book review: the chain

It’s been awhile since I reviewed a food book – awhile since I read a food book. I think that it’s almost like the feeling you get when you watch the news a lot, and you realize that the bad news is just a little bit too much. But when I saw many people in the food world talking about Ted Genoways’ The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food online, I thought it was time to get back in the game. I’m disappointed that books like this even exist for me to read, but I am glad I picked this one up and am putting my toe back in the water. It’s not a good habit to just turn my face to truth because it’s too hard to handle.

the chainThe art on the cover of The Chain is compelling and accurate. The pig shown has its body cut into parts, so you can see “inside” where the pig is filled with cogs and sprockets – the mechanics of a factory. While there are many books that detail the problems with factory farming, this book takes it down to the micro level and illustrates those larger problems by telling the story of two factories – one in Austin, Minnesota and the other in Fremont, Nebraska – that service Hormel by creating Spam – the ubiquitous hunk of gelatinous “pork product.”

Book after book and essay after essay have been written on the problems with factory farms, detailing their detrimental impact on the environment, animal welfare, public health and food safety. But The Chain is different by primarily focusing on the meat packing that happens at the two plants and tracing the problems backwards.

Because all large meat companies, such as Hormel and Smithfield, are now vertically integrated, they produce their own grain, to feed their own pigs, and they slaughter, package, ship and sell them. One compelling section details the work of undercover workers in a factory pig farm that services the Hormel meat processing plants, there to investigate inhumane treatment of animals and violation of regulations (and basic decency). State legislatures are increasingly being asked by industry to pass legislation that outlaws this type of recording and whistle-blowing, collectively referred to as Ag-gag laws (For some background, this is not new. I wrote about this in April 2013).

Genoways interviews Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project, and her comments are too good to paraphrase (p. 39):

Ag-gag laws, as they’re know, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistle-blowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistle-blowing.’ In short, ‘you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.” She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that had been to regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do a favor and criminalize catching us?'” Amanda Hitt, Government Accountability Project

Ag-gag laws are just one of the ills that Genoways mentions – sections on water pollution and the fight of small towns to have their watersheds protected from contaminated manure lagoons as well as horrifically abused animals are both fascinating and horrifying. And the book is carefully and meticulously researched, with an extensive notes section and an index – one of the marks of good non-fiction.

But the thing that sets The Chain apart is its focus on people. The people who work at the Hormel plants in Austin and Fremont and what it does to them and what it does to the surrounding communities. It is truly heartbreaking that we pollute clean water, abuse animals who are dependent on us for their care, and expose workers to horrific working conditions for near poverty wages – all for something like Spam. Spam, people.

The section that detailed a mysterious illness that plagued workers at one particular plant actually made me sick to my stomach. Workers at a table that sucked out the pig’s brain matter with high pressure hoses had to work at such high speeds, that a cloud of brain matter always hovered over the table, because the matter never had a chance to settle before more was introduced. That’s right. A cloud of brain matter. Without proper safety equipment (that encumbered workers too much for them to keep up with the company-mandated line speed), workers inhaled the brain matter of the pigs daily for hours upon hours. It gave them nerve diseases that stripped their nerves of the sheaths that protect them, making it virtually impossible for them to stand or move without excruciating pain.

The fight for workers’ compensation and for the company to acknowledge these abuses is sickening. Workers were permanently disabled with their quality of life forever diminished for something like $10/hour if they were lucky. On my worst day in my cubicle job, I can’t even begin to comprehend what working on the kill floor or the butchering line would be like at a meat processing plant.

Why could Hormel (and other companies that have similar problems) get away with this? Having destroyed the unions that supported the workforce for decades, the companies rely on a workforce of primarily immigrant labor. No matter where you stand on the side of immigration reform or law, the situations created in these communities are no good for anyone involved. The workers and communities that are at odds against them are both under the same boot that’s pressing down on them – the corporate interests of companies who have free reign by government to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want.

I could go on for days. It was a great book. You should read it.

What I can’t seem to shake after reading it is the feeling that we so easily take horrifying abuses and problems and distill them to numbers. Commodities. We think of pigs as “pork” and not as animals, with the ability to feel pain and excitement and care and attachment. X number of chops and roasts. That’s it.

