by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Books

Jun 18 2021

Weekend reading: Peter Hoffman’s food memoir (“foodoir”)

Peter Hoffman.  What’s Good: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients.  Abrams Press, 2021.

Peter Hoffman, the chef-owned of the much loved and late-lamented Savoy restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo has written an account of its rise and fall along with a close examination of what went into it, foods, ingredients, and emotions.

As I read it, this is two separate books joined together.  One is his version of how he got interested in food, learned about it, trained to cook, and started, ran, and eventually closed the Savoy.  This is a compelling narrative, despite its sad ending.  Full disclosure: I loved the Savoy.  The food was always interesting, the ambiance lovely, and the service warm and welcoming.

The second book is an almost academic discussion of specific ingredients and how Peter used them in his cooking.  These are fascinating and I learned something about every one of the ingredient chapters.  These are followed by a recipe using that ingredient.

The book’s overall structure joins them together in sequence: memoir chapter, ingredient chapter, recipe.  Repeat.

In the midst of writing a memoir myself, I wanted more of the memoir and a faster moving narrative, but also greatly enjoyed the ingredient chapters.  These cover such things as maple syrup, garlic scapes, rosemary, and ice.  I particularly loved the chapter on garlic scapes because there is a large patch of wild garlic growing near my house upstate in Ithaca.  Now I know what to do with the scapes when they appear.

Peter writes well.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

From a memoir chapter: My Spring Awakening:

With Bocuse as a beacon to steer towards, I devised a plan of escape from the tyrannical narrowness of high school.  I’d test the culinary waters by taking a year off—now called a gap year—and get a cooking job.  My parents were supportive, some of their friends mortified.  I remember fighting back tears of fury at my dad’s best friend;s insistence that I’d never go to college if they let me take a uear off, a slippery slope into hell, implying that my parents’ permissiveness was a grave mistake.  I persisted with my plan, doubling up on core requirements, taking English literature in summer school, and graduated a year early.  I moved to Vermont, worked construction in a hotel renovation, and parlayed that into my first kitchen job in the hotel’s kitchen as a dishwasher and prep guy, at a place called Topnotch, where the food was anything but.   (p. 49)

From the ingredient chapter, Garlic:

Keith’s garlic was different.  At the cutting board I immediately noticed that there was less surrounding leaf paper; the cloveswere generally all the same size, a single row circulating around a hard inner stem, the hard-neck; and easy to peel, maybe even pleasurably so, especially after countless instances of having my fingers gummed up with garlic oil and lots of thin clove paper confetti.  Roasted, the flesh was creamy and sweet; rubbed raw on some toasted bread for bruscchetta it was delightfully pungent, not at all acrid; and tossed into a mushroom sauté with chopped parsley and oive oil, Italy’s culinary holy trinity, it rounded out the perfect balance of earthy, herbal, and fruity flavors.  This wan’t just well-seasoned food, this food sang.  (p. 137)

I enjoyed reading this, but it made me hungry.

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Jun 11 2021

Weekend reading: Alice Waters on Fast vs. Slow Food Culture

 

Note to email recipients: I am still having technical difficulties with getting posts mailed out on a regular schedule.  I meant this one to go out today, not yesterday.  Apologies for the duplication.

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Alice Waters with Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller.  We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto.  Penguin Press, 2021.

This book is about the harm caused by fast food culture, and why it needs to be replaced by slow food.

I particularly like the way this book is organized.

The first section has chapters about the characteristics of fast food culture that get us into trouble: convenience, uniformity, ubiquity, more is better, speed, cheapness.

Chapters in the second section explain why the values of slow food culture are so much better for us and the planet: beauty, biodiversity, seasonality, stewardship, simplicity, interconnectedness.

If you have been paying attention to food issues, none of this will be new.  But it is well said, and from the heart.

It is also from Alice Waters’ experience running Chez Panisse for—can this be possible?—fifty years.  Its anniversary is this year, and well worth celebrating.

The academic in me wishes this book had included references and an index, particularly because there were a few things I wanted to follow up on.

Otherwise, it’s a well written delight and people new to these issues will finding it eye-opening and convincing.

A sample from the chapter on convenience:

The fast food industry certainly wants us to believe that all the laborious work of cooking is drudgery—indeed, that cooking is just that, work—so they can sell us their labor-saving products.  And they’ve been very successful at convincing us.  We have become more and more impatient when we choose what to cook—we want it as easy and simple as it can possibly be, if we’re going to try to cook something at all.  To relieve of of the “work” of cooking, enterprising companies have produced countless gadgets and packaged foods over the past sixty years to streamline the process of cooking at home.  When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s, we didn’t have too many labor-saving “convenience” appliances, except the electric blender we used for making banana milkshakes.  But there were definitely convenience foods in our house: Jell-O, Junket, frozen fish sticks.  And my mother absolutely used them for convenience’s sake; she had six people to cook for, and she was pretty overwhelmed with the washing the drying, the ironing, the housecleaning.  Crucially, she had never learned how to cook when she was young. (p. 19-20)

From the simplicity chapter:

