Loved this long, intimate look into an evolving relationship between two remarkable women. From passion to deep friendship at a fascinating time in Am...moreLoved this long, intimate look into an evolving relationship between two remarkable women. From passion to deep friendship at a fascinating time in American history.(less)
I have been looking for a book like this one for several years, so the publication of The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Unc...moreI have been looking for a book like this one for several years, so the publication of The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times gives me cause for rejoicing. Carol Deppe (whose earlier book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, should be on every gardener's must-read list) brings us practical, common-sense garden wisdom and comprehensive, detailed advice for producing our own food staples. She's funny, too, and her wry humor goes a long way toward lightening her serious subject.
Carol Deppe is a long-time gardener and plant breeder (in Corvallis, Oregon) who specializes in developing open-pollinated, public-domain food plants for organic gardens. The Resilient Gardener encourages us to redesign our gardens for hard times. Its first focus, Deppe says, is on achieving greater control over our food supply, rather than relying on fossil-fueled industrial agriculture to supply our staple foods. Its second focus: on surviving the natural and personal disasters (droughts, family emergencies) that can wreak havoc in the garden. Its third: on gardening not just in the good times, or even in the hard times, but "gardening in mega-hard times." And not just gardening for ourselves, either, but for others: "A gardener who knows how to garden in both good times and bad can be a reservoir of knowledge and a source of resilience for the entire community." The bottom line, for Deppe, is the awareness that a time may come when our gardening pastime turns into a basic survival skill. Natural disasters, widespread resource depletions (fossil fuel, water, soil), or a catastrophic economic downturn may require us to grow our food, she says, so it's a very good idea to learn how to do this before we have no other alternative. To which I say "amen."
The first four chapters expand Deppe's definition of resilience and self-sufficiency in the context of climate change, possible food shortages, and personal dietary needs. The next three focus on gardening essentials: labor and tools, water, and soil fertility. There's lots of important basic information here, and I found myself frequently underlining and taking notes. Her chapter on the laying flock (although it feels a bit interruptive to me, coming as it does between potatoes and squash) fits neatly into her DIY food philosophy. Home-grown protein-rich eggs are an important addition to our diets, and even urban gardeners are finding ways to raise backyard poultry these days. I learned from her discussion of ducks and, while I'm a chicken person, I have to admit that it made me nostalgic for the ducks I've raised in the past. I had to smile, too, at the love and humor evident in the song she sings when she tucks her ducks in for the night: "It's Great to be a Ducky in the Rain."
But the really good stuff in this book happens in Deppe's chapters on potatoes, squash, beans, and corn—staple foods that do not receive enough attention in our arugula-centered gardens. Because Deppe is a plant breeder, she knows these plants from seed to harvest and beyond, and offers an extraordinary amount of valuable planting, culture, harvest, and storage information. Although some readers may not feel they need all the technical advice on plant breeding, Deppe's guidance on the selection of varieties, on garden layout and planning, and on pollination is basic, helpful, and encouraging. As well, she is an enthusiastic cook and relies on each of these four staple crops in her own diet, so she includes some excellent recipes and cookery information, as well. There's more to corn than roasting ears, and more to squash than zucchini!
It has been very good to see the recent swing away from ornamental to vegetable gardening. Some garden writers are beginning to pay serious attention to the practical business of raising our own groceries and are encouraging us to become less dependent on the supermarket as our sole food supplier. But Carol Deppe's book stands out among the current crop of vegetable gardening guides in the same way that a 10-foot stalk of Aztec Red Mexican corn stands out in my garden. If you're looking for help in growing staple crops at home, put The Resilient Gardener at the top of your list. (less)
Joan Gussow's new collection of personal essays, Growing, Older, is a free-ranging exploration of a wide number of issues: the loss of her husband of...moreJoan Gussow's new collection of personal essays, Growing, Older, is a free-ranging exploration of a wide number of issues: the loss of her husband of forty years and her reassessment of her marriage; her experiences of growing her own food in the garden of her Hudson River home; her concerns about climate change and resource depletion; and her thoughts about entering into her ninth decade. Gussow knows what she's talking about, for she developed the nationally acclaimed Nutritional Ecology program at Columbia Teachers College and was one of the earliest writers to speak out about the dangers of industrialized agriculture (Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce, and Agriculture, 1991)—a subject that has been recently popularized by the likes of Michael Pollan, Paul Ford, and Barbara Kingsolver. Growing, Older is a lively book, energized by Gussow's straightforward, often blunt observations that are by turns witty, argumentative, cranky, and funny—but always interesting, enlightening, and provocative.
