Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 and since that time it’s become a classic example of muckraking (journalism that exposes corruption). It also is possibly the first book to address industrial agriculture – and what happens when Big Food interests run amok.

I wanted to read The Jungle because it’s a classic piece of the American literary canon, and also because I was interested in early food journalism. I didn’t realize that it also qualified as creative non-fiction, being centered around a fictional Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus who moves with his family to Chicago, following the promise of a better life. There, he gets a job in “Packingtown” at one of the meatpacking houses. And basically? It all goes to hell from there.

The horrid conditions (and I mean horrid) that Sinclair describes through Jurgis and his family caused public outcry. Sinclair himself worked undercover in the meatpacking plants for weeks, doing research. The book was originally published as a serial in a socialist newspaper (Sinclair was an active socialist), and he eventually paid to publish the first edition of the book on his own. Ironically, his goal was to further his political agenda – to expose the plight of the working man. But what the public cared about was the impact the book had on how they saw their food.

Though the government denounced his book because of his socialist agenda, President (Teddy) Roosevelt commissioned a report that confirmed Sinclair’s claims. Public outcry eventually led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act (required mandatory inspections of livestock, postmortem inspections of carcasses, sanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and housing plants, and USDA monitoring of facilities) as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established what would later be called the FDA, and carried penalties for mislabeling and adulteration of products, which at the time was rampant – and frankly, foul.

For all of the issues that I have with modern industrial agriculture and confined animal feeding operations, this book put into perspective how much worse it actually was 100 years ago. While there are still additives in processed food that I don’t want to eat, it is because of modern food production that we can buy milk that isn’t 50% chalk, and if we buy a carton of rancid yogurt at the store, we can return it for a full refund. While people still do die of food poisoning, and I’m not making light of that, the mortality rate from adulterated food is drastically lower today than it was 100 years ago, thanks in part to the legislation passed after The Jungle was published. We can definitely thank Sinclair and the other muckraking journalists at the time for that.

It’s worth noting that Sinclair was disappointed that people cared more about the food they were eating than the plight of the working man, but that is sadly an issue that hasn’t gotten much better today. It’s important that we eat pesticide free, organic produce not just because of the danger of pesticides to our own health, but because the exposure to farm workers is orders of magnitude worse.

I wonder what Sinclair would say if he could see what his book began – and how far we still have to go.

Book Review: Homeward Bound by Emily Matchar

Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity was an engaging exploration of today’s social fascination with and privileging of all things domestic. So many times while reading this book, I found myself nodding my head and wanting to sit up and tell anyone near me this is so TRUE or alternatively, this is so ME. I also found myself wishing it had existed when I was in graduate school, because it would have made an interesting book to add to my resource lists for my women’s and gender studies certificate (and also a great book club pick).

Matchar discusses a whole host of topics under the umbrella of this “new domesticity” – why increasing numbers of women are leaving the workforce to stay at home (primarily with children), why attachment parenting is on the rise, the striking similarities between the far right and the far left on many of these issues, and the insecurities and fears that are producing a drive toward the domestic as a safe place. With a shaky economy, lack of trust in the safety of our food and where it comes from, disillusionment with public education and decreasing (or non-existent) benefits for workers, it’s not surprising that people have turned toward areas of their lives they can control.

It’s increasingly seductive to consider leaving your 9-5 desk job and your hellish commute for a life of tomato growing and soap making, with an Etsy shop and a blog to boot. I don’t think there’s a person I know, let alone a woman, who hasn’t had some version of that daydream. Women of my generation were promised a life of fulfillment through a career and were encouraged that we could have it all if we just kept working hard – a family and home life as well as a job outside of the home. But more and more women are realizing that having it all is easier said than done – if it’s possible at all. Corporate America isn’t really friendly to work-life balance in general, not just people with kids. And it’s great that more and more women are expressing themselves and connecting to online community by blogging and opening Etsy businesses, but it remains that only a tiny fraction of people can pay a mortgage and support a family on a blog or an Etsy shop.