It would be easy to say that “only” X number of workers were affected by the nerve disease. But these aren’t just statistics. These are people. With faces and names and families. Hobbies and thoughts and dreams for a better life for their families – the same dream that all of us are working to reach. Does a human being, whether he/she has legal papers or not, deserve to inhale pig brain matter and suffer daily, agonizing pain, because the company increased the line speed so that we can eat more Spam than ever before? And so that Hormel can make increasingly more profit? Would the CEO of Hormel work at that same spot on the line, knowing what it’s done to people? I would venture to say no. Yet somehow, it’s okay to put someone else there. And leave them permanently disabled, physically and financially. Because that person isn’t a person. He’s a number. He’s a cog in a machine.

When you buy a package of Spam, or some Hormel bacon, you help that cog in the machine keep spinning. The machine doesn’t stop until we do.

collage books 2014

best books of 2014

I read 100 books in 2014 in various formats, including graphic novels, audiobooks and a few e-books. I am willing to read pretty much any genre (though I’ve never found a western that grabbed my interest…yet). I was going over my reading from last year in order to fill out a readership survey, so I thought I’d mention my top books of 2014. I narrowed it down to 7 for the sake of this post, but I read a lot of good ones. (Links are to Amazon for convenience, but they are not affiliate links.)

YesPlease resizedYes Please – Amy Poehler (audio)

I am a big fan of Parks & Recreation, but I loved Amy Poehler from her SNL days. This book ties the next one for the best audio of the year because Amy Poehler herself is the narrator. She even has a bunch of special guests, including Patrick Stewart who reads haikus about plastic surgery. (I mean what else do you want out of life?) I loved the tone of this book, how honest she is and how genuinely, laugh out loud alone in the car hilarious. During the chapter about an apology she needed to make that was a long-time coming, I sat in my car in silence with tears in my eyes. So wonderfully written.


eleanor and park resizedEleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell (audio)

This was my first Rainbow Rowell book, but after finishing it, I read all of her other books. Eleanor & Park is YA, and it reminds you in the best way possible of when you were that age – the feeling that life was new and exciting, but also so heavy and scary at the same time. Her writing is riveting – you find yourself rooting for the characters, which in this book are two teenagers, one overweight red-headed girl from a broken family and a half Korean skinny, comic loving boy. This was an audio that made me sit in my garage to finish chapters before I could get myself inside after working all day. That tells you the level of good that this book is. It will be a movie in the next year or two, and I’m almost hesitant to see it because the Eleanor and Park that I’ve built in my head are just so lovely. Listen to this one on audio, because the narrators are amazeballs. Next to Amy Poehler, the best narrators of any other audio book I’ve ever listened to.

StationElevenresizedStation Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Dystopia is probably my favorite genre and it has been since my senior year of college. I read a lot of dystopian books, but Station Eleven takes the cake for my favorite adult dystopia of 2014. It takes place 20+ years after a flu pandemic wipes out most of humanity and it’s about how the lives of many characters intersect. It includes a traveling symphony and theater troupe that performs Shakespeare across what’s left of the U.S. I loved that it didn’t rely on the tropes that are becoming so common in dystopia series, but instead relied on the strength of the writing and the characters. I listened to this on audio, but I think I might have even enjoyed it more had I been able to see the words – just to soak the language in. (That’s a book nerd phrase if I ever wrote one.)

Y! The Last Man – Brian K. Vaughany the last man resized

While I didn’t start this series in 2014, I finished it this year. It’s a dystopia in graphic novel form, where a guy named Yorick is suddenly the last man on earth – literally. It’s about what happens to him and to the world when the men are all gone. Lots of great art and a riveting story. I read them in the Deluxe Book editions, which gave me more at a time to consume. Definitely recommend reading it that way.

The_Martian resizedThe Martian – Andy Weir

I’d say that The Martian is sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi, but that’s doing sci-fi lovers a disservice. Because this book is so fun. Probably the most sheer fun I’ve had reading a book in awhile. It’s the story of an astronaut who is accidentally abandoned on Mars by his crew when they mistakenly believe him to be dead and need to abort their mission. I was riveted to the story and so caught up in the humor of the astronaut that I devoured this book without chewing.