The collection opens with the death of Gussow's husband, her reaction to his loss (she "simply didn't miss him"), and her difficulty in sharing this truth with people who asked how she felt. What she actually felt was a "strange liberation," she says, "from things I hadn't known I was imprisoned by." (Some readers may find this measure of her marriage startling and perhaps even uncaring, but it is honest, direct, and authentic, qualities we value in a memoir, and which are characteristic of all Gussow's writing.) But if she is not devastated by her husband's death, there are other issues that do bring her nearly to despair: the frenzied consumerism of our culture, the media's "furious silence" about peak oil, the hidden costs and the obvious vulnerabilities of our food system, and climate change.
But Gussow is by temperament an optimistic and hopeful person, as well as a determined gardener, and she never despairs for very long. This trait becomes clear as she describes her skirmishes with the Hudson River, which regularly floods her garden, requiring her to rebuild and replant. But she sees these battles as simply part of her "self-provisioning adventure," for Gussow is resolute in her determination to grow as much of her own food as possible and to continue to live in the home she loves as long as she can. Hence her wonderful chapter called "Potatoes and Escape," in which she meditates on the tendency of the potato to "stay put," and her own conviction that everyone should stay home and work on making the places they live livable. "If the planet is to remain inhabitable," she writes, "we can't give up on the homes and communities we live in, but must turn them into places where our hearts rejoice."
And that, for me, is the great virtue of this book. Now in her eightieth year, Gussow, a natural-born teacher, shows us by her example how we can live in an endangered world without losing hope; how we can learn and practice skills of self-reliance; and how we can coexist with our often-annoying fellow journeyers (the skunks, woodchucks, and muskrats, for instance, that regularly raid her garden). While we might not agree with all Gussow's practices, we have to admire her spunk, her determination, and her courage. "Did I get what I wanted?" she asks herself, musing on the challenges of a long life and years of hard work. "I'm pretty sure I did," she answers. Which seems to me to be a very good way to sum up a life. (less)
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement is remarkable not only for its stunningly rich documentation, but fo...more97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement is remarkable not only for its stunningly rich documentation, but for the richness of its unique central idea: an intensive, extensive study of the foodways of European immigrant families who lived in a single tenement building over five decades. Using the building as the setting for her dramatic narrative, author and food historian Jane Ziegelman tells the multilayered, multidimensional stories of German, Irish, Jewish, Lithuanian, and Italian residents and the food traditions they celebrated.
In 1863, a prosperous German tailor built a home for his family in New York's Lower East Side, and rented out the other apartments in his building to German acquaintances. Using an impressive range of primary sources, Ziegelman reconstructs not only the history of Lucas Glockner's new building, but the story of the larger tenement neighborhood, product of the sharp rise in immigration that had begun some 40 years earlier and continued for more than a century. But the real heart of her narrative is the food the German immigrants ate, described in the German cookbooks Zielegman quotes (recipes included in the text), the groceries sold in the shops and bakeries on Orchard Street and in the larger markets, and prepared by Mrs. Glockner for her family. Ziegelman even takes us into the saloons and beer halls, and to the picnic grounds where huge Volksfests were held.
The remaining four chapters of the book are marked by the same careful, skillful attention to historical detail, food origins, culinary traditions, and even grocery lists. The Irish Moore family ate potatoes, fish hash, and corned beef and cabbage, and frequented restaurants such as Dolan's, where they could buy oyster stew for 20 cents, pickled tongue for ten, and crullers for a nickel. Mrs. Gumpertz, a quintessential Jewish mother, is pictured making gefilte fish (a dish brought from the Old Country, along with the oblong gefilte fish pot and the Sabbath candlesticks) and other Jewish specialties. The Rogarshevskys, who came to live at 97 Orchard after their arrival at Ellis Island in 1901, found the neighborhood full of pushcarts, where they could shop for the makings of their daily soups. During the Depression, the Baldizzis, like other Italian immigrants, spent their tiny food budget on a few indispensable staples: bread, pasta, beans, lentils, and olive oil, with free groceries provided weekly by Governor Roosevelt's Home Relief Program.
Over the decades, 97 Orchard Street was home to nearly 7000 working class immigrants. Boarded up for half a century, the building now houses the New York Tenement Museum (http://www.tenement.org), which features museum apartments that reconstruct the living situation for families like the Glockners and the Moores. For a look into the building, visit the Tenement Museum's website. And then read Jane Ziegelman's fine book, which so fully and dramatically documents the way the building's residents celebrated life in their new country with food cultures brought from the old.
97 Orchard: An Edible History is social history at its very best, fully documented and beautifully written, a stunning testimony to the importance of food in our lives. Kudos to Jane Ziegelman for an original idea, artfully and provocatively executed! (less)
Like many, I'm a long-time a consumer of artificial sweeteners. Except for baking, I've pretty much given up sugar. I habitually reach for the "pink s...moreLike many, I'm a long-time a consumer of artificial sweeteners. Except for baking, I've pretty much given up sugar. I habitually reach for the "pink stuff" to sweeten my coffee and tea, I sprinkle Splenda on my morning cereal, and I choose diet sodas that are sweetened with NutraSweet. Now, after reading Empty Pleasures, I understand more about the why and how of these food habits--and not just mine, but those of most American consumers. Carolyn De La Peña has given me something to think about.
Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda explores an important and completely overlooked chapter in America's food history: how and why and in less than three decades, consumers changed from craving sugar to rejecting it in favor of the seductive pleasures of artificial sweeteners. The book is a powerfully engaging and (for the most part) highly readable narrative that tells the story of Americans' growing acceptance of sweet-tasting food products and outlines the development of artificial sweeteners, their impacts on the food industry, and the cultural implications of our changing food preferences.
During the early twentieth century, sugar was promoted as a healthful food that contributed calories and energy in often nutritive-poor diets. As a result, consumers refused to accept such commercial products as soft drinks in which the cheaper new chemical, saccharin, was substituted (without their knowledge) for the more expensive sugar. What--it wasn't really sugar? Consumers felt cheated, and manufacturers were forced to return to their customers' preferred sweetener.
But in the postwar 40s and 50s, consumers' preferences began to change, spurred by women's growing interest in becoming slim and sexy. Saccharin (manufactured by Monsanto Chemical) and the new cyclamate were viewed as important sugar-substitutes, especially after new food products such as canned "diet" fruits were developed and the mass marketing of these products encouraged consumers to see them as part of a healthy "reducing" diet. When the FDA threatened to ban saccharin in 1977, consumers rose to its defense, and the age of artificial sweeteners took on a newly energetic life, even further encouraged by the "diet entrepreneurs," such as Tillie Lewis, Jean Nidetch, Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig.
Throughout the book, De La Peña makes her thesis clear. It isn't that artificial sweeteners are "bad" for you, for there is no scientific evidence to prove their harm. But it is beginning to seem possible that we are not entirely satiated by these chemically de-calorized products and more likely to reach for another food. We have lost control of our appetites; we have become addicted to sweet-tasting chemicals; and we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by the food industry and marketers. The real benefits of these "empty pleasures" accrue to the huge conglomerates that own these chemicals: to Monsanto, for instance, which now produces saccharin, Splenda, and NutraSweet. Artificial sweeteners, De la Peña says, have proved to be a superb, low-cost way "to move products through consumers by removing barriers to capacity." That is, if we don't have to count the calories in what we consume (and therefore risk additional pounds), we can eat as much as we want--although of course we have to buy it first. De la Peña: "The ability of the low-calorie market to expand the total market for American foods is surely proof of the ingenuity of capitalism, whether you admire or decry the results."
Perhaps even more importantly, artificial sweeteners teach us that it is indeed possible to get something for nothing, a strongly negative lesson for a high-consuming society. They are another encouragement for us to keep thoughtlessly, mindlessly stuffing ourselves with things that have no real or lasting or significant value. In accepting the false promise of the artificial sweetener industry, we have also accepted the false idea of the Free Lunch: we can consume as much as we want of anything we choose and never have to pay the price. The real price.
This book will not help you decide whether to switch from "pink" to "blue" or go back to sugar. Instead, Empty Pleasures is designed to help you understand the history and development of these sweet chemical products, the processed foods that are based on them, and the industries and corporations that have profited by exploiting our cravings for sweets. But in the end and all things considered, De La Peña concludes that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy for us as a society, for they have blurred the distinction between food and "neutraceuticals" and have made it nearly impossible for us to observe, evaluate, and control our appetites.
Strongly recommended for general readers who are interested in changes in the American diet and in their own food choices and for collections that focus on the history of industrial food.
For most of us, history is made up of Big Events: life-changing inventions, wars that alter the course of nations, famous men making momentous decisio...moreFor most of us, history is made up of Big Events: life-changing inventions, wars that alter the course of nations, famous men making momentous decisions. But history is also what happens to the rest of us. That's what makes As a Farm Woman Thinks such an extraordinarily valuable book. It is history as ordinary rural Americans lived it, documented by an ordinary West Texas woman who recorded the ordinary events of her daily life and the lives of farmers, ranchers, and friends on the Llano Estacado: the Staked Plains.
For three decades (1930-1960) Nellie Witt Spikes wrote columns for four local and regional newspapers under the title "As a Farm Woman Thinks" (perhaps borrowed from Laura Ingalls Wilder's columns of the same name, written for The Missouri Ruralist, 1910-1924). Spikes' newspaper pieces, compiled from the archives of Texas Tech University and selected and edited by Geoff Cunfer, are organized topically into eight chapters. The chapters are arranged in a rough chronological order, as are the items within the chapters, so that the book gives us a sense of time passing, from the pioneer adventure of "Settling the Llano Estacado" in the 1890s to the "Drought and Dust Storms" of the Dirty Thirties and "The Modernization of Farm Life." This latter section begins with the 1937 consideration of whether to lease crop fields for oil drilling and ends with the installation of an air conditioner in 1950, documenting a remarkable change in life style for these rural residents. Each chapter is thoughtfully introduced by the editor and illustrated with photographs of people and places from the period. The introductions and the photographs help to situate Spikes' writing within its larger geographical, historical, and social context, and a list of further readings provides a broader scholarly frame.
