Conscience-Raising Foodbookery

In yesterday's post on culinary reading, I mentioned two distinct trends in food titles this year -- culinary memoirs and an umbrella topic that includes buzz words such as organic, sustainable, ethics, ecology and politics.

As a culture, we are starting to wake up to the harsh reality of environmental destruction and its far-reaching impacts on the food we put in the shopping cart and ultimately in our mouths, and we're seeing these revelations show up in droves on bookstore shelves. The list that follows is just a sample of the body of work focused on food politics, authored by experts in a variety of fields - journalism, cooking, conservation, science, agriculture and public health.

It was Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" that got me thinking in a profound way about the food chain, akin to how I felt a few years ago when I read "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser (who by the way, has a new title,

Pollan traces four meals through four very different means, some of which are interrelated: a fast food burger and the life of a steer living on a mega confined animal feed operation (CAFO); preparing a dinner with Argentinian asparagus from Whole Foods market; the grass of Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley and a dinner that Pollan hunts and forages in the wild. Among many things, Pollan debates the merits of organic, particularly on the huge industrial scale of Whole Foods or Earthbound Farms, the largest organic grower in the country that sells mixed lettuces in those clamshell containers you see in produce aisles everywhere. Whether or not you agree with him, Pollan will stir you up - and that's a good thing.

Similarly, "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter" by Peter Singer and Jim Mason examines our food choices as dictated by the food industry, but its context is even more intimate. In this case, the writers study the food choices of three families around the country. After eating and shopping with each family, they backtrack the origin of the food that was purchased, be it Wal-Mart or a local farm market.

"How to Eat" by Marion Nestle is a guide to the anatomy of a supermarket, aisle by aisle. Included is background on food labels and the lowdown on portion sizes, what fresh, frozen, organic means - all through a health and safety lens. Nestle has also penned other consumer-focused titles such as "Safe Food" and "Food Politics."

Then there are titles in this group that combine politics with kitchen how-to, which include:

"The Organic Cook's Bible" by Jeff Cox, a highly organized tome that covers the organic gamut -- fruits, veg, grains, nuts, bean, meat, dairy, eggs, and herbs - with nutritional info, seasonal and buying tips, and a recipe for each featured ingredient (totally more than 250). Cox's background is in the garden, and he is well known as a public television host and former editor of Organic Gardening magazine.

With the word "grub" as part of its title, it's pretty safe to say that "Grub: Ideas for An Urban Organic Kitchen" by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, is geared for the under-35 aspiring cooks with a conscience in the 21st century.

Lappe is following the footsteps of her mother, Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote the groundbreaking "Diet for a Small Planet" in 1971, when vegetarianism was equated with nut loaves. The Grub team has updated that notion, with seasonal menus, recipes and shopping lists, plus a sassy Web site.

"The Ethical Gourmet: How to Enjoy Great Food That Is Humanely Raised, Sustainable, Nonendangered, and That Replenishes the Earth" may be one of the longest titles for a book I've ever laid eyes on. Chef/cookbook author Jay Weinstein takes on the mission of his very detailed subtitle with 100 recipes and discussion on genetically modified crops, local versus organic and the suggestion that maybe a little less meat in our diets isn't such a bad thing.

Let me know what you're reading this summer and if we should add it to the list, in comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 8, 2006; 8:41 AM ET Cook's Library
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Local writer Renee Catacalos is hosting a workshop at Riverdale Presbyterian Church at 6:30 on June 15 regarding sources for fresh, natural foods locally grown in the Mid-Atlantic, namely Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Last summer Renee did in an experiment where she sourced all her food from a 150-mile radius of her home. Her work teaches us all about the resources available to us through farmers markets, CSAs, direct on-farm sales and the like. We actually can make better food choices.

Posted by: Angela | June 8, 2006 3:48 PM

I agree whole-heartedly with this post, but have one pick point. The C in "CAF" does not stand for "confined" but "concentrated." I know it's a minor point, and doesn't mitigate the issue, but there is a slight difference. Something else to think about with CAFs are the pollution issues from runoff from these giant operations, and the impact they have on our drinking water.

Posted by: SciFiGirl | June 9, 2006 10:01 AM

Hey SciFi Girl: An interesting point you raise. The word 'confined' is used in Pollan's book, but if you look at government Web sites (EPA which is responsible for regulating standards) you'll see that the word 'confined' is used, FOR THE MOST PART. I saw a lot of interchanging of the word. Perhaps it's something to follow up on. By the way, for those who don't know what a CAFO is, it's a facility housing and feeding a large group of animals (starting at 1,000) in a relatively small amount of space. Rather than being free to graze and feed themselves, the animals are confined to this space and fed for several weeks before slaughter. Manure production is enormous and has been a major factor to water pollution, as SciFi Girl mentioned. In 1973, the EPA stepped in and began regulating, but it remains a major problem in factory farming.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 9, 2006 10:39 AM

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