by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Books

Oct 7 2016

Weekend reading: why we love eating meat

Marta Zaraska.  Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat.  Basic Books, 2016.

If this were just another diatribe against meat-eating, I would not have bothered to read it but this book is much more interesting than that.  The Polish-Canadian journalist Marta Zaraska describes herself as a “sloppy vegetarian,” someone who doesn’t eat much meat but

can’t seem to completely let go of meat either.  There is something in it—in its cultural, historic, and social appeal, or maybe in its chemical composition—that keeps luring me back.

And that’s what this book is about: the cultural, historic, and social (and maybe even the chemical) appeal of eating meat.  Zaraska identifies the reasons—the hooks—of this appeal, linked as they are to genetics, culture, history, and the politics of the meat industry and government.

Although Zaraska clearly thinks eating less meat would be good for health, animal welfare, and the environment, that’s not really the book’s goal.  Instead, it’s to understand why most people don’t want to be vegetarian, let alone vegan, and why even small steps in that direction are worth taking.

What’s impressive about this book is the friendliness, human understanding, and charm of its writing, and the global scope of the interviews on which it draws (full disclosure: it briefly quotes my work).

A couple of scientific points didn’t ring right (beans do have methionine, just not as much as is needed), and I’m not sure that mock meats, meat substitutes, and edible insects will satisfy the “hooks” she describes so well, but these are minor quibbles.

Sep 30 2016

Weekend reading: “Chickenizing”

Ellen K. Silbergeld. : How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers.  Johns Hopkins Press, 2016.

Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and health policy at Hopkins, has long been a strong advocate for getting toxic substances out of our food supply.  Here, she takes on our system of industrial farm animal production in a plea for better treatment of everyone and everything involved in it.

Big issue #1: the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.  This not only induces bacteria to become resistant to those drugs, but also is unnecessary.

Big issue #2: the failure of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—the method for preventing food safety problems) to prevent harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria from reaching the public.

Overall, she says:

The inextricable relationship between industrial food animal production and the environment challenges us in two ways.  First, we are all at risk–not just those of us who consume the products of industrially raised animals–and second, decontaminating food products will not contain the public health problems of this industry.  It is time to think about industrial food animal production as an industry in terms of environmental pollution, and it is long overdue to recognize that its pollution footprint, like its production, is industrial in scale (p. 127).

As for the remedy, “agriculture is an industry, and as such it carries certain obligations.”  These include, among others:

  • Industries must abide by laws that prevent monopolization, price fixing, and overconcentration.
  • Industries must bear full liability for unsafe products.
  • Industries must obey the labor laws of the country.

She has plenty more to say about government’s role in all this.

Our role is to insist that industry and government follow and apply laws.  We had best get busy.

Sep 23 2016

Weekend reading: Food, Ethics, and Society

Anne Barnhill, Mark Budolfson, Tyler Doggett.  Food, Ethics, and Society: An Introductory Text with Readings.  Oxford, 2016

The back cover has a comment from me that must have been something I wrote when reviewing the manuscript for the publisher, who asked: “Who will want to read or use this?” I said—and meant:

This would be extremely useful for undergraduate courses in food ethics or contemporary food issues.  It would work well in courses on contemporary issues in food systems.  The topics are excellent.

OK, I’m biased.  It has two pieces from me in it, one an update on the report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Food Animal Production, which came out in 2008 (I was on that committee), and the other an excerpt from the 2007 edition of Food Politics.  It has loads of interesting excerpts from the work of lots of other people writing about food and ethics from different perspectives.  I really do think it would be fun to use this in a food ethics course or to read if you are just interested in what people are thinking about food ethics .

Sep 16 2016

Weekend reading: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland

Miriam Horn.  Rancher, Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.  WW Norton, 2016.

Actually, this book should be titled “Rancher, Farmer, Riverman, Shrimper, Fisherman: Conservation of Life around the Mississippi River.” It consists of deep interviews with one person in each category who is working hard to protect some part of the environment.

My favorite is the shrimper, the truly remarkable woman who is devoting her life to saving the livelihoods of the people engaged in Louisiana’s highly endangered—by hurricanes, floods, oil spills, and regulators—shrimp-fishing industry.