But it is the individual pieces themselves—jewels of closely observed life—that are the real treasures in this wonderful collection of treasures. Nellie Spikes is a woman who care about the people she knows, is intrigued by who they are and what they do, and records their doings—and her own—in astonishing detail. And because she is a woman, she focuses most often on small things, domestic things that get lost in the grand sweep of history as the historians tell it. She is that rare diarist who understands the value of the mundane and the ordinary, and she gives us a glimpse into life as it was actually lived in her place and time.
Often, she writes about her childhood in the 1890s, buttressing her vivid memories of her father's general store with the actual records of purchases. Mrs. Mertie Ishamel bought a dress pattern, she tells us—"not a paper pattern but ten yards of material." Bob Smith bought a handkerchief for 85 cents ("must have been a silk one," she remarks), and George Mayes purchased a bottle of "hair vigor" for a dollar. There are also remembrances from the school where she taught, where Christmas was celebrated with a community tree and a party, the fiddlers playing breakdowns and waltzes, schottisches and polkas, accompanied by the "long wail of a lobo and the staccato barking of coyotes" that came into the room when the window was opened for air.
Spikes loved community doings and recorded as many as she could, from the gatherings in the pioneer settlement to later visits to the big city of Lubbock. Some of these are remarkably (and often unconsciously) poignant, like the 1941 dairy show at Plainview, where she "patted the little Jersey calf but had a better time watching a cow get a bath and being groomed for the judging ring," while in the nearby park, 800 young Army recruits were preparing to be shipped out to war. Or the 1952 shopping trip to Ralls, where she thought back to a time two decades before, when people from the country came to town to shop but "never bought electric light bulbs, for we never had any electricity."
But Spikes' true heart was in her home, her garden, and the fields surrounding the little house that "looked like a piece of yellow cheese" on the December day in 1906 when she and her new husband crossed the prairie in a wagon pulled by four mules and settled in for a long life on the land. In some of her columns, she celebrates family holidays, in others the beauty of the Texas landscape and the abundant food it produced: black canyon grapes, purple mulberries, quail and prairie hens and antelope, dried beans and peas and pumpkin, strings of dried red chiles and green dried okra. But the prairie could also bring disaster: floods and snowstorms and drought and clouds of fine sand that blackened the sky and blew into the house, so that Nellie and her children left footprints when they walked across the floor.
What Spikes' newspaper columns reveal, above all, is the indomitable spirit of the people who lived through those times. Looking at a cactus blooming on a stone wall, Nellie marvels that it can grow without water or soil, and then realizes that it has stored up enough nutrients to weather the bad times. She wonders, then, if she has stored up "enough faith and hope and love to meet life" when things get bad—and decides that she has. "And my courage returned," she says simply.
And so will yours, as you read Nellie Spike's remarkable record of the way she, her family, and friends met the daily challenges of life in a challenging place. Highly recommended for women's studies and local history collections. (less)
“This book is a wake-up call. It deals with the most urgent issue facing humanity in the twenty-first century, perhaps in all of history: the planetar...more“This book is a wake-up call. It deals with the most urgent issue facing humanity in the twenty-first century, perhaps in all of history: the planetary emergency over whether or not we can sustain our food supply through the midcentury peak in human numbers, demand, and needs. It reflects on the likely consequences of our failure to do so.”--Julian Cribb, Preface, The Coming Famine
This book brings us a message that we all need to hear: that resource depletions, climate change challenges, and growth in human numbers and appetites pose a dire threat to our food supply. An Australian journalist and Director of National Awareness for Australia's national science agency, Julian Cribb joins a growing chorus of other writers who have looked at food issues from a variety of angles. There are three major differences between this book and most of the other "end of food" books, however.
1) "The Coming Famine" deals systematically with all the major threats to the food supply: water shortages; soil depletions; nutrient loss and waste; fishery collapse; the Green Revolution and private ownership of genetic material; war and mass migrations; peak oil; climate change; uncontrolled human population growth; and unfair trade practices.
2) It focuses attention on the twin demand pressures of population growth and increased human appetites--the twin "elephants in the kitchen."
3) It offers practical suggestions in every chapter that encourage the reader to commit to positive actions. For example, in his chapter on climate change, Cribb suggests rebalancing our diets toward foods with a smaller carbon footprint; reducing consumption of meat, oils, and dairy products; selecting seasonal, locally-grown foods. (Losing hope? Plant a garden.)
