paying more attention to where food comes from.  It also prompted me to get the bread machine (her husband makes a fresh loaf every day), and that's been a fantastic change to my life.

Oh, and there's a great website with some of the recipes she includes in her book.

2) "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan.  I have become obsessed with this guy.  The cover of the book has the phrase "Eat Food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.", and that's the heart of the book.  He starts off with a critique of nutritionists, saying that the whole industry has rotated through the low fat and low carb crazes, and that none of them make any sense.  Sensible eating is far more healthy.  Then he describes some of the chemicals and processing methods in "food-like products" that you find everywhere.  He gives great examples about how humans in different regions of the world can live on practically any diet as long as it's real food.  Finally, he gives several suggestions on how to eat "real food", such as not eating stuff that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food, only shopping on the outside aisles of the grocery store, not eating things with more than 5 ingredients, and not eating anything with an ingredient that your 5 year old can't pronounce.  He also touts the benefits of eating locally.  It's one of the most informative books I've read, but unlike Omnivore's Dilemma (see below), it's a very quick and easy read.

This book changed my life.  I read it on a camping trip in August, and halfway through the book I went for a walk and decided that it was time to change.  I decided to follow his "guide" for eating as best as I could.  This meant shopping at farmers markets, cooking more, and not eating any pre-packaged foods (with a few exceptions, like Whole Foods crackers which only contain whole wheat).  Perhaps the biggest change was switching to 100% whole grain everything.  I barely ate white rice or pasta before and always bought "wheat" bread, but now I make sure that everything is 100%.  I also eat organic foods when they're affordable.  It reduces my consumption of pesticides, but more importantly, it means I'm not eating genetically modified foods.  It was a big change (and most of all, a big challenge), but I was up for it and it's been a lot of fun.  He's more of a journalist (he won't tell you specifically what to eat and what not to eat - he's not a nutritionist - but has some great ideas on changes in food policy and methods that need to be considered.  Recently he wrote a letter to "the next president" that is very impressive.

3) "Twinkie, Deconstructed" by Steve Ettlinger.  This wasn't the best read, but it was somewhat informative.  It goes through the ingredients on a twinkie, one by one, and explains how each one got from the farm (or lab, in some cases) to the twinkie factory.  Some of the explanations are quite frightening and reinforced my decisions to avoid packaged foods.  It got boring quickly, though, so I scanned through for the ingredients I was most interested in reading about (like high fructose corn syrup).

4) "Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating" by Jane Goodall.  This was an interesting read.  It's similar to the Pollan books in that it describes some of the reasons to support the local food movement and not to eat all of the fake food.  But she goes more into the environmental effects of such an eating system.  She did several things to piss me off, like describing the amount she eats in a day, which adds up to about 500 calories.  She's also a member of PETA and definitely has a very elitist attitude and looks down on meat-eaters.  She had some good ideas and resources, though, and I'm glad I read it.

5) "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan.  Again, he did a great job with this book.  It's much more dense than "In Defense of Food", but a really great read.  It's divided up into 3 sections: the first lays out how everything we eat is soaked (both literally and metaphorically) in corn and oil, the second describes two organic meals (one from Whole Foods and the other from a small organic farm in Virginia), and the third describes a meal that he hunted and gathered himself.  This guy is a great journalist and he gets to the bottom of everything.  When he calls up Joel Salatin who owns the Virginia farm, and Salatin won't ship him pork because that goes against his beliefs, Pollan takes a trip to the farm and works on it for a few weeks (doing everything including butchering the chickens).  This book goes into great depth about the problems in farming - people are being payed by the government to grow two crops, corn and soybeans, which has forced the cows onto feedlots and destroyed farming and the environment.  The description of Salatin's farm and his intricate method of crop rotation that eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilizer is beautiful.

This book has been very widely read lately, and I'm hoping it causes people to stop and think about what's actually going on.  It sounds like Obama is somewhat aware of the problems (especially after reading Pollan's letter), so hopefully we're getting somewhere.  This one firmly reinforced my food changes, and I'm very happy with the choices I've made.

Unfortunately life is going to get a bit harder now that my farmers' market is closed until June.  This week I stocked up on meat (a turkey breast, turkey sausage, and ground beef), and got some of the small amounts of produce left (a spaghetti squash, an acorn squash, and a head of cabbage).  I'm far more concerned about eating quality meat, dairy, and eggs (no hormones, antibiotics, and given a "real life" on the pasture), and I can continue to get these from the market across town.  I'll have to start eating more produce from the grocery store, and I'll buy organic when it makes sense.  I'm still not sure how the Kingsolvers lived without fruit for the winter...

All in all, I would recommend all of these books.  And, coincidentally, I would start with the first two I read because they're both easy to read, informative, and entertaining.

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