The Third Plate – Dan Barberdan-barber-third-plate resized

I reviewed this on the blog when I read it, and you can read that review here. But needless to say, this was my favorite food book of the year. It gave me new ideas and presented the future of food with new insight and optimism. And made me really want to go eat at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.


written in my own resizedWritten in My Own Heart’s Blood – Diana Gabaldon

This is the eighth book in the Outlander series and I eagerly awaited being able to read it when the library hold system got around to sharing it with me. I am still amazed at how much I love this series, since it’s historical fiction and romance, which are two of my “eh, what?” genres. But something about the relationship between the main characters, Claire and Jaime, has kept me coming back and devouring every book and novella in the series. These are doorstopper books though – if you get as far as this book, you will have read something close to 7,000 pages at least. Worth it.


So what did you read in 2014 that was worth noting?


book review: the third plate by dan barber

I first encountered Dan Barber when I watched the TED Talks Chew on This collection through Netflix. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but his talk was something of a precursor to this book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of food books. A ton of books on food systems highlighting the problems with our current one and people’s visions for the future. So while I expected the book to be well written, since Dan Barber’s TED Talk was, I didn’t expect it to really say anything new.

Well, I was wrong.

I knew after reading the intro that this book was going to be different, and I was not disappointed. The Third Plate has the audacity to challenge the farm-to-table movement – one I personally hold dear – and question what it means to support farms and sustainable agriculture. By “third plate,” Dan Barber is alluding to his vision of where cuisine is going for the future. (He came up with the idea as a response to a reporter who asked him where the future of cuisine was going.) The first plate is a traditional American meal of a large, corn-fed steak and baby carrots. The second plate is a farm-to-table plate of a grass-fed steak with heirloom, organic carrots. But the third plate is a carrot steak, with a side of beef seconds (the more obscure cuts).

What in the world is he talking about?

He realized that as a chef cooking in the farm-to-table philosophy of cuisine, he was still cherry picking what he wanted for ingredients – ones that were often expensive to produce and not the best for soil management and long-term sustainability. Our food culture dictates that farmers grow what will sell – not what is better for the land. And it extends to livestock – we throw away many usable and edible parts of animals that we raise for food, all in a quest for more boneless, skinless chicken breasts and beef tenderloins. 

Through four sections organized around soil, land, sea and seed, Barber profiles various farmers, fishermen, bakers, seed managers and more in an attempt to explain what is missing from our current food culture and how we can get on a path toward a more sustainable future.

Barber argues that what we need is a food system organized around the whole system of agriculture – and most perhaps most difficult for us to wrap our heads around – is that we can’t always get what we want. He calls on chefs to start cooking with other types of foods that are the most important for soil management – certain grains and vegetables that return nutrients to the soil. In essence, chefs need to create the market demand for the items that the farmers need to maintain their land to sustain its health. The idea is that once the chefs start a trend, it can morph into our home kitchens. Which, if you think about it, makes sense – think about what chefs have done for pork belly and brussels sprouts.

This book has fascinating new ideas and a comfortable writing style – definitely for the person who feels like they’ve already heard it all when it comes to food systems and sustainability. You’ll also get a healthy dose of information about international cuisines and agriculture (including the story of some of the world’s only foie gras that is not from force-fed animals). It’s optimistic, but logical and realistic, which was a tone I really found refreshing. Gives me hope that there are visionaries who are really getting to the heart of what needs to happen to ensure sustainable agriculture. 

And it really makes me want to try a carrot steak… 

book review: silent spring by rachel carson

In my nearly 9 years of living in Pittsburgh, I have crossed the Rachel Carson Bridge many times – on foot and in my car. I’ll cross it this weekend during the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. I’ve always vaguely associated Rachel Carson’s name with Pittsburgh and with environmental stuff. There are outdoor programs and nature trails named after her, so it’s hard to live here and not know her name.

But it struck me recently in doing some reading about pesticides, that I had never read the book that really started it all when it comes to raising public awareness of the risks of pesticides. So I picked up Silent Spring in audio format and got acquainted with Rachel Carson.

(I should note that I would not recommend the audio version that I used. The narrator had a highly obnoxious voice that made it hard to concentrate. I think I would have enjoyed this book even more had I read it in hard copy.)

The book is credited with starting the environmental movement, which still continues to this day, more than 50 years after the publication of the book. Carson’s arguments are centered around the idea that the use of pesticides and insecticides is detrimental to the environment and all things that are a part of it. Actually, Carson calls the pesticides and insecticides that she details “biocides,” since they affect more than just their intended targets. 