Chapter by chapter, Cribb builds the argument that our habits of wasteful, irresponsible, and ignorant consumption have already created the conditions for an inevitable global famine, and that the only way to avert it is to alter our current practices. He bolsters every assertion of fact with a recital of terrifying and nearly irrefutable evidence, fully documented in the notes and delivered in a dispassionate voice that is all the more compelling because it is neither angry nor accusatory.
Cribb doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and some of his solutions are contradictory. (For example, it will be hard to develop a second, high-tech “Green Revolution” at the same time that we’re running out of fossil fuels and coping with rising sea levels.) But this important book organizes the challenges that face us in a clear and understandable way, provides convincing factual support for the problems he describes, and reminds us (with a note of hope) that humans are a highly adaptive species that can meet the challenges if they can muster enough global will to get the job done.
Cribb’s journalist style and his blizzard of facts do not make for pleasant reading, and you may be tempted to put the book down before you’ve finished it. Don’t. It deserves to be read to the end. “Today’s food is too cheap to last,” Cribb writes, in the book’s final section. “To avert the coming famine we all need to start paying its true price--not blindly transferring the cost of what we consume today to our grandchildren tomorrow.”
Put The Coming Famine at the top of your reading list. And when you’ve finished it, go out and tell your friends and colleagues about it. It’s that important. (less)
Last week, a chunk of ice four times as large as Manhattan Island broke off the tongue of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland and went swimming in the...moreLast week, a chunk of ice four times as large as Manhattan Island broke off the tongue of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland and went swimming in the sea. For me, immersed in The Flooded Earth: Our Future In a World Without Ice Caps, it was striking evidence of what Peter D. Ward writes about: the loss of the polar icecaps and the melting of ice sheets and glaciers, caused by rising global temperatures. (At the same time, Russia was experiencing its worst drought and heat wave in recorded history, further evidence of the erratic weather created by warming.) Ward, a paleontologist who has studied the rise and retreat of ancient oceans and the mass extinctions related to ocean rise, knows what he's talking about, and his book is a full treatment (at least for the general reader) of the science behind his basic argument: that the oceans are rising and will continue to rise--unless humans reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
What I found most interesting about Ward's book (and perhaps most compelling, for many readers)are the dramatic fictionalizations of the impacts of greenhouse gases that appear at the beginning of each chapter. Chapter One opens in the drowning city of Miami, in 2120, with CO2 at 800 ppm--and Miami joining New Orleans and Galveston as abandoned cities. Chapter Three beings in Tunisia in 2060 CE, with carbon dioxide at 500 ppm--and features (I suspect) Ward himself, by this time an "old geologist" who studies evidence of mass extinctions. Food for the still-rising population is scarce, transportation fuel is not available for personal use, and the study of the past is a luxury that society can no longer afford. Chapter Four is set in the Sacramento Valley in 2135, with CO2 at 800 ppm, the rivers dried up by drought, the ocean invading the valleys and salt polluting the land and aquifers, agricultural land ruined. These dramatizations illustrate the arguments made in the chapter and allow Ward to say "Listen up, learn, take action--or this is our future."
Ward acknowledges that he and all the other scientists who are bringing this hugely important issue to our attention are considered Cassndras. "I am not sure what a Cassandra is," he adds. "But I know what I indeed am: scared."
The message of this book: If you're not scared, too, you should be--scared enough to join those who are attempting to reduce CO2 to 350 ppm. Ward himself is not optimistic "about the prospect of forestalling calamity," but outlines some climate-protecting strategies and technologies that might help, if they are implemented very soon. His conclusion isn't hopeful--but realism is what we need now, not glib answers or false hopes. This book delivers that terrifying message better than anything else I've yet to read.(less)
The most comprehensive book to date on the history of food systems and their important (and usually neglected) role in the collapse of civilizations....moreThe most comprehensive book to date on the history of food systems and their important (and usually neglected) role in the collapse of civilizations. "The lesson from history," the authors write, "is that big civilizations are built on ground no firmer than the mud under their rice paddies. They, and we, are slaves to food."
Food empires? The authors are talking about the networks of a civilization's farms, plantations, orchards; its imports from abroad; its processing plants; and its distribution channels. The larger and more complex the civilization, the more complex the food networks must be--to the point where they deplete existing resources of soil and water, then falter, then fail. Interacting with climate variables and local geological factors (volcanoes, earthquakes), food empires are far more fragile than they appear to the people who live within them, who often take their available food for granted. When these systems fail, the civilization begins to fall apart, usually with a whimper rather than with a bang.
And our own industrial food empire? Despite our "advances" in technology, our food supplies are as fragile as those of the Romans, Mayans, or medieval Europe. But now, the problems are global, and every nation under the sun is facing soil depletion, water issues (including fertilizer pollution), and a dangerous dependence on limited fossil fuels to grow, process, and transport food. The result? "Modern agribusiness has the potential to translate a dry month in Brazil into red ink on a ledger in China into an empty shopping cart in New Jersey. There are no buffers left."