Perhaps the most compelling idea that this book raised was a consideration of what happens when those with the most resources turn inward and focus on the individual good instead of the collective good. Historically, movements of great social change were accomplished with support from across class lines. Who is left to fight for better maternity and paternity leave policies, workplace conditions that better support work/life balance, affordable, quality daycare and access to safe, healthy foods, when those with the most resources turn away from the collective and focus only on their own home? It’s definitely an interesting question to consider.

I had no idea when I picked this book up if the author would come to the conclusion that “new domestics” are hippie wack-jobs or enlightened visionaries. And I’m glad she didn’t come to either conclusion – her final analysis and takeaway points were very carefully considered. She details many interactions with people across the entire spectrum of this movement and the book is very fair, sincere and respectful of these people and their beliefs. It certainly gave me much to think about – where do I fit in on the spectrum? 

Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss is probably the best food book I’ve read this year, and definitely ranks up there with the best food journalism that’s available today. For anyone who has ever craved an Oreo cookie or loved Lunchables as a kid and now is skeptical about the health of processed foods, this book is for you. (Also, if you recognize any of the letters on the book cover from the packaging of foods you eat or have eaten in the past, you should read this book. Very clever graphic design.)

I went into this book thinking that the writing would be great, since Michael Moss is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer. (Spoiler alert – it was.) I also thought I’d enjoy it because I am passionate about people being educated on what’s in their food. And I definitely did. But I didn’t expect to learn so much that was new – and also to realize how much of my life I spent not just as a marketer’s target customer, but as their pawn in the relentless pursuit of profit over any other priority.

The book is divided into three sections, each discussing one of the pillars of processed foods. Moss goes back to the beginnings of processed foods and investigates how the foods developed over time. Many large food producers today started out as small, family-owned companies, with the owners committed to using natural or real ingredients. Even large companies were afraid at first to sell products with chemicals in them because they were afraid of the public’s reaction. The book discusses how we got from that point to where we are today, with Americans eating way too much of all three building blocks of processed foods.

I found the discussions about our tastes and the science behind that to be fascinating. Babies are not drawn to salt – in fact, they are repulsed by it. We are all born with an innate like for sweet and a dislike for excess salt. Studies have shown that exposure over time to sodium in processed foods for babies leads to the development of a taste for and eventual craving for salt that otherwise would not have been there. Also, if you reduce your salt intake for just a few months, your taste for salt will reset and you will likely not enjoy the level of saltiness in your food that you once did. 

There are so many details in this book that are worth knowing that I couldn’t possibly list them all here (and it would deprive you of a great reading experience), but perhaps the greatest lesson I took from this book was to be very aware of the power of marketing and to never take products at face value. Processed food manufacturers (including the ones that make processed “health” foods) have a vested interest in making you come back for more. Bet you can’t eat just one isn’t just a marketing slogan – it’s a call to action for them. 

They manipulate the content of foods to make them craveable and addictive, lighting up the same parts of the brain that are receptive to drugs. And then market them as something positive that plays on our desire for happiness, convenience or health. Every marketing or health claim is designed to play off one of those needs. Want a cereal that has less added sugar? Jack up the sodium and/or fat and then put “less sugar” as a marketing label on the box. Want a low-fat frozen lunch? Jack up the sodium to more than twice the daily recommended amount to make up for the lack of flavor. 

People want to feel like they are making good choices for their families, and that’s admirable. But marketers and food manufacturers know that, so they use that desire to their advantage. Moss details companies who were sued for misleading health claims that helped sales to skyrocket but were empty of any truth or real benefit to the consumer. After reading this book, you feel like the processed/industrial food world has played you for a fool.