I use the phrase “less is more” all the time.  I don’t like to be served more than I can eat, and when I’m at Chez Panisse I often ask for half-size portions because I don’t want to waste food.  At the Edible Schoolyard, we do serve dishes family style, but our objective is to teach students a lesson in portion size and consideration for others.  That one bowl has to be enough to feed the whole table.  When students serve themselves from the bowl, it is also a lesson in conservation; they are learning that resources are not unlimited, and it helps them appreciate what is on their plate.  I’m sure they take that lesson home with them. (p. 168)

Jun 4 2021

Weekend reading: How palm oil ended up in everything we eat

Jocelyn C. Zuckerman.  Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World.  The New Press, 2021.  mfavreau@thenewpress.com

Here’s my blurb for this book:

I’ve always thought of palm oil as just another best-to-avoid food ingredient for its high level of saturated fat, but can never look at it the same way again after reading Planet Fat.  I now understand that oil palms represent the darkest underside of late-stage capitalism, responsible as they are for land grabs, forest devastation, peat burning, greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity and orangutan habitat, junk food, chronic illness, and food insecurity, all accompanied by unthinkable levels of corruption, criminality, and violence: accidents, thievery, arson, and murders.  This is an ugly story, compellingly told.  It needs to be read. 

And here are a few short excerpts.

The first:

In 2019, the World Health Organization compared the tactics used by the palm oil industry to tose employed by the tobacco and alcohol lobbies, no slouches when it comes to playing dirty…Across the globe, those who’ve dared to speak out against the industry, whether laborers, peasant farmers environmental activists, or investigative journalists, often ave been met with violence [p. 17]

With reference to a “technically safeguarded” national park in Indonesia:

The past decade and a half have seen roughly five thousand acres of its park converted to oil-palm plantations.  Today, only 4.5 million acres of the ecosystem remain forested.  Here as elsewhere in Indonesia, palm oil companies have secured permits through backroom deals with local officials or have simply pad others to clear the land illegally [p. 116]

One reason for concern:

While it’s true that many of the world’s people could use more calories…the global glut of palm oil is in fact diminishing food security, in a fairly drastic way.  It’s common to blame sugar for the world’s weight problems, but in the last half-century, refined vegetable oils have added far more calories to the global diet than has any other food group.  Between 1961 and 2009, for example, the availability of palm oil worldwide went up a staggering 206 percent [p. 162]

May 21 2021

Weekend reading: the history of home economics

Danielle Dreilinger.  The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live.  WW Norton, 2021.  

I was particularly interested in this book because I came to NYU in 1988 (with a doctorate in molecular biology, no less) to chair a department of home economics and nutrition.  I was hired explicitly to get rid of home economics programs (25 of them, none with more than a few lingering students) to bring the department—now Nutrition and Food Studies–into the 20th  (if not the 21st) century.  This book was a revelation about what I had gotten myself into, and I wish I had known this history at the time.

I did a blurb for the book’s back cover:

This book tells the unexpected story of how home economics began as an intellectual haven for smart women–Black as well as white–who were otherwise blocked from studying science, but ended up as a field less rigorous and more conforming.  Black women were at the forefront of this history, and their role is a revelation.  Dreilinger makes a convincing case for bringing back the skills that home economics alone could teach.

There is plenty more to be said about this history, and here’s where to find it.

Home economics started out as a hard-science field that women were permitted to enter.  The earliest home economists were serious scientists with professorial jobs at places like MIT, Berkeley, Cornell, and, in the case of Black academics, Howard.

Two excerpts:

Home economics has been a back door for women to enter science; part of a surprisingly large government-backed movement; a guilt trip for women left cold by the household arts; a trap or a springboard for women of color; a sometimes ironic, sometimes nostalgic preoccupation of third-wave feminists; a conservative calling card; an aesthetic obsession for the Instagram set; a feminist battlefield; and the locus for countless anxieties about women’s lives. A revival seems bewilderingly overdue (p. x).

Once home economics had been a way for girls to study in women-created labs that were as serious as the men’s…home ec became a way to bar women from science.  Advisors pressured women away from majors such as chemistry into home economics…With pressure coming in from all sides—students who felt nervous about taking science, alumni who said their undergraduate chemistry classes didn’t help on the job, and college presidents who sought someplace to put less-serious students—home economics administrators cut hard-science prerequisites from the requirements for a home economics bachelor’s degree (p. 191).

The New Yorker reviewed this book in April.  I particularly liked the review because it refers to Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, an earlier and much loved history of the field.

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May 14 2021

Weekend reading: Backyard Chickens!

Gina A. Warren.  Hatched: Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement.  University of Washington Press, 2021. 

I did a blurb for this book:

Hatched is Gina Warren’s exceptionally thoughtful account of raising backyard chickens from chicks to dinner, with dumpster diving in between–actions that reflect her deep respect and care for the animals we eat and her profound commitment to living ethically.