And no easy answers. Local food, slow food, bioregional systems that "nest" within a global trading network. But "easier posited than done," as the authors admit. What's really needed: a public insistence that their politicians begin to acknowledge and address these crucial issues. Again, easier posited than done.
What I like about this book: its breadth, inclusiveness, new-paradigm thinking, engaging writing. I also admire the authors for not trying to pull last-chapter rabbits out of the hat when it comes to solutions. Their message: don't expect answers to be handed to you on a plate.
What I dislike about the book: its hop-skip-jump presentation, which reminded me of the TV series "Connections." But even this choppy organization has its advantages: readers must actively participate in the authors' arguments in order to follow them. Lazy or uninvolved readers won't want to bother--but then, they're probably not the authors' intended audience.
Bottom line: an extraordinarily important book that offers important insights into a global challenge facing not just one country but all civilizations. I hope, by the time you finish it, you'll have decided that your lawn might be put to better uses than growing grass.(less)
Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth arrived at the end of 2008--an opportune time, when families were watching jobs and mort...more
Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth arrived at the end of 2008--an opportune time, when families were watching jobs and mortgages implode, corporations and communities running out of credit, and the global economic system undergoing a meltdown, all because of debt. It was, truly, payback time.
And even though the Credit Crash of 2008 is history, its effects linger on--and for some people, have become magnified. Readers will have that ongoing dramatic scenario fresh in their minds as they follow her investigations into the meaning of debt. "Like air," she says, "it's all around us, but we never think about it unless something goes wrong with the supply." Something has gone wrong, and it's time—past time—to give it some very serious thought. This is just what Atwood does, in a wry, witty, wonderful dance of ideas about debt and its importance in human cultures.
A word of caution, though: if you're looking for suggestions for getting out of the debt mess you're in, you've come to the wrong book. Payback is not a how-to, or even a how-not-to. It is a how-we-got-here, a how-this-is, a how-to-think-about-it, an intellectual (sometimes maddeningly so) journey into the meaning of debt. Atwood examines debt as a metaphor for all our obligations to one another; debt and sin; debt as a literary subtext in everything from Mephistopheles and Vanity Fair to A Christmas Carol; unpaid and unpayable debt; and the "debtor/creditor twinship." When you stop to think about it (and you do stop, and you do think, under Atwood's spell), debt and credit underlie everything under our sun and beyond, even our redemptive and retributive notions of Heaven and Hell. "In Heaven," Atwood writes, "there are no debts—all have been paid, one way or another." Hell is a different story. It's an "infernal maxed-out credit card that multiples the charges endlessly."
You can read Atwood's book in many ways. As an illuminating companion to Jacob Needleman's Money and the Meaning of Life, for instance. Or as a cautionary tale about what happens when we borrow more—money, time, natural resources—than it is possible to repay. Or as a literary tour de force that celebrates the audacity of a gifted and agile wordsmith. Read it to be challenged, to be frustrated, perhaps even to be angered by some of the writer's glib simplifications, and to raise compelling questions. Don't read it for answers, because Atwood, like most poets, doesn't have them and doesn't really want them. In the end, in her reworking of the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, all she has—all we have—are questions:
I don't really own anything, Scrooge thinks. Not even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I'm not really rich at all, I'm heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?
It is a question that many of us, these days, are hard-pressed to answer.
Our individual food choices—how we select and prepare our food, how we store it and dispose of the wastes—are part of what has become an enormous, lif...moreOur individual food choices—how we select and prepare our food, how we store it and dispose of the wastes—are part of what has become an enormous, life-changing global problem: global warming and climate destabilization, caused by human production of greenhouse gasses. Kate Heyhoe estimates that twelve percent of all these emissions result from growing (think fossil-fueled agriculture), packaging, transporting, and preparing our food. Over 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide per household per year is attributable to what and how we eat. Chew on that for a moment.
If we care (and we should) what can we do? Cooking Green is full of good ideas for reducing what Heyhoe calls our "cookprint," the environmental impact of every meal we eat. She starts by suggesting that we should think of ourselves as "ecovores," choosing and eating "foods that are raised and grown in harmony with the environment." This is more flexible and realistic than strict "locavore" practices, such as the 100-mile diet. It is more ambiguous as well, as she describes in a section called "The Ecovore's Dilemma." It means thinking, reading, evaluating, deliberating, for these are not easy matters, in an era when there are too many of us and we use too many limited natural resources.
Some of Heyhoe's ideas will challenge your idea of a home-cooked meal. Turn off that inefficient oven, she says ("ovens are the Humvees of the kitchen"), and plug in a toaster oven. Reconsider the cooktop, and opt for a greener flame, using more energy-efficient appliances and "passive" cooking practices. Adopt low-impact waste-disposal methods.