The good news is that educating yourself about the content of your food and what labels and package claims really mean can help you stop playing into their hands. This book is a great place to start if you’ve been thinking about moving your diet away from processed foods. (By diet I mean the foods that you eat, not diet in the “weight loss plan” sense.) 
Also, I should note that I don’t believe that eating one Oreo cookie with chemicals in it is going to doom you to bad health. But for me? I feel better in general when I avoid processed foods, and I know that I have never in my life eaten just one Oreo. And I also feel better knowing that my money goes to farms or food producers that are making their best efforts to produce healthy food, or non-healthy food that’s transparent about what it is. I don’t want to give my money to companies that know that what they produce makes people unable to stop eating and to prey on their weaknesses. Corporations are not people (regardless of how the government likes to classify or treat them) and their motivation is profit, not our well-being. And that’s what I try to keep in mind when I shop.

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

As one of, if not THE, best food writers out there today, Michael Pollan’s works get more publicity than many other writers today. His newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation is no exception. It’s been featured everywhere, and I’ve seen interviews with Pollan all over TV and heard them on the radio. As a fan of his writing, I would have read this book anyway (and even had it preordered and got a signed bookplate). But after reading it, I am even more convinced that others should too, even if food writing isn’t your usual reading fare. 

Let me first state that I wholeheartedly disagree with any reviews out there that suggest that Pollan is sexist or advocating a return of women to the kitchen as opposed to men. I’m convinced those people were looking for page hits and never actually finished the book (which is rather long, clocking in at almost 450 pages). He does point out that for much of history, the work of cooking was divided along gender lines, and when women entered the workforce, the amount of cooking done in the home was in general reduced. That is obviously true. But nowhere does he advocate that women are responsible for the destruction of American food culture or suggest that women should be cooking by virtue of their sex alone. (Trust me, had their been any whiff of sexism in this book, I would have detected it. I didn’t get a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies for nothing.) So if you come across a review that even suggests it – stop reading the review and pick up the book instead.

Pollan divides the book into four sections that cover the four fundamental transformations that humans use to cook food and breaks it down by explaining particular foods in those categories. Fire (traditional barbecue), Water (braises), Air (bread) and Earth (fermented foods, alcohol) are all discussed at length, with the history of the processes and their development, how they are practiced today and what makes them unique. He also tries his own hand at the processes and describes those experiences.

Mark and I are both avid cooks. One of us makes dinner every night, even though it takes up precious time. We believe in the benefits of home cooked meals and feel they are better for our bodies nutritionally and we take joy in their preparation as well. To be honest, much of the reason I cook when I come home exhausted from a long day of work is because I don’t want corporations doing it for me. I refuse to give up that independence and that connection to my food by relying on fast food or easy fix processed dinners in a box. We save money by cooking. And my food tastes better than most anything you can buy in the store. (Ask the people who smell the leftovers I heat up at work. I’ve seen more than a few raised eyebrows when they ask what’s being heated up and I say oh, just rigatoni with my husband’s homemade Sunday gravy. Yep, my husband cooks.)

So I didn’t really pick up this book to be convinced that cooking is important. I’ve already been on that train for awhile. But it made me think about cooking in new ways and to appreciate more the value of it on a cultural level. The benefits of cooking are manifold, that much is clear. Not only does it set us apart from animals, but it bring us together in community. In a world that’s forever multi-tasking, always having to accomplish more in less time, cooking makes you stop and develop the art of unitasking. That’s right – just doing one thing. Chopping onions. Feeding a sourdough starter. Roasting meat over a cook fire. Pollan’s descriptions of the benefits of these individual ways of cooking are poetic.

For those of us who work in an industry where we don’t really produce anything tangible (and for that matter, sometimes, meaningful), cooking gives us the opportunity to make something with our own hands. I like that cooking doesn’t involve typing. Pollan says it best here:

I doubt it’s a coincidence that interest in all kinds of DIY pursuits has intensified at the precise historical moment when we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours in front of screens – senseless, or nearly so. At a time when four of our five senses and the whole right side of our brains must be feeling sorely underemployed, these kinds of projects offer the best kind of respite. They’re antidotes to our abstraction. (p.407, emphasis mine)

For me, cooking is grounding. It connects me to my family and to the earth. It gives me immense pride to spend time cooking and create something infinitely more than the sum of its parts. In a world filled with noise, the swoosh of the knife coming down through onions followed by those same onions sizzling in a pan is calming. 

