Friday, February 26, 2010

Recommended Reading

I am currently reading this book by Barbara Kingsolver. I've read a couple of her novels in the past, which are wonderful, but this book is a revelation. Or rather, it puts into words exactly how I feel about America's current food/health predicament and re-iterates the painfully simple solution, which happens to be the heart of this Lenten challenge.

The basic premise of the book is a journalistic account of her family's decision to abandon city life in Tuscon, AZ; move to a farm in Appalachia, and survive only on local food for an entire year, much of it grown on their own farm by their own two hands.

I find her prose remarkably humble, witty, and just so...true. Like Michael Pollan, she has obviously done lots of research on industrial food production and reports many of the same facts he touts in his books. But Kingsolver gets down into the heart of the matter in a way that Pollan never does in any of his books. Maybe it's because she's a woman charged with the task of feeding her family. Maybe it's because she came of age in an era when processed food was seen as a "gift" to women who wanted out of the house and into the workforce, much to our current demise. Maybe it's just that she's a damn good writer. Nevertheless, I find myself nodding my head vigorously at every chapter, and I just made my husband sit down so I could read him a 5 page excerpt. I'm not even halfway through the thing yet and already I want to get on the rooftops and shout to people "Read this book, it will change your life!".

This is where I get myself into trouble. I tend to get overzealous about sharing my feelings about cooking and food with others. But it's so easy, I tell myself. They should know too! I don't have a knack for humility like Kingsolver. At best, I come off sounding like a snooty, younger (and much thinner) version of Ina Garten. How easy is that?

It's so not my intention. And so I'm going to shut up now and let Barbara Kingsolver do the talking. This will the the first of a couple of installments of her writing that I'm planning to post here:

On the concept of organic/local food as an "elites-only" privilege:

"Even so, a perception of organic food as an elite privilege is a considerable obstacle to the farmer growing food for middle-income customers whose highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price. Raising food without polluting the field or the product will always cost more than the conventional mode that externalizes costs to taxpayers and the future...(she is speaking about the the tax dollars we pay that subsidize the petroleum used in growing, processing, and shipping industrially produced food, as well as the subsidies we pay to this large-scale, chemical dependent brand of farming, the amount of which is increasing each year, not to mention the toll on the environment and the depletion of resources for future generations).

She goes on to say: "Grocery money is an odd sticking point for U.S. citizens, who on average spend a lower proportion of our income on food than people in any other country, or heretofore in history. In our daily fare, even in school lunches, we broadly justify consumption of tallow-fried animal pulp on the grounds that it's cheaper than whole grains, fresh vegetables, hormone-free dairy, and such. Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health tradeoff but still feel compelled to economize on food - in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement."

"It's interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains. The majority of Americans buy bottled drinking water, for example, even though water runs from the faucets at home for a fraction of the cost, and government quality standards are stricter for tap water than for bottled. At any income level, we can be relied upon for categorically unnecessary purchases: portable-earplug music instead of the radio; extra-fast Internet for leisure use; heavy vehicles to transport light loads; name brand clothing instead of plainer gear."

"How delusional are we, exactly? Insisting to farmers that our food has to be cheap is like commanding a ten-year-old to choose a profession and move out of the house now. It violates the spirit of the enterprise. It guarantees bad results. The economy of the arrangement will come around to haunt you..."

"...the 'Buy Cheap Eats' crusade is assisting in the deaths of our compatriots at the rate of about 820 a day; somebody's bound to notice that."

One more thought from me, Emily: My own grandfather died of obesity at age 65. They actually wrote "obesity" on his death certificate rather than "heart disease" or whatever else they could have written. He wasn't one of those gigantic people that you might stare at, but he probably wasn't comfortable in an airplane seat. I've begun to wonder just how many of our loved ones could have been saved, and who still could be saved - if our food system wasn't controlled by capitalism and an industry that sits around trying to figure out how to shove more corn byproducts into the American people. They literally have meetings like that, and they are succeeding. I think I'm justifiably angry.

The painfully simple truth I spoke about earlier is that we can beat all this, simply by finding the best foods (and by that I mean, whole, real foods) we can afford and cooking them. It can start today, with a meal, at your table, with the ones you love.


Julia Woodard said...

Excellent post and an absolutely excellent book. (Did you know that Kingsolver went to DePauw, too? Fun tidbit.)

May I suggest you add "Real Food" by Nina Plank to your reading list? And later (if you're so inclined), "Real Food for Mother & Baby." :) I think they'd be right up your alley.