Shopping? Be mindful of the seasons, eat more plants and less (much, much less) industrially-farmed meat. Understand "organic," think field-to-fork, consider fair trade, check for sustainable sourcing, weigh the packaging. Eating out? Ditto all this, and look for restaurants that have gone "green."
Nobody said this was easy.
But Heyhoe is right: "The reversal of climate change requires a complete paradigm shift and global actions, in more than just food and cooking. But one thing leads to another. Little steps in behavior can make a big difference in how we think."
There are a few things to quibble with. To my mind, gardening is one of the most important ways we can contribute to our personal food supply, but Heyhoe dismisses this with "grow a few greens." Dishwashers consume more than just hot water (Heyhoe's only measure of efficiency), especially when you consider the resources and energy that goes into manufacturing, shipping, and marketing the appliance. My dishpan requires no electricity, and doesn't cost as much to make or market as a dishwasher.
And one more caveat: While Heyhoe cuts every possible corner in the kitchen (active and passive cooking strategies, water conservation, and low-carbon choices for almost everything) and emphasizes local foods, she sometimes strays into exotic, non-local recommendations, such as these ingredients from her section on using energy-efficient woks: Portuguese linguica, Spanish chorizo sausage, Indian potatoes, coconut milk. For me, these occasional lapses only demonstrate how difficult it is to re-train ourselves to local food choices.
But these are minor issues. I was challenged by this book to make important changes in what I thought were already careful food choices and cooking practices--especially cooking practices. You will be, too. But you have to start by reading it.
Astyk's arguments for the importance of personal food security ("one of the central issues of our time") are compelling. A looming energy crisis, soil and water depletion, and the threat of global warming—these are all reasons to be concerned about the reliability of our food supply and the need to take personal control, as far as possible, over the food we put on our family's table. "Independence days" (a concept Astyk borrows from Carla Emery) are days when we're eating food we grow ourselves or obtain locally. For Astyk, true independence is freedom from the industrial food system that feeds most Americans.
Hence this book, which recommends various methods for food preservation (canning, pickling, dehydrating, fermenting); for purchasing, stocking, and storing food in pantry, root cellar, and freezer; for acquiring tools and equipment, in addition to adequate supplies of water, medicine, and other necessities; and for creating and using community resources. All of this advice is sound, helpful, and inspiring. It is also very credible, for Astyk practices what she preaches, and it's good to know that she has tried the methods that she advocates. The various sections are also illustrated with recipes, more or less effectively. Some of the recipes contain foods that are "non-local" for most Americans—coconut milk, quinoa, salmon—which I found distracting in a book about shortening the supply chain. And not all of them illustrate the principle she'd like to teach: baked apples and cranberries are good comfort food but the recipe doesn't fit very comfortably in a section on medicines. Recipes/formulas for home-grown herbal remedies would have been a better choice.
But these are minor quibbles. I like Sharon Astyk because she always tells me why I should do something, before she tells me how, and this book continues that practice. "This isn't just about the rice or the garden or the canning jars," she says. "This is a small but important step in making a better way of life." Yes, truly. I learned from Independence Days, and it strengthened my desire to be as independent as possible. If you're concerned about food security, this is a good book to read and use. If you're not, read it anyway. You'll learn why the American food supply should be at the top of your list of things to think about.
"My great-aunts used to say that a tortilla is like life. Nothing is ever going to be exactly the way you want it to be. However life is, that is how...more
"My great-aunts used to say that a tortilla is like life. Nothing is ever going to be exactly the way you want it to be. However life is, that is how your tortilla comes out. So however you rolled out your tortilla, maybe it wasn't quite round, but you ate it because you made it." —Monica Taylor on learning to cook from the Latina women in her family
A Tortilla is Like Life is a valuable, imminently readable book that deserves a place beside such currently popular food-centered books as Michael Pollan's The Ominvore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Rather than narrowly focusing on one individual's or one family's food practices and how these relate to overall American food habits, however, author Carole M. Counihan takes a broad look at the foodways of an entire Hispanic community, seen through the revealing lens of women's stories, both contemporary and traditional. Her book not only affords us an in-depth understanding of the ways northern Hispanic families have traditionally related to food over the past century, but illustrates the many indispensable roles Mexicanas have played in producing, preserving, and preparing meals and, in a larger sense, the integral relationships of women to food, family, and community.
From 1996 to 2006, Counihan, a professor of Anthropology at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, conducted research in the small southern Colorado town of Antonito, collecting food-focussed life stories from nineteen Mexicanas and learning firsthand the foodways, past and present, of this traditional community. Antonito is located in the San Luis Valley, on the northern frontier of what was once New Spain's colonial empire, and is part of what is called the siete condados del norte: the seven predominately Hispanic counties of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Once a thriving, self-sustaining center of local commerce, its population has dropped (at the time of this study) to 872. Residents now shop at a locally-owned supermarket and eat at three restaurants.