Is cooking a chore for some people? Yes. I recognize not everyone is going to get philosophical or wax poetic about the sounds coming from a pan when they are spending an hour prepping and cooking a braise. But chores are what they are because they are necessary. We find ways to make them less cumbersome or take less time because we know we need to do things like clean our toilets and wash our clothes. And how much more important is a chore tied to the nourishment we give our bodies? The answer is infinitely.

Book review: Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Having established himself as a titan in the world of food writing, Michael Pollan’s most famous works are about the food we eat: where it comes from, why it matters. But Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan focuses on gardening – as art, as sustenance, as culture.

I was interested in this book on gardening in particular because I wasn’t the primary gardener in our house for the two summers we’ve lived here. I helped primarily in the cooking and preservation steps. But this year, I want to get my hands dirty and actually learn more about how to nurture and take care of the food we grow. (Also, we want to add another raised bed to grow food specifically for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which will accept produce donations this summer.)

The book goes back to Pollan’s childhood experience with gardening – both on his own and in the shadow of his grandfather, who was a dedicated and prolific gardener. It follows him through the establishment of his own gardens (flowers and vegetables, as well as trees) on his own property. 

One of the most fascinating topics he covers is that of the American obsession with lawns. In many places, HOAs and city officials can fine you if you don’t mow your grass according to their standards, and people across the country have been fined or cited for turning front lawns into vegetable or flower gardens. We don’t have much of a front lawn, and being in the city if we grew veggies in our front yard, people would swipe tomatoes as they walk by. But our back yard is sizeable for the area in which we live, and we have no shame in covering grass with compost bins, chicken coops and raised beds. We have no use for large swaths of grass where we just have to burn gas mowing it all summer. I wondered as I listened to this section whether or not I’d have the guts to fight an HOA that would try to tell me what to do with my lawn. (Probably not, which is why I refuse to live anywhere with HOA oversight.)

I was happy that composting was featured in the book as well. We have two compost areas in our yard in addition to several bins. Getting the chickens last year has helped the compost area become more robust, since they are prodigious waste producers. It’s hard to think of compost as a “way to give back what we have taken,” as Pollan describes it, when you mostly see a pile of pine shavings and chicken waste, but on the microorganism level, it is definitely true. 

The statement in the book that resonated most with me was that “improving the land strengthens one’s claim to it.” As of this weekend, we have lived in our house for two years. We’ve started gradually turning it into a homestead – which to me is that exact feeling: this is my land and my home, so I will work to be a good steward of it and the resources it provides.

This is not a book that will give you step by step guides to gardening. Rather, it’s a pleasant and almost lyrical philosophical examination (interspersed with lots of interesting facts) of gardening that if nothing else makes you want to go out and put your hands in the dirt.

I don’t need a food savior, thanks very much

I’ve been reading the advance reviews that have come out about Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, as I wait for my copy to show up at my door. I was curious to read a review that Pollan himself tweeted out on Tuesday, done by The Center for Consumer Freedom. Judging from a cursory glance through their website, they seem more like the Center to Advance the Interests of Industrial Agriculture, so I’m not surprised they are not fans of the work of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like. (I think I qualify as one of their “food radicals” though. You know, because I don’t like pesticides in my produce and antibiotics in my meat.)
I haven’t read the book yet (though I am hoping to start it this week). But I was struck by a few of the arguments (read: utter nonsense) that this group was making which are not dependent on me having read the book for analysis. Here are a few of their statements, and my take on them.