Nature doesn’t operate in separate compartments – everything is interrelated. When one piece of the ecosystem is threatened, it threatens the balance and health of everything. This also holds true for water, which while in itself not a living thing is a vital part of all life on earth. As Carson points out, pollution of water somewhere is pollution of water everywhere, since we have a limited supply of fresh water on earth. Along those lines, poison at any part of the food chain travels up and down, affecting predator and prey. This simple summary doesn’t do justice to Carson’s extensive research or her talent with prose (which can be hard to come by in books about science).

Silent Spring is heavy on details, which while that makes it dry at times, is a good thing when it comes to the validity of her arguments. I’d imagine if I had a hard copy there would be footnotes a plenty. It’s also important to keep in mind that it was written in 1962, so some of the particular details of what she talks about aren’t accurate anymore – things like particular chemicals that are no longer in use in agriculture (most notably DDT). But sadly, even the parts that aren’t factually accurate anymore are still relevant, since chemicals that have since been banned have been replaced by others. 

While this book won’t be up your alley unless you’re really interested in pesticides and their impact on ecosystems, it’s worth knowing about this book in the broad sense and what it has done to impact where we are currently with these issues. For more on how Silent Spring jumpstarted the environmental movement, check out this piece in the New York Times from the 50th anniversary of the book’s release. 

Pittsburgh can be really proud that one of its natives was an environmental pioneer and a fascinating person in general. (I’d actually love to read more about her life and the years before Silent Spring, since she died just two years after its publication.)


book review: bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

After reading Four Fish and seeing The End of the Line, I’ve thought a lot about sustainability and seafood. While I enjoyed that book and the documentary, neither one of them comes close to the quality and persuasiveness of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Bottomfeeder was one of the most engaging non-fiction books I’ve read, with artful language and ingenious organization. Each chapter takes you somewhere in the world to illustrate how a problem in one area of the world is contributing to the larger problem of our seafood and ocean life literally vanishing. If you’re at all interested in sustainable seafood, this is the book to pick up. (I even found myself smirk laughing a few times, which to be honest, surprised me in a book about seafood.)

It is pretty much universally accepted by scientists that humans are driving seafood populations to extinction. Most predict that if current fishing practices continue, we will see the collapse of all of our edible sealife populations by 2050. Grescoe challenges the idea that has governed the use of the oceans for centuries – that ocean life is a bottomless resource and that humans are entitled to anything and everything they want from within its waters. This mentality is what’s driving us toward future generations not knowing that many species of seafood even existed. The oceans are commons, and too much freedom is an issue, as Grescoe quotes ecologist Garrett Hardin:

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” (p.10)

The book is divided by regions and their seafood of choice – from monkfish on the plates of elite high-end restaurants in New York City to shrimp in India, bluefin tuna in Japan and the cod of England’s fish and chip shops and more. Throughout the book, Grescoe illuminates the issues that threaten that seafood population, but not in a heavy-handed way that makes sweeping judgements. His research is meticulous, and he makes clear that often it’s not one single event or practice that contributes to a population’s decline or collapse, but a convergence of different things.

The book also covers the damage that overfishing has done on different levels. It’s not just the environment that is affected, but public health, the economy of traditional fishing communities and the ecosystem as a whole. Never before has eating lower on the food chain made more sense to me. And like encountering information about factory farming for the first time can make chicken nuggets hard to swallow, I’ll never look at imported shrimp or a piece of deep fried cod the same way again. There are just no compelling reasons besides convenience and cost to eat seafood that is taken from overfished, endangered populations. If we want future generations to enjoy eating from the sea, the time to start practicing restraint is now.

I often have complaints about books like this telling you a lot about the problem, but not offering practical solutions. Many times you’re convinced that you should care, but you aren’t given ways to do anything about it. This book is clearly the opposite. I finally feel equipped with enough tools to really implement better choices in my own consumption of seafood. An extensive appendix gives resources like websites for the most up to date information (this book is now 6 years old), general principles to follow when buying seafood, questions to ask your fishmonger or restaurant staff, descriptions of the best and worst fishing methods, and lists of seafood in three categories for eating (No, never. Depends, sometimes. Yes, always.). I want to buy a copy of this book just for the appendix alone. (I’m reluctant to have to return it to the library!)