Each of the people highlighted in this book is doing something for conservation, not always in the ways you and I might choose.  As Miriam Horn explains in her introduction,

Which is not to say they have found the perfect way to fish or farm; they would be the first to acknowledge that there is no such ideal.  Rather, their heroism lied in the depth of their commitment to consider the largest implications of what they do, across geographic and generational lines; to forever listen more intently, weight each choice for the impact it will have on their neighbors and all of life, challenge themselves to do better as they understand more and the world changes around them.

Sep 9 2016

Weekend reading: Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation

Sandor Ellix Katz.  Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  Chelsea Green, 2016.


This is the updated and revised edition of Katz’s wildly popular and influential book—a how to on the theory and practice of preparing, eating, and enjoying fermented foods.

Katz describes himself as a fermentation evangelist, and so he is.

By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote microbial diversity in your body.  The live bacteria in those ferments…help to digest food and assimilate nutrients, as well as stimulate immune responses.  There is no one strain that is uniquely beneficial; rather the greatest benefit of eating bacteria lies in biodiversity.

With the microbiome the hot new thing in biology, this book could not be better timed.

And besides.  Fermented foods are delicious.  Ginger champagne, anyone?

Sep 2 2016

Weekend reading: Michel Ableman’s Street Farm

Michael Ableman.  Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

Chelsea Green publishes books on “the politics and practice of sustainable living,” and its catalog gets better all the time.

Michael Ableman’s latest book is beautifully designed, packed with wonderful color photographs, and a must have for anyone even remotely curious about whether urban farming is worth a try.

Ableman was asked to start urban farms in the toughest areas of downtown Vancouver.  His book is a series of thoughtful, personal, and remarkably frank essays about how he turned vacant lots and parking lots into vegetables while engaging with the locals, coping with the city bureaucracy, dealing with landlords desperate for more parking space, and managing the hazards of trying to make this work among people beset by poverty, alcohol, and drugs.

But he did make it work and this book explains how you too can do this.

Street Farm is an elegant how-to manual on using farming to do real community work with populations classically “hard to reach” but thriving on such initiatives.

Aug 26 2016

Weekend reading: Beyond the Kale

Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen.  Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City.  University of Georgia Press, 2016.

This wonderfully titled book is about how urban agriculture can do plenty to help address race and class inequities:

Moving ‘beyond the kale’ means looking beyond the trendy aspects of growing food in the city to see people who have been using urban agriculture to make the food system less oppressive and more socially just.

The authors did extensive interviews with urban agriculture activists: farmers, gardeners, and organizational leaders.  Their book links food studies to agriculture and human values and provides ideas and resources for teachers, students, and anyone else who wants to get out there and dig—as a means to change the world.

Aug 19 2016

Weekend reading: Michaela DeSoucey’s Contested Tastes–Foie Gras!

Michaela DeSoucey.  Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food.  Princeton University Press, 2016. 

I thought this book was exceptionally interesting and did a blurb for it:

Contested Tastes takes a deep dive into the gastropolitics of foie gras, the fatty duck liver commonly consumed in France but much less so in America.  Whether or not you approve of eating this food, you will want to read this riveting case study of how fights among stakeholders—producers and eaters of fatty duck liver, of course, but also animal welfare advocates, chefs, and government officials—reflect much larger issues of national identity, class, economic markets, and who gets to decide what we have for dinner.

Here’s a brief excerpt from her chapter on Chicago’s decision in 2006 to ban the sale of foie gras in restaurants, rescinded two years later and considered a fiasco by the Chicago Tribune.

Personal and social identities, as well as consumer movements, are realized through commodities and solidified through consumer behavior.  This lends a political dimension to the act of choosing, or refusing, certain foods…But yet, one can only “vote” as an eater among the choices made available by the business and regulatory communities…who has the ability and resources to “vote with their forks” remains a salient issue of social class.  This analogy casually affirms the liberal rhetoric of personal choice, bypassing the myriad ways in which one’s choices are influenced by others and their life circumstances.  This is the gastropolitical model that surrounded events in Chicago, meshing the language of taste and of choice with that of overt stakeholder politics.

This is an example of food studies in action—using food to explore the deeper cultural implications of important issues in our society.

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