Like his previous efforts, the book calls hard-working Americans to more hard work in the kitchen, because Pollan believes that slaving over a cutting board is better for our souls or our health than allowing industry to help ease the load.


I would consider myself a hard-working American. I work 45 hours a week in corporate America and commute for an additional 12 or so. And I do think that it’s true that cooking and food preparation can sometimes be hard work. (A 12-hour day of tomato canning can be brutal on your feet, no doubt.) But I have yet to recall the last time I slaved over a cutting board. Unless you work in a kitchen for a living, I doubt that most Americans who cook would consider themselves to be slaving over their cutting boards. Cooking is time intensive, which I’ll discuss in a bit, but is it work that the average hard-working American can manage? Most assuredly, yes.
I haven’t read Pollan’s supposed argument for cooking being good for the soul yet, so I can’t say how much I agree or disagree. But I can tell you that I’ve never heard anyone claim that eating a bag of Doritos or heating up a frozen Lean Cuisine was good for their soul. (On the contrary, 10 years ago in my diet food days, frozen diet lasagna was pretty much the antithesis of being good for my soul.)

Pollan’s “solution” to the non-problem of people occasionally eating out is raising taxes on restaurant food, since in the Church of Foodieism not cooking is a sin.


Pollan was just interviewed in New York Magazine and mentions in the interview that he eats out several times a week. So I’m not sure where the idea of Pollan vilifying people for eating out comes from. Eating out can be a great joy. Our family loves to eat out when we can, particularly at local, non-chain restaurants that support our community’s economy and agriculture. But there’s a difference between eating out as a special meal to be enjoyed and eating all of your meals outside the home and on the go.
I’d venture to guess that what Pollan would say was not such a great thing is the eating-out habit of one of my regular customers when I worked at McDonalds in college – the one who complained that her son already had 4 of the same Happy Meal toy. (As the toys were cycled out on a weekly basis, that’s a few too many Happy Meals for your kid in a 7-day span, lady.) I don’t think the Center for Consumer Freedom is leaving any room for common sense here.

There’s nothing wrong with home cooking and quite a lot to be said for it, but ultimately it takes time and effort that some people simply don’t have or would rather spend on other things. Punishing restaurant eating would unfairly target low-income people who work physically demanding jobs over long hours.


The authors of this review argue that some people would like to spend their time on other things besides cooking. I understand that. I have a lot of friends who don’t share my love of cooking and think of it more as a chore than a joy. Those friends are also by and large clean eaters. They don’t resort to processed garbage foods, but they do have simplified diets. You can still eat healthy food in your home if you don’t like to cook. Also, cooking doesn’t have to be a grand production. And you don’t have to do it every single day. (Hello, Crock Pot. Nice to meet you.)
I have personally known people who truly work 80 hours per week to support their families and are juggling keeping a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies. These are the people who can truly say that they don’t have the time for cooking meals at home. But the majority of people who say they “don’t have time” to cook have a lot of other things going on in their lives that they could live without. You don’t have time to spend 25 minutes cooking a meal, but you have time to keep up with six TV shows per week? Or 3 hours a week to spend at the golf course? Don’t even get me started on how much time people waste on Facebook. The average “hard-working” American’s TV consumption alone makes this “people are just too busy” argument a complete fraud. We are too busy for the things we don’t prioritize.
I’ve been guilty myself of falling into the “I’m too busy” trap. But when I look back at my week, how did I spend my time? In five years, it won’t matter if I missed an episode of my favorite TV show to cook dinner. But the healthy lifestyle I prioritize now will pay off over five years. Less illness, better physical fitness, and let’s face it – a healthier family.
A close cousin of the “I’m too busy” trap is the “It’s too expensive” trap. It’s obvious that healthy food costs more in our society than unhealthy food. But Americans who do not go to bed hungry at night in general already eat too much food. And those who say they can’t afford organic produce or to buy from a farmer’s market? I’d be willing to bet at least a fair share have smart phones, data plans, cable or satellite TV service, laptops, SUVs or time shares. We pay for what we prioritize.
The authors cite low-income workers as being unfairly targeted, but the answer to low-income individuals getting healthy food is not processed corn by-products in shiny packages. It’s better wages and food prices that reflect the actual cost of production. In this country we think we’re lucky if we can get health benefits for our family for under $500 a month, but we balk at paying $1 extra per pound for produce that wasn’t sprayed with carcinogens. (Not to mention the fact that the worker who got sprayed with the same carcinogen probably has no health insurance, but that’s another essay entirely.)
I also felt like the tone of this essay was incredibly patronizing. As if they were trying to hold my hand and tell me that the quality of my life would be so much better if I’d just entrust my food to the industry’s hands – that they could lift a burden I begrudgingly carry around. Be my food savior, if you will.
I would say that anyone who has eaten a meal at the Next Gen House knows that we have no use for a food savior. We consider the time and effort we put into food preparation and cultivation in our house to be worth the other things we sacrifice. We don’t have cable, but we subscribe to a CSA. We can’t do everything we want to do in life, and that’s okay. We chose to spend last Saturday canning jelly instead of doing any number of things you could do with a free, beautiful weather Saturday. But cooking for our family and for others when they are guests in our home or need a meal is a priority, no matter how much time and effort it takes. If that makes me a food radical, get me a bumper sticker.

