Never Out of Season

20170608_115951-1The Irish Potato Famine is such a well known disaster with such an obvious way to avoid similar problems in the future, that you would think mono-cropping with a single species of crop was a thing of the far past. It was a tragic disaster, caused by the combination of oppressed people being forced to subsist on tiny tracts of land, growing the one variety of one crop they knew they could survive on almost entirely, but without variety in species or the built up knowledge that comes from many generations farming a crop. Social issues aside, the way to avoid similar problems in the future would be to plant a wide variety of species and keep careful records. An easy fix.

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future by Robb Dunn explores the world of mono-crops, exposes how in the case of many crops we are closer to a famine-level tragedy than you think, and the importance of research in preventing future disasters. Dunn focuses on a few specific crops, such as bananas, cacao trees, cassava, and potatoes, and how we came to grow just a few varieties of each in many places around the world (often not where the plant is native). With each crop he also explained the diseases they are susceptible to and how those diseases are spread. With the amount of current world travel, the threat of diseases travelling and wiping out huge amounts of a crop is constant and high (that’s why you get asked if you were in agricultural areas when you travel internationally).

Dunn’s true passion is the consistent research that must take place all over the world to ensure we are constantly breeding plants that are resistant to ever evolving pests and diseases. Saving seeds takes a lot of time and space, as you have to constantly grow crops and resave the seeds to ensure they are viable (the longer you keep a seed, the less likely it is to germinate). It also takes a massive amount of effort to find different varieties of a crop so you have a genetic bank of different traits. With genetic modification we can do some trait modification quickly, but for the most part this is a slow game. Plus, it is just about impossible to predict how diseases and pests will evolve and therefore how a plant will have to defend itself in the future. Preserving as many varieties as we know of makes for the largest safety net.

Dunn’s main call to action is to advocate for constant and large-scale research, as well as participate in the study of plants, pests, and diseases by keeping track of what you grow and see, and participating in diagnostic communities like and citizen science projects. He does mention buying sustainably grown, heirloom crops at the end briefly, but I think that call to action can be much stronger.

As cooks we can easily gravitate to the familiar. We like recipes that we can rely on and replicate with consistent results. With the wide availability of ingredients, people thousands of miles apart, in different climates, can cook the exact same recipe. In all likelihood if you are buying something from a supermarket, you are getting the same varieties of zucchini or asparagus that they are also selling around the world. Farmers are not encouraged or emboldened to try new things, because the usual is what sells and farming is a volatile enough profession as it is. But we can be more supportive of their experiments. We can buy produce that we are unfamiliar with and cook it, both because it may be delicious, and we will be preserving and passing along the knowledge of that plant. Maybe the next time powdery mildew or blight or an undiscovered (or yet to exist) disease strikes, that heirloom or hybrid will have a previously unrealized resistance.

Farmers markets are about to get into full swing, so it is the perfect time to visit, get to know your farmers, ask questions, and buy some funky produce. The ones I know are friendly, passionate, and proud of what they grow. They want to answer questions and grow things you are interested in eating. Which is the whole point of this endeavor! Find interesting and delicious things, and eat them. We can just do it in a way that promotes biodiversity at the same time.


Books about food

dsc01942My favorite hobbies are in order: eating food, making food, reading about food. While the first two take precedence to sustain me, I wouldn’t be fulfilled without the third. The holidays are an especially great time to share this love of reading. While I don’t force food books onto everyone in my life, if I had to pick a few to share, these would be at the top of the list.

The Third Plate (Dan Barber). If you need a crash course on Dan Barber (and an awesome show to fall into), watch his episode of Chef’s TableThis book presented our food system in an entirely new way to me. Barber’s argument is that the fundamental problem with our food system is we don’t look at it as a whole. Consumers (chef’s included) demand large amounts of specific plants and animals (like tomatoes or beef), which incentivizes farmers to produce those in mass quantities. Though that may allow them to make a living, it takes a toll on the environment and depletes resources in the long run. He says we should instead be asking farmers what they need to grow or how they need to raise animals to preserve the health of the land, and then we should base what we eat off of that. This forces greater variety on the consumer, and necessitates using more of each plant.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Michael Pollan). I reread Cooked this year, and I’m so glad I gave it a second chance. While I was lukewarm after the first reading, I was completely enthralled this time around. I love the organization of the book, Pollan explores one food process to match each element: fire (barbecue), water (braising), air (breadmaking), and earth (fermentation). History, science, and technique are interwoven as Pollan shadows experts and attempts processes in his own kitchen (and backyard).