Armed with this book as a resource and Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I feel confident about being able to make better seafood choices. We even stood in front of the seafood section at Costco this weekend, checking to see if any of the fresh offerings were ones we could buy without a guilty conscience. I want my choices to be healthy and sustainable – for both the ocean and human communities that fishing supports. 

book review: Foodopoly by Wenonah Hauter

I added this book to my list of reads after I realized that the author is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization I follow quite closely. I was expecting it to contain about the same types of information that I usually find in books about the food movement. Interesting and informative, but not much new.

Well, I was wrong. Foodopoly did have some familiar themes, but the level of research and explanation in this book blew me away. Hauter’s main argument is that while focusing on changing consumer behavior and “voting with your fork” is important and has its benefits, no large scale change will happen without complete reform of the faulty industrial, corporate-controlled agriculture system that we have now. 

What this book does really well is explain how we got to where we are, and what the factors are that contribute to it staying this way (and getting worse). I expected a book with such an extensive and thorough notes section to be dry, and while it did take me longer to read than some other food books, it’s because there was so much information to absorb. 

Reading Foodopoly really hammered home for me how much of a privilege it is to be able to buy food from local farmers, living in an urban area where many farmers are able to make a living by providing food direct to consumer. I was reminded that many small and mid-size farms across the country do not have direct-to-consumer sales as an option, and are forced to grow commodity crops where they are paid less than the cost to produce and to work within monopolistic corporate systems. 

This book covers antitrust laws through this country’s history and the impact that deregulation has had on food and farming in America. Though I knew that many organic producers have been taken over by giant food conglomerates and that only a handful of corporations control all sectors of our food chain, reading Hauter’s logical explanations of what happens behind the scenes makes you realize that this country has allowed business to be the watchdogs of our public health and welfare.  

Foodopoly also covers genetic tinkering – not just genetic engineering of plants and animals, but synthetic biology and the groups that are trying to use government money to actually create life for profit. Here as in other places in the book, compelling evidence and meticulous research support her arguments. 

The only thing I felt this book lacked was a “now what” at the end. I was waiting for a chapter on practical ways to support the kind of large scale political movement she describes, especially after the book fired me up so passionately about moving beyond just supporting our CSAs and avoiding processed foods, etc. I do have a goal to write to my legislators more often this year, and I’ll continue to try to read up on legislative and judicial instances where public comment is needed. If you’re looking for research and facts to back up the feeling that our system needs to be fixed and not just consumer behavior, Foodopoly is a fantastic place to start.

book review: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I have read most of Michael Pollan’s works, including all of his books pertaining to food. I’ve reviewed Cooked on this blog, as well as Second Nature.I find his writing really engaging, so I stick with his books not just because he’s considered one of the top food studies experts in the country. 

I had seen the documentary based on The Botany of Desire around the same time as I first watched Food, Inc. years ago. (You can actually watch the documentary on PBS’s website here.) I realized more recently I had never actually read the book. The subtitle, A Plant’s-eye View of the World, is fitting, and probably what makes this book about plants stand out from any others I’ve read.

Pollan acknowledges that for centuries, we’ve believed that we as humans control plants. But for this book, he turns that around and asks if it’s possible that plants are shaping us as well. He centers the book around four basic plants and how they evolved over time to satisfy something humans want. Domesticated plants have a reciprocal relationship with us – it’s a two-way street.

The plants he covers are apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), cannabis (intoxication) and potatoes (control). In the section on apples, he discusses the legend of Johnny Appleseed – how much was true, how apples evolved in America, and how they’ve been used over centuries to satisfy our cravings for sweet. Most apples from seed are bitter and their fruits were used to make hard cider. It’s only through grafting over many years that we were able to cultivate sweet fruit, partly owing to a backlash against alcohol. My favorite part of this section was learning about how apples protect their genetic diversity – they are very different from many other plants. Human behavior threatens them by reducing that diversity in the quest for the same, consistent and sweet fruit.

The tulip section tries to answer the question of why we spend billions of dollars cultivating flowers that we can’t eat (besides their use to bees) – the desire for beauty. The info on floral reproduction was a little bit dry, though useful. However, the discussion of the tulipmania that swept Amsterdam in the 17th century, where a single bulb cost a fortune, captured my interest.