Book Review: The Way We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

When I chose The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, I had no idea who the authors were, but thought it would be an interesting book to add to my library of food journalism. I didn’t realize that Peter Singer was a world-renowned moral philosopher and the author of one of the first books that brought to light abuses in the factory farm model: Animal Liberation. Jim Mason is also a well known author in this field and is an attorney as well. 

Together, Singer and Mason seek to address the realities of what we eat and make readers question the ethics of these choices. I will say I did not expect to be so challenged by this book – not in the sense that it was difficult to understand – in fact, the text was incredibly accessible. I was morally challenged by this book and forced to examine my food choices in ways I never have before, even though I consider myself to be a very ethical eater and consumer. It reminded me of my college philosophy and literature classes, but in a good way.

Singer and Mason frame the narrative through the stories of three American families and their eating habits. The first family is lower-middle class, shops at Walmart for groceries and eats at fast food restaurants, and is very budget-conscious. The second family is upper-middle class and considers themselves conscientious omnivores (though the father is vegetarian), very thoughtful about the environment and make some effort to be conscious of animal welfare issues. The third family is entirely vegan and considers their lifestyle to be a method of activism (and I’m assuming upper-middle class at the least, though I actually don’t know how clear that was in the text.) 

(I should note that it would be easy in a book like this to vilify the family that shops at Walmart and eats at McDonalds and buys factory farmed meat, but the authors don’t do that at all. Rather, they present the reality of feeding a growing family on a limited budget as one of the circumstances that have to be considered in determining what ethical choices to make.)

Throughout the book, Singer and Mason discuss the grim realities of factory farming, including meat, dairy and egg production, with some details that are actually difficult to listen to (and some sections even contain warnings for readers about graphic content). They also discuss labeling and issues of fair/whole trade, workers’ rights and environmental issues. The book is too full of substantial content for me to even attempt to distill it here.

However, I think it’s worth noting the initial question that Singer poses in the beginning of the book: can the choices we make about food consumption have ethical implications? If you believe that the choices you make about food can have moral or ethical implications, what are they? How do you determine what is an ethical or moral choice?

I personally believe food consumption does have ethical implications; part of this stems from my own faith and belief that I am called to be a good steward. But even without a religious imperative, we do not live in a vacuum. Unless you hunt and gather and produce all of your food with no assistance from anyone or anything, your food choices affect others. This book asks you to consider how what you purchase and consume affects animals, the environment, the welfare of communities located in proximity to these factories, and the other people who work there. 