There's also always Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," if you haven't read that one yet. Talk about justifiable anger--not only does he explore how corps are filling us with totally nutrient-barren shit food (literally, shit) and the cruelties of CAFOs, but he gets into what I find to be horrific human rights violations occurring in slaughterhouses throughout the U.S.

There is no such thing as "cheap food." It has a cost and some of us pay dearly.

Keep up the good work, Em. :)

Emily Y. said...

thanks Julia! i will definitely check out those books. i did read fast food nation a couple of years ago, and it angered me then - i'm sure it would anger me even more now.

so cool that kingsolver went to depauw! i must have known that at some point but totally forgot...

i'm so glad to have a positive comment, i was afraid i'd get some negative backlash. i tend to get into arguments with people over these issues...

mark711777 said...

"Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!" That's right, I just went Les Mis on your post. Don't worry, Enjorlas, I'm right behind you, marching in place! Fantastic posting. Kudos to you!!!

alyson said...

emily -

loving the blog so far!

our family is having to deal with the recession in a major way - max and i are both umemployed (doing freelance when we can), but mostly living off of the government. this has made me enter pioneer mode (ex. - baking chicken, making chicken stock later), which will probably have a good long term effect on our family!

but i do want to play devils advocate - while i totally buy k's argument about spending ridiculous amounts of money on cars, or ipods, etc., there are those who arent spending money on anything but bare necessities. the middle class doesn't really have an argument for not spending a little extra on quality, whole food - but when it comes to whether or not to pay rent or spend extra money on higher quality groceries, i think it is clear what choice a person has to make.

i think a way to solve this is by supporting community farming, esp. in bigger cities - where people are given plots of land (you see those unused abandoned lots, why not re-purpose!) to grow their own food, so they dont have to worry about finding it at a high end grocery store that probably doesnt exist in their community anyway.

just a few thoughts. :)

Emily Y. said...

hi alyson! :) glad you like the blog so far, and i loved your comments. i am in complete agreement with you about supporting community farming - this spring I'm hoping to start getting a CSA box - do they have those around where you live? it's supposed to be a more economical way of getting organic produce and supporting local farmers.

i think you would like this clip from a forum with anthony bourdain and alice waters Bourdain challenges Waters by discussing the fact that many people cannot be concerned with organic this and that when they are just trying to get food on the table.

It's such a sticky subject and a complex problem with deep roots. One other thing I found interesting in K's book is that she quotes some facts about how when people move up in income level and class, they start drinking more pop and eating more processed foods than they did when they were less affluent.

What I gather from all this is that the problem is more cultural than related to economic status. We need to re-establish a food culture in this country - one that doesn't revolve around fast food consumed in a moving vehicle. I think it's starting to happen, but we've got a long way to go.

Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

Julia said...

If there's a CSA in St. Louis (and there are several, one of which we belong to), there are surely some good ones in Beantown! :) Ours really does cut our food costs and has two added benefits:
1. We get SO much produce, we pretty much have no need to visit the grocery store for the 20 week growing season. If we need meat or dairy, we try to buy from farmers markets, which means we have very little face-time with processed (and generally expensive) temptations... That "shop the perimeter of the store" advice is wise.
2. Since we don't want to waste anything, we can & freeze what we can't immediately eat and we save as much as possible for stock (carrot tops, bits of onion, turnip tops, etc.).

Basically, we've turned into my Grandma Rose. She's very proud of our bacon grease container in the fridge.

That said, it takes time to cook from scratch and can food to prevent its waste, and folks working third shift or two jobs need to fill bellies, not their schedules. It's a tricky balance, but taking cues from my grandmother who raised 7 kids on very little money leads me to believe it can be done... Maybe not easily (I know she'd be the first to say her life wasn't easy), but it can be done, especially now with more and more emerging urban community gardens and programs teaching people how to prepare quick, healthful meals.

I'm glad people realize the role class plays in real food accessibilty and affordability, and I'm even happier to see folks creating positive change in their communities (St. Louis, Chicago & Milwaukee all come to mind).

alyson said...

hey ladies!

indeed, we used to belong to a similar co-op in boston, called boston organics. it was lovely! i cant wait to re-instate when we have real incomes!

i think it is great to discuss, esp. one that is so sticky. it would be a miracle to alter how american's view food!

a recent issue (and i think similar to this) that i have been experiencing, is the ridiculous amount of snacks that parents are apparently supposed to provide their child. one can not go anywhere with out a myriad selection of snacks -- it is really weird. i never want kaiser to be hungry, but there is something to said for building an appetite. :)