Probably my favorite section of this book, ironically, was the section on cannabis. It starts by talking about how plants protect themselves from predators by poisoning or sickening them, yet also draw other animals to them for their own purposes (reproduction). Culturally, it’s almost universal that groups of people are drawn to plants and substances that alter consciousness – and marijuana has provided that for centuries – in use since recorded history began, at the very least. When the U.S. war on drugs threatened its existence, it evolved to be grown indoors (and out of the reach of government efforts to curb its growth). Because it has to be grown so carefully, cross-bred for the best traits, etc. marijuana has reached new heights of growth and potency – the opposite of what the war on drugs wanted to achieve.

Scientists study the effects of intoxicant plants on humans, finding the tetrohydracannibinol (THC) that marijuana produces binds to receptors in our brains that affect memory and consciousness. But we also produce THC-like chemicals naturally, that do the same thing. It’s like we’re hardwired to respond. 

The potatoes section talks about the history of potatoes being a sustaining crop for many cultures, and also the problems that came with that dependency – the Irish potato famine in the 19th century. Within weeks, a fungus destroyed all potato crops – the result of a monoculture grown where no plant could offer up any resistance and the fungus could spread like wildfire. While the resulting starvation of a huge population of people was also due to factors beyond the destroyed, it served as a lesson to growers that monocultures are a great risk. However, we’re still growing monocultures of potatoes today – in particular, the Russet Burbank (the fry of choice for McDonald’s). This portion of the book talks about the effect on farmers and land, trying to grow potatoes in monoculture and make them disease and pest resistant (this is where lots of chemicals and genetic modification come in). 

It’s not often that we look at agriculture from the perspective that Pollan does in this book. I’ve never thought of plants having priorities – but it makes a lot of sense, and goes hand in hand with research that’s being done on plant intelligence. It certainly makes me look at my own garden differently – and will probably shape what will be planted in the coming year. Will I go for the maximum return for me, in what I desire? Or the maximum return for the plant, at the expense of beauty or taste? Hopefully the answer lies somewhere in the middle. 

book review: Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner

I do a lot of reading about food production, so you’d think there wouldn’t be much left to shock me about processed food. You’d be wrong.

Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is full of information about the origins and development of some of the most recognizable processed foods in the average American diet. I didn’t realize that the average American’s consumption of processed foods totals 70% of total food intake.

That’s pretty amazing. And kind of really gross at the same time.

I listened to this on audiobook, so it was hard to keep notes. But if I did, I would have been scribbling down information constantly. This book is engaging and packed with information, without reading like a textbook. By presenting the information without editorializing, it also leaves the judgment passing to the reader. 

The author takes a practical approach, suggesting that if we can’t get rid of processed foods altogether, even reducing our intake is important. Small changes add up over time, and if the consumption of processed foods in this country was even reduced to 30% of our diet, it would make a very significant change in our overall health as a nation.

If you’re looking for information to make an informed decision about your diet, Pandora’s Lunchbox is a great, accessible place to start.

book review: Dearie: the Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

There are many people who might not think that spending 25+ hours listening to an audiobook is a productive or enjoyable use of time. But when you commute as much as I do, you need something to pass the time and/or stave off the road rage. (Oh Parkway West, you try the soul.) The most recent book I finished is Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. It was a fantastic use of more than 25 hours of my time. 

Julia Child’s profile has been heightened in the last few years, much of that owing to the rise of cooking in the public interest and a wildly popular memoir, Julie & Julia, which chronicles one woman’s project to cook all of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year. The movie based on the memoir also brought her to the forefront of popular culture, introducing her to a generation that didn’t grow up watching her cook on public television.

I was introduced to her through that memoir. I then found myself intrigued enough to go deeper, and I picked up My Life in France, Julia’s own book about, obviously, her life in France with her husband, Paul. Ironically, I read the book during my honeymoon. (Yes, we’re the type of people who read books on trips, even honeymoons.) It’s one of my favorite reads of all time.

Spitz’s book begins at the beginning – with background on Julia’s grandparents and family history. It traces her (remarkable) life in great detail, quoting from her own letters, family members and friends. (Man do I wish we were still a society that had a letter writing habit.) We’re so used to hearing about how Julia liked to cook and how she introduced French food to American society. We forget that she was actually a real person and had interests outside of what she brought to our culinary history. I liked that this book really spent time explaining how Julia became the person that the country fell in love with, including the things that were important to her and the things that made her who she was – good and bad.

