The Omnivore's Dilemna

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

It seems I've been a bit food-obsessed lately. I can't help it--I love to eat. But as you learn in this book, the question "What should I eat?" is a difficult one. If you're a koala bear, it's simple: you eat eucalyptus leaves. If you're a rat, a fellow omnivore, it's a bit more complicated. If you're a human with taste, traditions, societal conventions, history, grocery budgets, and a moral conscience, it's enough to fill a 500-page book.

I recommend this book highly. The author makes science approachable and links different ways to eat through a narrative, which makes the sometimes-abstract subject much more interesting. He divides the book into three foods, corn, grass, and fungi, which parallels different ways of eating: Industrial, part of the military-industrial commercial way of eating subsidized by the US government and heavy reliance on oil; Pastoral, comprehensive small farms where every form of food ultimately goes back full circle to rich soil and vibrant grass; and Personal, where modern hunter-gatherers use the forest (or suburbs, or cities) to find wild food.

For me, nothing in the book was revolutionary, because I already eat differently than your average American. I have celiac disease, I like good food, and I'm trying to be healthy, so that limits most fast food, prepared food, and restaurant food. This did go more into detail about some things I wished I didn't know, like about CAFOs: confined animal feedlot operations. So sad--these animals wouldn't exist if it weren't for us, and I think we have an obligation to treat them better. Or, how much oil is consumed for food. Between fertilizer, preservatives, tractors, diesel trucks and transportation, it's staggering. And unappetizing.

The hero of the books ends up being Joel Salatin, who actually lives not that far away from me. He owns Polyface Farms, and describes himself as a "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer." My kind of guy! His worldview is admirable, and more comprehensive than I can describe here. The author spent a week working on his farm, and as a Christian, this passage particularly resonated with me:

"As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut. It was hard to believe this hillside had ever been the gullied wreck Joel had described at dinner, and even harder to believe that farming such a damaged landscape so intensively, rather than just letting it be, could restore it to health and yield this beauty. This is not the environmentalist's standard prescription. But Polyface is proof that people can sometimes do more for the health of a place by cultivating it rather than by leaving it alone."

I think this is what we are called to do as humans, and especially as Christians. We're supposed to work hard to improve the health of the land, the animals, and our families. The way America currently eats is doing none of those things, but as individuals, we have the choices available to us. Or rather, dilemmas.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

I saw this on the "new arrivals" rack at the library, and I decided to read it because I wanted to see the movie too. It was one of those "why not?" selections, and it really paid off. This was such a fun book to read. I wish I could selectively forget the entire book and bring it with me on vacation next month, so I could have the pleasure of reading it again while sitting on the beach. So fun!

The protagonist is a fading, genteel middle-aged governess who is about to be kicked out of her London flat, and needs a job immediately. She answers yet another add, goes for yet another interview, and gets swept away in the glamorous life a beautiful actress juggling three men at once. Miss Pettigrew becomes progressively bolder and really lives for the first time in her life.

I want to read more books by this publisher, Persephone Books. Their description from the book jacket sums up the novel perfectly:

"Persophone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too comercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget..."

The Improvisational Cook

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider

I think I have a girl crush on the author, Sally Schneider. I want to buy her a dozen roses so she'll cook me dinner. I had heard her speak several times on one of my favorite podcasts, The Splendid Table, but it did not prepare me for the magic that is her cookbook.

Just to look at it, it's a beautiful book. The photos alone will inspire improvisation. But content is solid. I don't normally review cookbooks, art books, how-to books, or the like on this site, but I'm so impressed with this that I had write about it. Plus, in case you were my honey and realizing that my birthday is soon and looking for a gift, there's a handy link at the top of the page. (Or, hypothetically speaking, this book would also be appreciated. Just in case.)

The author introduces her approach by describing how to know what flavors go with what, how to find inspiration, essential ingredients, etc. Then in the recipe section, she takes a basic recipe and gives a little background, explains the technical side of it, and then gives at least four or so riffs on the recipe as examples of how to continue on your own. I like the approach, and I like her overall philosophy of food, too. She uses whole foods, good herbs, high quality fats, and organic when possible: No bottled steak sauce or dried ranch dressing envelopes here. Her ingredients can be more gourmet than our grocery budget would allow for, but she gives so many different options it's not a big deal. I learned the most from the sections entitled "Long-Keeping Staples for Pantry, Refrigerator, and Freezer" and "A Guide to Classic Flavor Affinities".

I've only made two recipes so far, but they've both been great. The master cornbread recipe (Crackling Cornbread, p. 261) produced the best cornbread I think I've ever eaten. Here's the part I liked especially:

"Note: to render bacon fat, cook several slices of bacon in a covered skillet over moderate heat until crisp. Strain the fat into a bowl for easy measuring. Refrigerate unused fat. (Eat the crisp bacon.)"

Now how could you not like a cookbook like that?

The Red House Mystery

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Red House Mystery, by A.A. Milne

Yes, by that A. A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories. He was quite an accomplished author and playwrite when he decided to try his hand at a detective novel. Apparently his agent told him not to bother: it would never sell, and England had too many mystery authors as it was. Milne ignored him, wrote the pitch-perfect "The Red House Mystery", received much acclaim, and then never wrote another detective story. He ignored his agent's and publisher's pleas for another one and decided to write for children next, and the rest is history.

I bought this book probably six or seven years ago, but I didn't get into it and put it away. A few nights ago, my cold kept me awake and so I looked for something to read until my coughing subsided. At times like that, I wish we had a TV. I ended up really getting into it, though. It's written in the tone of a light comedy, with the main character and his sidekick making ironic references to Sherlock and Watson. It follows the formula of the great mysteries: a dead body suddenly appearing, great English eccentrics wandering around a manor house, police officers and inquests, long-buried family secrets, and the clever civilian who solves the mystery. Except for the dead guy, everyone thoroughly enjoys himself.