Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tasty Food Books

Food as a pastime--food as a way of life--food as an obsession came to fruition in the 1980’s. We lived in New York City then, and were educated by columns from Molly O’Neill, whose tenure as a food writer at The New York Times coincided happily with the emergence of chefs as the new superstars. A comment she made at a panel for the New York City chapter of Culinary Historians in the 1990’s made quite an impression on me. O’Neill pointed out that in Italy, a fiercely class-based society, everyone eats the same food. Yet in America, a vociferous proponent of equality, one might say “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you where you are in the pecking order.” She said, “When McDonald’s starts serving salads with balsamic vinegar, it will disappear from fancy restaurant menus.” How very prescient.

At some point O’Neill seemed to disappear and I missed her. Now, though, you can meet up with her again in her autobiography Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball, a perfectly splendid book. It’s a treat to read her account of growing up the elder sister of five boisterous brothers, one of whom is former Yankee star Paul O’Neill; of her development as a chef in Northampton, Provincetown and Boston; and, of course, the time she spent covering New York food as it exploded with creativity and snob appeal. It’s not just food that she writes about so convincingly. Reading about her life as a burgeoning feminist in Northampton is hilarious in a time-warp way.

After being absent from the literary scene for far too long, O’Neill seems back with a vengeance since about a year after her autobiography came out she edited American Food Writing, an anthology extending from colonial times to the present. We don’t see much of her in the book, but we get the benefit of her well-developed food sensibilities in the choices she made for excerpts. Unlike her autobiography, one wouldn’t sit down and read this volume straight through. But it’s fun to keep on the nightstand, to read it in small bites instead of one huge gulp.

Right after reading Almost True I read Thomas McNamee’s biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, a thoroughly delightful romp through the history of one of America’s most famous, and certainly most iconic, restaurants. Luckily, for those of us with a penchant for the salacious in biographies, McNamee satisfies with sundry stories of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll that accompanied the establishment of Chez Panisse. I particularly liked the meaty descriptions of the many chefs who cooked there, of the ethical dilemmas Waters and her staff dealt with, and, to be sure, details of the foraging sorties that led to the current emphasis on “buy local.”

Over the weekend I read Russ Parsons’s new book, How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table. Parsons is the food editor and chief food writer for The Los Angeles Times, whose name you might recognize from the occasional article the Berkshire Eagle publishes in its food section. Like his earlier book, How To Read a French Fry, this one provides well written and interesting information about sustainable farming. And like the earlier one, there are about 100 recipes.

This being a book on fruit and vegetables, Parsons divides it into the four seasons, with botanical and culinary information on a wide variety of produce we all eat (or should eat). I took an immediate fancy to the book because the very first entry is on artichokes, a food I love to eat but am terrified to prepare. He made it seem so easy that I’m thinking it’s finally time to relax enough to learn to make them. In each entry, the reader learns where the produce is grown, and how to choose, store and prepare it.

One aspect of our food system is made very clear—more than half of American produce comes from California. Internalizing that fact is sobering. I need to think it about that, and figure out what it means in terms of “buy local.” If, as in our case, “local” is 3000 miles away from the major food source.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What’s a Book-Loving Local Food Fan To Do?

Even faster than you can read them, publishers are producing well-written, thoughtful books on the virtues and pleasures of local food. Following the excitement generated last year by Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” look for Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Vegetable Miracle” and “Plenty,” by Vancouver journalists Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

I’ve been a Barbara Kingsolver fan since reading her first novel “Bean Trees” some years ago. Originally drawn in by her story-telling talent, I later found myself really hooked as her fiction demonstrated her obvious connection with food.

“We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. ‘And heaven knows,’ our mother predicted, ‘they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.”

Thus begins her introductory chapter on Leah Price, the main character in Kingsolver’s runaway bestseller “The Poisonwood Bible.” Betty Crocker. The Congo. What a concept!

In “Animal Vegetable Mineral,” Kingsolver tells us that she and her family began their year-long quest of eating locally in early spring, defined as when the first asparagus came out of the ground. And thus by late March on their farm in Virginia, their grocery list included only goods produced locally, not those available just because they’d been shipped in from who-knows-where. The family grew a large amount of their food with a huge garden and some animals. They bought or bartered fresh food from neighbors, and spent endless hours preserving food at harvest time.

Each month gets its own chapter, which it shares with Kingsolver’s observations and research on a large variety of agricultural, economic, political, and sociological aspects of the 21st century food system. And most chapters have sidebars written by Steven Hopp, Kingsolver’s husband, an environmental studies professor, and her older daughter Camille, a Duke University student. Camille provides recipes the family used during their year of eating locally. Although I haven’t yet made any of them, I licked my lips as I read them.

Although Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” set the gold standard for contemporary books on local food, Kingsolver’s is more accessible, and easier to read, in fact, than one or two of her most recent novels. Not only did I learn a lot from her book, but I had a hard time putting it down. It’s just plain fun to read.

The second eating local book I read was “Plenty” by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who defined “local” as grown within 100 miles of their small apartment in Vancouver. Unlike Kingsolver’s family, who granted themselves “exceptions” to their local diet (e.g., coffee, chocolate, wheat), Smith and MacKinnon made no allowance for the unavailability of items most of us wouldn’t think of abandoning, no matter how devoted we are to eating locally. (If you can imagine life without olive oil, you’re a better localvore than I.)

Just as Kingsolver’s book involved extensive commentary by her husband and older daughter, Smith and MacKinnon solved the dual author problem by alternating chapters. MacKinnon begins, I guess, because he was the one who proposed the idea. And he is certainly the more enthusiastic of the two throughout the year. Although both are good writers, I found Smith’s quizzical participation in the project something of a turnoff. But the book is a useful and undoubtedly more realistic counterpoint to the bucolic setting of Kingsolver’s Virginia farm.

The Kingsolver and Smith/MacKinnon books fall within a new paradigm of “eating locally,” or the “100-mile diet,” or, more simply “localvore.” Within the last year or two, dozens of chapters of Localvores have sprung up across the country, typically hosting one-week “eating local challenges” at various times of year.

For example, the Mad River Valley Localvores, headquartered in Warren, Vermont, held its first “challenge week” in September 2006. One hundred fifty-five people signed up, promising to eat only locally grown food. Well, it was September, so the challenge wasn’t too daunting. But they ran another challenge in late January, which, to be literal, was a far greater “challenge” than the one during harvest season. Yet 133 people signed up and fulfilled their pledge to spend one week eating locally.

The Mad River Valley Localvores gave their participants five “freebies,” foods which aren’t local but are considered necessary for psychic, if not physical survival—coffee, chocolate, wheat, tea, you get the drift. They also allow the “Marco Polo exception,” meaning you can use anything that sailors on a long voyage might have used: e.g., salt, pepper, spices.

I happened to be in Mad River Valley during the winter localvore challenge, and came back to the Berkshires determined to figure out how to introduce the concept here. If you’re interested, please let me know. Here at the Berkshire Grown Blog.

--Laury Epstein