We have a tendency with public figures to gloss over the not-so-nice parts of their personalities, especially if their public faces are positive. I liked that this book clearly showed that Julia had character flaws, just like anyone else. She was a normal person who led an extraordinary life.

A good biography makes you want to call everyone you know and start sentences with “Did you know that…?” I wanted to do this so many times while listening to this book. Did you know Julia was a breast cancer survivor? Did you know that she had a thing for hot dogs from Costco? Did you know she was friends with James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher? Did you know the love of her life, her husband Paul, suffered from dementia in his last years and didn’t know who she was? Did you know she was supposed to be on one of the planes involved in 9/11, but due to a scheduling snafu ended up staying in Boston longer?

I also think a good biography doesn’t feel like a list of facts, but an engaging narrative. This book made time spent in the car fly by, partially owing to a great reading by the actress who recorded the book, but also simply because it felt like a story I was swept up in. I have a much greater appreciation for the national treasure that is Mastering the Art of French Cooking and how it stands apart from so many other cookbooks through the years. Even in her 90s, when craving french onion soup, Julia made her own recipe. No other recipe could touch it. 

Perhaps I’m drawn to Julia because of her strong feminism. Or because she was both larger than life and ordinary. Probably a lot of reasons, as she was a complex woman. But maybe at the end of the day, I love that she valued something that I do – cooking and carefully crafted, delicious food. She didn’t just value the food, but the work and the skill and the time that it took to produce. Cooking is valuable and it’s for everyone – an art everyone can access and enjoy.  

book review: Gaining Ground by Forrest Pritchard

This book was a breath of fresh air after getting riled up watching Vegucated this week and reading some informative yet disturbing research on the threat of antibiotic resistance. As the subtitle would suggest, Gaining Ground is indeed the story of one man working to save his family farm. It’s hopeful and inspiring and beautifully written.

Frequently we hear from Big Agriculture about how supportive they are of farmers and making their lives easier. We see commercials idolizing the American farmer from these companies (*ahem*, Monsanto) and claiming that their whole company history has a legacy of upholding the American agricultural dream. 

The most poignant part of this book illustrates how that is simply an illusion created in a marketing department. After years of Forrest Pritchard’s family farm taking on more and more debt and trying different things to make it profitable again, the family turned to commodity crops – corn, in particular. Managed by someone they hired to grow the fields upon fields of corn, they hope to get at least $10,000 from the harvest – enough to cover their debt payments at a minimum. The manager shows up on their doorstop and tells them they got “eighteen sixteen.” They are devastated, thinking they only made $1,816 on a harvest that they were expecting five figures from. The manager is embarrassed to relate to them that in fact all of the season’s work – all of the fields and harvesting, the months of time and the use of the land – has yielded them $18.16. Eighteen dollars, sixteen cents. Not enough to fill a car’s tank with gas. 

I’d encourage you to read the book, since Pritchard relates that story in a way that rips your heart out, like you’re standing on the front porch of their house looking at the manager and seeing the truth hit them all squarely in the face. It’s at this point that Pritchard decides to turn the farm around – to abandon commodity farming for a different path. The rest of the book is the story of that turnaround – how they went from growing commodity corn to farming pasture – first for cattle and chickens and then for pigs and sheep.

I don’t want to give away all of the wonderful stories in this book – though I will say the one involving Pedro riding shotgun made me both laugh out loud and shed a few tears. (Pedro is a goat.)

To say the book is hopeful and positive isn’t to say the process of saving the family farm was all beautiful pastures and dollar signs. He even makes a point to say that saving the farm is a journey, not a destination. There is hardship and sadness along the way. But this book was a testament to the fact that good, slow food production can be done. Farmers deserve better than $18.16 for their essential contribution to our basic needs. 

Reading about what it actually takes to start an operation such as Mr. Pritchard’s also gives you an appreciation for why pasture raised meats don’t cost $1.99/pound – and why they shouldn’t. We equate higher prices with quality in so many other areas – why can’t we get to that mentality with our food? When we have to buy an appliance, we don’t go for the cheapest one we can find because an appliance is an investment. Food is an investment too – particularly in our long-term health and well-being, to say nothing of the environmental and community investment.

Treat yourself to reading this book. Don’t be surprised if it makes you want a farm – or a Pedro – of your own.