Here’s what she says it’s about:

Backyard chickens are still on the rise, partially because the style of living they exemplify rebels against modern metropolis ails; in the wake of stresses about increasing urbanization, environmental collapse, GMO foods, and kids growing up with their fingers on screens instead of in the dirt, chickens are an all-inclusive reprieve.  Chicken people tend to have concerns about the environment, industrial food, and the economy of commercial agriculture.  By owning chickens, people perform a feat of micro-resistance against society’s dominant forms of consumption and production and create a counter-narrative to the story that food, something we all require on a daily basis, can only be produced by certain industries in sequestered places.

This book is a welcome addition to others about the backyard chicken movement, a subset of the greater food movement.

It extols the pleasures of getting to know the hens that produce daily eggs, and those of hens scratching around in the grass as compared to those raised in enclosed barns housing 50,000.

Backyard chickens are a privilege.

Apr 30 2021

Weekend reading: the history of pigs in America

J.L. Anderson.  Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America.  West Virginia University Press, 2019.

I saw this book in the office of my food historian colleague, Amy Bentley, and snatched it up.

I love the title.

The book is a well researched history of pigs, feral and domestic, in the United States, from colonial times to the present, from free-range to CAFO, from waste as fertilizer to waste lagoons, and from lard to lean.

The book is fabulously illustrated with dozens of reproductions of etchings, drawing, and photographs of pigs in all their glory, as well as their confinement and butchery.

If you want to know how pigs arrived in America, how farmers treated them, how their numbers grew, and their place in U.S. diets, this book has it all.

But for me, the title is the best part of this book.  I was disappointed in its lack of a more forceful discussion of how pigs exemplify larger issues of corporate power and capitalism in today’s society.  The index has not one listing for “capitalism,” “neoliberalism,” or “pig industry.”

Unless I missed others, only two sentences bear directly on “Pigs, Pork, and Power:”

What about the farmers who continue in the pig production business, including the large-scale enterprises, contractors, and independent producers?  While it is difficult to generate much sympathy for the corporate leaders and integrators who are more concerned about shareholders and the bottom line than about communities, it is important to remember that many farmers and farm wage workers care about the animals they raise and the communities in which they live (p. 220)

For a recent update on the politics of pig farming, see Charlie Mitchell and Austin Frerick’s The Hog Barons, on Vox (April 19).  This article focuses on Jeff Hansen, Iowa’s largest hog producer.

Hansen’s company, Iowa Select Farms, employs more than 7,400 people, including contractors, and has built hundreds of confinement sheds in more than 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Since they began to arrive in the 1990s, these sheds have provoked controversy. Citing damage to healthlivelihoodsproperty values, the environment, and the farm economy, rural communities in Iowa have campaigned fiercely against them.  While their efforts have yielded small victories, they have lost the war: The state’s hog industry, led by Hansen, has cultivated close relationships with state politicians on both sides of the aisle to roll back regulations, and confinements have flooded the countryside. The Hansen family’s charitable efforts have seemingly solidified these ties; it’s not unusual for a sitting governor to attend a charity gala thrown by the Hansens.

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Apr 23 2021

Weekend reading: Turning food banks into a community resource

Katie S. Martin.  Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger.  Island Press, 2021.

After Janet Poppendieck’s Sweet Charity?, and Andy Fisher’s Big HungerI didn’t think there was anything new to say about private charitable food handouts in the U.S., but this book surprised me.

Reinventing is a how-to manual for people working in the food banking and food pantry system.  Katie Martin’s goal is to make this system more dignified, healthier, and politically focused for participants.

Martin recognizes that a volunteer-run system for distributing charitable food is unsustainable.  She wrote this book to encourage longer term solutions to food and nutrition insecurity.

What if our success is measured not simply by the pounds of food we distribute but by the reduction in people who need our services?  Or the number of people who are connected to additional services?  Or the number of people who make fewer trade-off decisions between paying for food, rent, or medicine.  Or the number of people who have improved health outcomes based on the food and services they receive? (p. 26)

The book provides step-by-step guides to talking about hunger in policy rather than individual terms, to making food pantries more hospitable and better connected to social resources, to providing participants with choices, to training volunteers, to evaluating how programs work, and to dealing with systems change.

Every chapter ends with actions steps and encouragement to take one step, make one change.

Yes!

Apr 9 2021

Weekend advocacy: The People vs. Big Soda

I’ve just received a copy of Larry Tramutola’s The People VS Big Soda: Strategies for Winning Soda Tax Elections.

Larry was involved in the successful Berkeley soda tax initiative, and this is his account of how they won an election wtih an astonishing plurality of 76%.  I consider this initiative to be a model of how to do food advocacy, and it’s great to have this practical guide to the details of starting a campaign like this or, for that matter, any other food campaign.

He covers such matters as:

  • Coalition building
  • Dealing with industry arguments
  • Framing the issue
  • Recruiting volunteers
  • Winning despite limited financial resources
  • Building power, step by step
  • Staying with it no matter what happens

These are important lessons for anyone involved in food advocacy.

I can’t find anything about this booklet online, which means that if you want one, you must contact him at:

Larry Tramutola
191 Ridgeway Avenue
Oakland, California 94611
PHONE510-658-7003