Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014

Food for thought, thought for food


Published:

If you want to learn more about where your food comes from, then the Agri-Leader is a great weekly read for you.

If you want to dig further into food issues, then there are a few books I can recommend. All of these books have helped shape my understanding of the U.S. food system - and to some extent, Florida's role in that system.

"The American Way of Eating"

"The American Way of Eating" tells how journalist Tracie McMillan worked undercover for several months in three parts of the U.S. food economy. She first chronicles how she worked and lived alongside laborers in the fields picking items like garlic and peaches in California - she was the only American working alongside Latinos, many of them undocumented. She then worked for two Walmart locations in Michigan, stocking goods and later stocking produce. Finally, she spent time in the kitchen of an Applebees Restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

McMillan intersperses her firsthand accounts with background to help the reader better understand how our food system became what it is today. Her writing is easy to follow, her work is well sourced, and her stories are fascinating. I'll never look at my produce, my grocery shopping, or my restaurant experiences the same way. This book should be required reading for any American food consumer with a conscience.

Earlier this year, McMillan won the James Beard Journalism Award for Food Politics and the

Environment - well deserved.

"Tomatoland"

The subtitle for "Tomatoland" is "How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." Journalist Barry Estabrook delves head first into the politics behind the tomato industry, focusing specifically on the behemoth tomato business in the Sunshine State. He finds tasteless tomatoes grown in sandy soil not normally fit for tomato growth - and yet, large-scale ag businesses in our state make it work and are able to provide the majority of the country's fresh market tomatoes in the winter. Estabrook also reports on unfit conditions for tomato pickers (including their exposure to toxic pesticides) and agricultural logistics geared toward maximizing tomato growth but minimizing taste.

I'm sure that Estabrook's book is controversial within the tomato industry, but it's a fascinating read.

"Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation"

Cooked a good meal lately? If the answer's no, then food writing pioneer Michael Pollan isn't surprised. Fast food and ready-to-go meals are an all-too common part of our fast-paced world, which is in part what prompted Pollan to step back and look at how cooking connects us. He does this by investigating the role of the four elements - fire, water, air, and earth - in cooking certain kinds of foods and drinks. For example, in the fire section, he focuses on the culture, politics and characters behind barbecue cooking in North Carolina.

"Cooked" reads like an investigative news piece mixed with anthropological and personal observations from Pollan. He's a thoughtful writer - and he provokes readers to think deeply along with him about the origins of their food.

Pollan has a number of other noteworthy food-focused books, including "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals."

"The Vegucation of Robin Quivers"

In her recently released book (notice in the title the marriage of the words "vegetable" and "education" into "vegucation"), Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers speaks candidly about her longstanding health problems due to a poor diet and how becoming a vegan a few years ago helped her lose weight and recharge her health.

Quivers battled a rare form of endometrial cancer last year, and the prognosis was not promising. However, she survived chemotherapy and radiation and is now cancer-free. Quivers writes that her physicians credit her healthy vegan diet for helping her to fight cancer and experience minimal side effects from her treatments.

As Quivers emphasizes in the book, she's not advocating that we all become vegans or even vegetarians. She just wants us to eat a better diet by incorporating as many vegetables into our meals as we can. The book has a number of great-sounding recipes, many of which I'm eager to try.

This is an ideal time of the year to read this book, as Florida will soon enter its busiest annual growing season - and what will we have in abundance here if not fresh vegetables?

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