“Cooked” makes it sound harder than it is

Omnivore’s Dilemma was wonderful; while there were irritating bits, these were not so noticeable, in the wealth of wonderful information and perspective. Unfortunately, there’s much less wealth of information in Cooked, so the irritating bits are much more visible.

Yes, if you have hundreds of hours to focus on baking bread and take lessons from award-winning bakers you can make a great loaf, and I’m sure his are delicious, but not like the humble loaves I bake; and no, I don’t chop my onions finely for my stews, yet we eat them with enjoyment. It’s possible to cook from scratch ingredients (many home grown), and have it not take a long time; and while it may not be haute cuisine, it will taste pretty good. Pollan notes that as a culture we are interested in watching cooking even when we don’t do it; this book seems to fit right in, we are reading about him doing things that sound quite inaccessible (and I’ve done some of these things myself, so it’s not like lack confidence).

This book seems to make the divide in our food culture even larger, rather than bridging the gap; the line between those that take their time to cook wonderful meals with organic ingredients from the farmer’s market, and those that don’t have the time or finances and so don’t cook, and just eat fast food. There’s a whole lot of different interesting things that lie in between the San Francisco artisan sourdough loaf and Wonder bread. We’ve been making almost all our bread for years; it’s not exciting and artisanal and it takes very little time, we don’t gush over it and write about it or anything.

Having said all this, Pollan still is a great writer, I did learn somethings… I am more diligent about the wholewheat flour, and mix it with water and let it rest for a few hours before proceeding with breadmaking.

Perhaps I’m too jaded, the first time you read about fermentation may be that much more exciting than the umpteenth time (but I do recommend you go directly to “Wild Fermentation” if you want to be inspired to ferment)

Diet and Forks over Knives

I was recently annoyed by a video called Forks over Knives. I’ve been reading off and on about nutrition over the past few years, and so I did come into the movie with some existing beliefs (I tried to keep an open mind, but I am not sure it was successful). But the movie didn’t give much information, it was dramatic and entertaining with lots of graphics, but not much convincing argument. Over and over, it set up a comparison between “industrial food including animal products” and “natural foods with no animal products”. The message seems to be that the problem is the animal products, not the industrial food!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Forks over Knives is by a Dr. Campbell, who did write a book with the same material called the China Study, and that book caused some uproar and discussion in the paleo-nutrition blogosphere that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to at the time. Here’s the article: China Study Response (pdf).

When I was looking for that article, I found a critique of the science in Forks over Knives, written by the same writer: forks-over-knives-is-the-science-legit-a-review-and-critique

It’s great; it expands and goes into excruciating detail on many of the points that bothered me, so I don’t have to even start trying to figure out the problems. Warning, though, it’s very, very long and full of data.

Myself, I’m kind of with the Dr. Weston Pricers, and believe that animal meat and fat are healthy. Dr. Cate Shanahan wrote a book called “Deep Nutrition” that is by far my favorite; it’s against sugar (including starches) and seed oils, and in favor of meat especially bone broth and organ meats. While I see her points (and some of the data from the Paleo people) about the problems with starches and especially wheat, I’m just not sure – I don’t do well without some starches.

The bottom line for us, though, is that any sort of diet philosophy has to work with the foods we can grow for ourselves at different times of the year. Since we do grow so much, it’s a reality test that makes more sense for us than for almost everyone else (at least in the industrial world) who just buys food at the store. I was reading another book that said to avoid root vegetables since they were too startchy. Well, that’s what we have right now, and no one’s going to take away my carrots!

And don’t forget to get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” book review

I very much enjoyed this book by the author of “The Botany of Desire” (which I also highly recommend).

The Omnivore’s Dilemna is written in three sections. The first covers industrial agriculture, most specifically corn and the meat animals that eat it. The second is organic agriculture, starting with the integrated polyculture small farm, then looking at industrial organic. The last section is hunting and gathering, with some musing on vegetarianism.