An Everlasting Meal (Tamar Adler). This book really straddles the line of book about food and cookbook. Recipes, techniques, and food philosophies stew together in Adler’s opinionated and often dramatic prose (“The degrading of mayonnaise from a wonderful condiment for cooked vegetables or sandwiches to an indistinguishable layer of fat has been radical and violent.” p31). Some recipes are written out in the standard ingredient list and instructions format, but the majority of them are within the rest of the paragraphs. While they are a delight to read like this, I have found them much harder to find and refer back to. As the title suggest, Adler believes each meal leads into the next, and we can cook in such a way so little is wasted and maximum flavor is extracted from each ingredient. While her tastes may not match everyone’s, I loved her fiery point of view and many suggestions for simple yet delicious food.

And a few other books I’ve loved: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, Consider the Fork, Edible, and Catching Fire.

Small Batch

Small Batch - Vegetal MattersOne of my favorite activities while traveling, near or far, is to visit places where food and drink are made. Or perhaps considering the fact that I work on a farm and cook immediately upon returning home, I just always want to be where consumables are made. But when not at work or home, I have to work a little harder for those experiences. Not much harder though, because makers are popping up everywhere you look, and visiting them has become a larger component of tourism and maker’s marketing strategy.

In MA the Brewer’s Guild put together a “Craft Brewers Passport” mapping out all the breweries to visit and prompting you to get your passport stamped at each one. Once you complete a section, or the whole thing, you can turn it in to the Guild in return for prizes. This is similar to vineyard tours in wine country, cheese trails, and food festivals of all kinds. The point is to experience where the product is made, meet the person doing it, and try the product (especially since it may not be widely distributed).

Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Foods by Suzanne Cope looks at this cultural phenomenon and offers her analysis of this shift back to small scale food production. She focuses on the four categories of food mentioned in the title, and goes out to meet small scales makers producing each of the items. Each section offers some historical background which frames how the industry got to the point it is today. Pickles have re-surged from renewed interest in local eating and preserving vegetables to eat out of season.  Cheese became a value added product for milk producers that helped small producers becomes more sustainable in the face of consolidated milk production. Chocolate making has a history sullied by slavery, which is slowly being righted with fair trade production. Prohibition changed our country’s relationship with alcohol in ways that are still felt today

There is a lot of discussion about what it means to be an “artisanal” maker. Artisanal is a word that has been greatly diluted by mass producers using it to describe anything they want perceived as small batch, which in turn is supposed to denote high quality. Every venture started out as a one or two person operation, but a few of the makers Cope met have experienced such success that they were greatly increasing staff and machinery to keep up with demand, seemingly on the cusp of no longer being artisanal or craft makers. Some were having to make hard decisions about sourcing, like moving from a local producer they knew to an organic producer further away. Jasper Hill Farm has a large cheese cellar that they lease space in to other makers, which includes small farms who want to age cheese but don’t have the resources, and very large producers like Cabot who want to make a product that tastes like it was made by a small producer.

The truth is that the smaller a venture is often the harder it is to be sustainable. While the story of a maker with all local sources is compelling, so many of us are used to a global economy that makes all things available at all times, which greatly challenges a pickle maker with one farm to supply produce in town who is at the whims of weather (and the many, many other challenges that affect farming).

When asked to define “artisanal,” one of the maker’s interviewed described it as when the person who handles the product also handles the money. Cope likes this definition best, and I agree it is the most accurate. But the reality is we all can’t be fed by producers with their hands on every aspect of a food’s production (unless way more people want to their day jobs to start with milking goats at 5am). While there will always be limits to producers who want to want to be connected to every part of their process, and downfalls to those who expand production beyond what they can do on their own. Cope argues that while many of these producers may end up reaching a wider audience and having to drop their artisanal title, their products grew from an authentic care for quality, which we shouldn’t necessarily disregard once scale increases.