The authors acknowledge the weight of these ethical implications and how our food choices are part of a complex web. To make one ethical choice, for instance, buying local produce to support farmers in your community, means that you are not purchasing food from developing nations, where the farmers arguably need the money even more. No one person can make decisions that can satisfy all potential ethical obligations, and ultimately we simply have to do the best that we can. 

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. For anyone that is questioning how he/she can make better choices or why we should make different choices in the first place, I encourage you to read this book. Let it stretch your brain and your ideas like it did mine. 

Book review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

I chose Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg as part of my desire to learn more about the seafood I consume. I feel like I have a handle on what labels mean when it comes to treatment and nutritional content for meat and poultry, but for seafood the water is murky (if you can pardon the pun). Which is better? Farmed or wild? What do those words mean and is it different for types of species? How do we catch wild fish and how do we create fish farms?

I started eating seafood after I had a confirmed test that I was not allergic to shellfish, and around the time that Mark and I visited Boston on our honeymoon. It felt like a whole new culinary world was open to me. (Hello New England clam chowder.) But before I read (listened to) this book, I am ashamed to say I pretty much didn’t know what any of that seafood looked like before it was prepared for me to eat, let alone where it came from or what it ate. I still cannot tell you what different types of fish look like, except for maybe carnival goldfish or beta fish.

Like Twinkie: Deconstructed that I recently read, Four Fish is bursting with information that detail nerds will adore. The storytelling is a great frame for all this information; it doesn’t just read like just a bunch of facts. And I thought it had appropriate perspective: Greenberg fishes. He also relates a story about being shocked while on a party boat of people fishing that someone told him that Greenberg could have his dead fish, since he wouldn’t eat them. What is the point of killing a fish (as opposed to catch and release) if you aren’t going to eat it?

Greenberg highlights the plight of fish by highlighting the situations of four different types: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Each story is as different as the species are, but there are common themes – exploitation, over fishing, growing consumer demand, domestic farming operations (successful and unsuccessful, small scale and large scale), and that each species has particular needs. His book also raises a philosophical question of sorts that I had never stopped to consider. At what point do we consider living food that we eat wildlife, as opposed to just a food animal?

People balk at eating horse meat, but we have no problem eating beef, which comes from another four-legged mammal. At one point, it was common for humans to hunt for whales and eat them and use them for their oil. When their existence was endangered, people began a “campaign” of sorts to look at the whale as a species of wildlife that needed to be saved for the sake of its existence alone, not saved in order to find a way to continue to hunt it. Bluefin tuna is endangered too, but do we consider it wildlife or just a food resource?

After reading this book, it feels like the best direction is to support domestic farming of fish that has a constant eye on and consideration of the balance of the wild populations. We need to not give into consumer demand for particular fish as much as we need to be careful what fish we choose for our consumption – those which are efficient in converting energy. (It takes 20 pounds of food to create one pound of bluefin tuna. That’s insane.) This also has to do with the amount of fish we consume. Do we keep consuming more just because we can? Domestic farming of fish has to be non-destructive to wild populations of fish, where common diseases of domestication are less likely to spread to wild populations.

One of my favorite sentences of the whole book is when Greenberg says it ultimately comes down to approaching seafood with these three things: restraint, care and rationality. So you don’t really finish this book with exactly an idea of what fish to eat and which ones not to (although it’s a definite no on the bluefin tuna). But you walk away with much more of an appreciation for what a fish really is – a living creature – that demands as much respect as a food source as I give to cows, pigs and chickens.

Greenberg does mention the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has a rating system for what the “best” choices are for seafood to eat. They also have an app, so you can look it up on the go if you aren’t interested in keeping a card in your wallet. I think I’m going to start with this guide for my seafood choices until I can continue to do more research.

Also, Four Fish was written just as word was getting out that genetically engineered salmon was on the horizon. Now it’s almost to the point of FDA approval (with no labeling requirement, big surprise), and Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Aldi have come out in advance pledging not to carry GE salmon at their stores.