Counihan has designed A Tortilla to serve several important purposes. She aims to document the evolution of food traditions in a community ("a repository of Hispanic culture") that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was almost entirely self-sustaining. Area residents grew their own vegetables and fruits, grains, and meats, and supplemented their ample diets with wild-gathered foods and game and seasonal purchases from vendors who brought chiles and fruits from New Mexico. Several fascinating chapters are devoted to women's descriptions of these traditional food practices and the changes in food production and preparation that came about as women moved out of the full-time homemaking and into the workplace. The book not only describes past practices, then, but contemporary practices, as well as the compromises that women have made as their roles in family foodwork have evolved.
Another of Counihan's aims in A Tortilla is the creation of "a polyphonic testimonio." Testimonio is a term for a first-person narrative told by someone who has participated in an event, and has been redefined by Latina feminists to refer to the important responsibility of bearing witness to events and lives that might otherwise be forgotten. In Counihan's construction, A Tortilla is a multi-voiced testimonio composed by women engaging in a communal dialogue about women's relationships to food, place, and people. The result is a rich feast of experience, a wide-ranging chorus of narratives derived from 80 hours of tape-recorded interviews with nineteen women aged thirty-two to ninety-four who bear witness to their own lives and the lives of women they have known. Through Counihan's careful orchestration, the women's stories reveal the many ways they have defined themselves; their feelings about their changing relationships to land and water; their roles in helping to produce, preserve, and prepare food; their participation in family meals, community food sharing, and funeral rituals; and the changes that have come to the community since independent, at-home food production has been replaced by dependence on industrial agriculture and the commercial distribution of canned and frozen foods. Counihan sensitively selects and frames these testimonios with brief, informative introductions and weaves them together to create a multilayered narrative demonstrating the remarkable diversity of the life experiences of these Latinas. Some of the women were community-bound from birth to old age, while others went "out" to obtain their educations or engage in work and then returned to reclaim their place in community. All placed family and community at the center of their lives and saw food as one primary expression of their commitment to both.
One of the things I admire most about this book is the consistent level of detail and specificity, both in the women's narratives and in Counihan's thoughtful commentary. An example, recalled by one of the older women:
Another thing that I remember for Lent, Mother used to cook peas, like split peas, but it was the whole pea, and then make chile caribe [coarse ground red chile:] and sopaipillas [fried bread:]. That was for Lent when we didn't eat meat. There were split peas, the verdolagas, the spinach, and the sopaipillas, the sopa, the panocha, all that for Lent.
The Spanish terms used by the women to describe food and food processing are defined in an appendix. Another appendix provides a list of healing herbs that were locally grown or gathered. The book's sources are fully documented and there is a complete bibliography.
A Tortilla is Like Life is highly recommended for food history collections, women's studies, Southwest studies, and Latina/Mexicana/Hispanic collections. It is also accessible, entertaining, and instructive for general readers interested in food, foodways, and food history.
In an era when a president encourages us to buy-buy-buy in the aftermath of an enemy attack and "consumer confidence" is measured by how willing we ar...moreIn an era when a president encourages us to buy-buy-buy in the aftermath of an enemy attack and "consumer confidence" is measured by how willing we are to shell out our shillings for things we may or may not need, a book about our complicated attitudes toward consumption and thrift is timely, to say the least. Written in lively, engaging prose, this exploration of thrift helps to explain our American spending habits.
Lauren Weber begins with some snips of personal history, describing her thrifty father and her own occasional splurge ($90 shoes: "Reader, I bought them"). Her research into the history of thrift in America (going back to pre-Revolutionary days) surprisingly reveals that we have long been a nation of spendthrifts and debtors, saving on small items in order to blow it all on the big ones. Weber is at her best when she describes how American women have been co-opted by advertisers and merchandisers into becoming major consumers, and when she describes the government's wartime efforts (both First and Second World Wars) to divert dollars from household consumption to investments in war bonds. And then, as the wars inflated manufacturing capacity, businesses began to see that consumption, not savings, was the way to grow the economy. Wars over, both government and private sectors began to encourage Americans to buy. "We are a nation that consumes its way to property, security, prosperity, and freedom," an economist wrote. (I'll bet you've heard that one.)
But in that solution to bolstering our economy lies a very grave danger, as Weber shows. Not only are we likely to spend our way into debt (as the recent housing bubble so clearly demonstrates), but we're likely to enjoy a "sense of entitlement and false confidence" about the natural resources that fuel our consumption. Our consuming passions require the burning of vast amounts of fossil fuels, contributing to global warming and resource depletion. The best way to save the planet, Weber says, is simply to stop buying stuff. "The less we buy, the fewer materials and industrial products we consume. Cheap is the new green."
If you need any special encouragement to stop consuming stuff you don't need, this book may be the best thing you'll read all year.(less)