Is it possible to pinpoint when a trend begins? When a seminal book, or movie, or article penetrates the mainstream? Really it never is a single specimen, but rather a choir erupts, as if the movie producers and publishers had schemed years before to create this unavoidable fad.
So when I reflect on the food politics books of the past five years, I can’t locate the first one. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)? Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (book in 2001, film in 2006)? Perhaps Peter Singer in the ‘70s presaged the current food movement, though the paths of vegetarians and locavores diverged in a wood.
I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma when it came out in 2006. I joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture share) and dutifully ate squash and potatoes through the winter but never embraced the dogma. Or did I?
In The New Yorker last summer, Elizabeth Kolbert took on the recent spate of green memoirs: “The latest publishing fad features ecology as an extreme life style; the focus is on wacky misadventure, not global cataclysm.” Her primary opponent was Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, who, she reminds us, is “a man whose environmental activism began over lunch with his agent.”
(In 2007, I sold cheese to Colin Beavan at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, and, as he asked me to wrap his cheese in a piece of cotton that he had brought, he made sure to tell me that his memoir was being published by FSG. At the time, I had no idea what that was, but nodded.)
Kolbert rightly identifies that these memoirs share a gimmicky predisposition with annual deadlines: I will make no trash or carbon impact for a year; I will cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in 365 days; I will eat only food produced within 100 miles of my home for a year! She also informs us that their obvious predecessor, Thoreau, was a stuntman too. Walden was a 19th century gimmick: Thoreau’s attempt to woo publishers. And, just like in 2010, it worked.
I never read No Impact Man (or saw the movie).
But recently a couple of food books fell on my desk, one on recommendation from a friend, another when I stumbled across it at the library. The two couldn’t be more different: Bill Buford’s Heat and Paul Roberts’ The End of Food. Heat is a food memoir from before food memoirs were all the rage: one part slaving in Mario Batali’s kitchen, another chasing culinary traditions to a tiny pasta kitchen and a butcher shop in Italy. The End of Food is journalism about the state of our food system – from the processed concoctions of Nestlé to E. Coli outbreaks in spinach.
Heat flew by. It was fast-paced, like the restaurant it showcased, and full of the juicy details we all want to hear about kitchens: line cooks who measure meat portions as “a B-cup,” marjoram compared to “the oily perfume of a woman’s body,” and Mario himself saying, “It gives me wood.”
In truth, the book made me hungry. I started cooking from Silver Spoon, the famed Italian cookbook, with a modicum of success; I bought bronze-cut pasta for $12 a pound; I put lemon on everything.
But Buford left me wondering: after 300 some-odd pages, what do I know now that I didn’t before? In the biographical details of Batali’s youth to visceral descriptions of the kitchen, he mythologizes the kitchen without exploring it. He wonders when the egg replaced water in fresh pasta, but why?
He is a sympathetic narrator as he reveals that the prep cook mocks him for earnestly practicing a kitchen knot, and I eagerly followed him to hidden kitchens and butcher shops in Italy. In the closing pages he teases that he will follow the footsteps of Catherine de Medici to the culinary traditions of France. The next book perhaps? Perhaps I will follow him there, too.
Paul Roberts does not take on a gimmicky experiment, but rather approaches the current state of our food system as a journalist. As his bio on the back flap tells us, “He has written about resource economics and politics for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s Magazine, and Rolling Stone.” Certainly not a memoirist and maybe not predisposed to the grand claims made by Eric Schlosser, Roberts paints a comprehensive picture of how our food system came to the place it is today and why it is so volatile. Unlike Schlosser, who plainly states, “there’s manure in the meat,” Roberts circles his prey. He ventures to the Nestlé headquarters in Switzerland to uncover the flavor secrets of the world’s most successful food company. He visits plant geneticists at Iowa State University to discuss mapping the corn genome.
In the midst of these interviews and visits, Roberts is careful not to accuse anyone of “being responsible for” the environmental degradation and inherent dangers of the current food system – deforestation of the rain forests to make way for corn fields; run-off in rivers and oceans creating dead zones inhospitable to life; soil erosion of an unprecedented scale. Roberts doesn’t think the presidents of Nestlé and Monstanto calculated these byproducts, but they certainly aren’t sharing accountability for these very unfortunate impacts.
Also, unlike other food books that immerse themselves in the enjoyment and luxury of food (see Heat), The End of Food pays particular attention to the poorest, hungriest people on earth, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa where food security has always been tight. Roberts reveals how the global economy disadvantages poorer countries, by disabling them from growing their own food and then excising them from the global market.
Roberts’ book is pretty depressing. As Elizabeth Kolbert tells us in her review of No Impact Man, people don’t like to read depressing books: “People are in no mood to read about how screwed up they are. It’s a bummer.” Roberts avoids this conundrum by making the dangers feel far away, like it’s going on somewhere else. Then in the last chapter of the book, he plays out how our food security could crumble, almost without warning. We are one flu outbreak and a couple of natural disasters away from not knowing where our dinner is coming from. This summer as the water rises over Pakistan and Iowa and fire races across Russia – driving up the prices of corn and wheat – I keep thinking of Roberts’ cataclysmic conclusion: we won’t change until we have to and by then millions of people will be hungry or already dead.
Roberts informs us that is not the small farms of our imagination that will make our food more secure and our environment healthier. There must be systematic change, not a few acres out of millions. The government, through subsidies, could revive regional food distributions systems, and encourage diversified mid-sized farms, rather than gargantuan monocrop businesses with accompanying feedlots.
On a panel with Michael Pollan and Harold McGee (food chemist and New York Times columnist), food blogger Bonnie Azab Powell reminded the eager audience that we, as a society, oscillate from fetishizing the industrial to fetishizing the pastoral, and, if the pictures of farms at the grocery are any sign, we are currently fetishizing the pastoral. Every time I buy grass-fed beef, I think about the context that Powell gave me.
I also wonder, though, if this isn’t just a swing but a true problem, in an existential sense. Maybe I did swallow the dogma.