Book Review: Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger

Ever since I got my first taste of food journalism with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve been an avid reader in the genre. I’ve always felt like the more knowledge I have about my food, the more I understand the world and how it works. So I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the food books I’m reading. (To be fair, I’m not actually reading these books so much as listening to them – I use my substantial commute to fit in my non-fiction reading.)  


I stumbled on Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed when I was searching for a book on Amazon, and it was listed as a similar book. Its subtitle is My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats, and it is exactly that. For detail nerds like myself, the book provides a wealth of information on the origin of each of the individual ingredients of a Twinkie. Since many of these ingredients are the quintessential building blocks of processed foods, they are things that are not unique to Twinkies, and also not entirely unique to our own pantries. For example, baking powder is technically a processed food, as is white flour. 

However, this book will also tell you where polysorbate 60, high fructose corn syrup, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil come from. (The book begins with a conversation that the author had with his children about where the ingredients in an ice cream bar came from. He ended up choosing Twinkies to investigate, since they are a classic American snack food and also are the subject of a great mythos, with rumors about their abilities to survive a nuclear holocaust alive and well.)

At first I thought, why do I care where these ingredients come from? If they aren’t pronounceable and I don’t already know what they are, I don’t want to eat them. But the more I listened/read, the more I realized that it IS important for me to understand the ingredients that I choose to avoid in my diet, if for no other reason than to explain to people why I’m not comfortable ingesting them.

If anything, this book made me yearn for more transparent information about where our food comes from. Even Ettlinger admits that the FDA guidelines are not as clear as the Chicago Manual of Style. Why not? We do we not demand more of our government that is charged with protecting our food supply? This is the argument that’s at the heart of the GMO labeling debate, though that’s another topic for another time.

Ettlinger asks the question, if chemicals are found in nature, when does a chemical become a food? Why are some chemicals found in nature classified as “unnatural” when they occur in nature, in some form? That’s a good question too. Shouldn’t we just admit that all food is made of chemicals and just get on with it? Even an apple is made up of chemicals, at its root.

Somehow I’m not buying that argument, though. The entire world is made up of chemicals – so are our bodies. But that doesn’t mean everything should be ingested. The book suggests that these ingredients have been vetted for safety, since the government classifies them as “generally recognized as safe.” Generally recognized isn’t a category that I’m going to put my faith in, when the only people that have to recognize the ingredient as safe are the ones who are being paid by companies who stand to make a large profit from this recognition.

Also, just because these ingredients have been around for 50 years doesn’t mean they are “safe.” Sure, eating a Twinkie may not cause you instantaneous distress or illness. But what about long term effects? Why can’t science explain why our society just keeps getting sicker and sicker? Why can’t they explain why there are little girls developing breasts at age 6 and why autism is so much more prevalent than it was even 20 years ago? Why is it “paranoid” of me to be skeptical of eating a snack cake that doesn’t really even fit the standard definition of cake?

Ettlinger’s reporting of the details of the component parts of Twinkies is certainly impressive, especially in an industry known for secrecy. But I didn’t really see the book as a compelling argument for why one should eat a Twinkie at all. At the end of the book, he describes the experience of eating a Twinkie, obviously from the perspective of someone enraptured by its taste, texture and nostalgia as opposed to someone like me, whose gag reflex is activated by the chemical, fake taste of Twinkies and the like.

But I couldn’t help but wish that after all his investigations and the knowledge of what’s IN those finger-sized spongy treats, he would have ended up a skeptic too.

Full disclosure: I will admit that when Hostess announced its bankruptcy plans last year and the Great Twinkie Rush of 2012 was on, I had Mark pick up a Snowball for me, since I had never tried one and feared I was missing out. (I think I watched The Mirror Has Two Faces too many times.) One bite and I knew exactly why I don’t eat them. Gross. I think I had to scrape my tongue.