The first section was the most interesting and illuminating for me. I find Polson’s best stuff is looking at industrial production; he’s about the one one I’ve read who approaches these topics with an open mind (I’m reminded of the potatoes chapter in The Botany of Desire). The problem facing farming is that it has become business, and our current paradigm requires growth; a mere 2% growth is standing still. Using hybrid corn varieties, lots of chemical inputs, and now GMO, we have increased production amazingly. But that’s only half the problem: the population grows slowly in the US, and we can only increase our eating so much. One result is we are getting fat. We also eat more processed food, since we pay more for the same calories in a highly processed form.

There’s a lot more on how miserable cows and chickens are, and all the industrial processing for cereal, etc. and how the system is systematically set up to stick it to the actual farmer – but for this I’d recommend the book “fast food nation” and the film “The future of food”.

The second section starts with his visit to Salatin’s famous pastured poultry setup. I find his enthusiasm about Salatin’s integrated small farm to be a little over-the-top; I don’t really like cheerleaders, honest skeptism is more interesting and educational. But I agree it’s a great system. The discussion of industrial organic and the evolution and co-opting of the organic movement is also excellent; I knew that it wasn’t all Farmer John with his hoe, but laser-leveled fields so specialized tractors can automatically cut hundreds of acres of baby greens is farther than I had imagined.

I don’t hunt, nor am I a big fan of mushrooms, which may be one reason why the last chapter didn’t do much for me – it was all driving hundreds of miles to hunt wild pig and find gourmet mushrooms (chanterelles and morels) and prepare grand cuisine. Perhaps you can justify it by his allusion to this being a meal from the forest, rather than from annuals (corn) or perennials (grasses eaten by cows). But he doesn’t seem to notice in his all home grown or gathered meal that he’s got wheat in his bread and pasta and garlic and sage (perhaps he grew them, he didn’t say) and butter and pepper, etc, etc. All together it comes across as elistist and irrelevant. It’s deeply satisifying to eat a meal all of food you grew yourself, it gives a feeling of connection to the land that can’t be described, but while his meal was doubtless far finer than the simple meals we eat, our meals are much more real.

The discussion of vegetarianism, speaking as a ex-vegetarian who raises her own meat, was very well done. There is a dilemna between caring for animals and eating them, and I especially like this quote:

“Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals — and specifically the loss of eye contact — has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away.”

We do feel honor for our animals and appreciation for them, in spite of having cared for them and then having had them killed. The sheep butchering is a solemn moment. And somehow eating them does not seem wrong or bad.

Besides my impressions, there’s another blog review of this book I recommend; it has a rather different perspective: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/06/omnivores-dilemma.html

The Future of Food

There’s a documentary out called “The Future of Food”, which someone loaned to us recently. While I’d known about the creeping dangers of GMO and agribusiness, this documentary really makes it clear how systematic and organized the system is: the government, the courts, and Monsanto and the rest of agribusiness are setting up a system that will make it virtually impossible for farmers to not live indebted or owned by big chemical companies, and give us no choice about what’s available for the consumer to eat. I have a renewed mistrust of any bit of food that I didn’t grow myself; organic food is better, but it’s still probably not a good idea to trust anything. And what about eating when I’m away from home? I don’t eat fast food, but even at nicer restaurants: what’s really in the corn chips or the tofu?

It seems to be much worse in the US than other countries; other countries have wisely rejected or required labelling on GMO foods. I think we are so out of touch with where food comes from, and have had our taste buds dulled if not killed outright by fast food (I read recently that one quarter of all meals in the US are fast food), that we are more vulnerable to the transformation of our food supply into something that does not fill the needs of healthy support for our bodies, nor healthy support for the land, and utterly ignores the future in favor of making a little cash today.

I strongly recommend everyone try to see this documentary, although it’s pretty depressing. We all need to be aware of what we eat and vote with our food dollars against this evil.