The final chapter acknowledges that any study like this has a limited sample, and many people she wished to talk to were unavailable. I understand that travel is expensive and time consuming, so Cope couldn’t exactly criss-cross the country trying every pickle, cheese wheel, chocolate bar, and libation she could find (but…best road trip ever???). The makers discussed were primarily from New York (especially Brooklyn), Massachusetts, and Oregon, with a few others in Vermont, California, and Washington. That is almost exclusively liberal, coastal, densely populated areas. Is the high sample size in those areas because those are the communities that most support this type of production? What does the picture look like in the rest of our vast country?

A lot of the value added to these products is the time makers take interfacing directly with consumers to tell their stories. This experience is worth seeking out, for the fun of visiting new places, meeting people, and getting to consume delicious things. Cope provides excellent background and analysis on this quickly emerging trend. As someone in the same age range as most of these makers (20s-30s), who constantly seeks out these foods and stories, it was fascinating to read about the historical influences and societal mentality that brought about this love of artisans.

Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well

Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well - Vegetal MattersThanksgiving is a holiday with lofty expectations. There is a big meal to prepare for more people than you usually cook for comprised of dishes you more than likely only make once a year. Each year there is an explosion of trendy recipes with new methods, imploring you to cover your turkey with a bacon lattice or a wine soaked t-shirt, soak it in a salty, sugary bath for days beforehand, fry it, grill it, slow cook it, spatchcock it, or squirt it every 15 minutes with a supersoaker of basting liquid (I may have made that up, but watch it catch on). There are so many people to please, traditions to uphold, and diets to account for that all the fun is almost sucked out of planning.

Sam Sifton is here to cure all these ails. A New York Times writer with 25 years of Thanksgiving cooking experience, as well as the one man Thanksgiving help line for the Times. The combination of his own experience and saving so many other meals made him full of opinions and wisdom on the subject which are compiled in Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well. It may seem silly to have a cookbook you use for one day a year, but the recipes and lessons transcend turkey day. The dry humor alone makes this worth reading cover to cover each year, whether or not you are hosting (it will take you an hour at most, not counting for the times you walk around reading parts aloud to all in earshot).

On some topics Sifton offers no compromises: NO APPETIZERS (oysters don’t count), NO SALAD, NO GARLIC, NO CHOCOLATE.  One bottle of wine per person is not outrageous. Gravy and cranberry sauce are the most important elements because they tie everything together (I agree). If you don’t cook, you clean (which should be law, holiday or not). “Leave the kitchen gleaming so that the morning may dawn on a new day, not a continuation of this one.”

If you are paralyzed by options each year, Thanksgiving is your book. There are enough variations to keep the meal interesting year after year, but all are well tested recipes guaranteed to succeed. Sifton says with his guidance “you are going to cook and serve a meal that will bring praise down upon you like showers of rose petals.” And once we are past Thanksgiving, and you have a picked over carcass and a ton of meat Sifton directs us through making turkey stock (get everything you can out of that giant, expensive bird!) and turkey gumbo, turkey salad, and even Thanksgiving eggs (because “exhaustive research into the business and culture of American breakfast suggests that you can always put an egg on it” – AMEN).

The suggestion I am most excited to put to work in my own kitchen this year is to start the morning of Thanksgiving by using the neck of the turkey to create a stock which will be used throughout the day (genius!). It will take everything I have not to, but there will be no salad (guess what will be for lunch Thanksgiving day though?!). Thanksgiving is a book I will most often reach for in November, but also on days when I need a little extra guidance when hosting a large group, classic recipes, or a reminder of how funny food writing can be.


The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School - Vegetal MattersNo matter how good of a cook you are, there is always something to learn. Kathleen Flinn graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (in case you too wondered how the school got its name….here you go) and struggled with her role as a chef. She gravitated towards writing and helping others become more confident in the kitchen which culminated in The Kitchen Counter Cooking School. Her cooking school experiment started when she couldn’t help but notice a woman in the grocery store choosing all processed foods, and walking through the grocery store with her to show her what to buy to make the basic dishes processed foods emulate with far less money. From that she started her experiment with nine women (the one man recruited ended up dropping out). Flinn began by going into each cook’s kitchen, surveying their fridge, freezer, and pantry, eating a meal prepared by them and listening to the large personal roadblocks that kept them from success in the kitchen. The women’s problems are incredibly varied, from lack of time, negative reinforcement from spouses and family, kids who only like certain foods, and sudden changes of work circumstances, but every person was mostly held back by a lack of confidence.

Once you know how to cook the basics, it’s hard to remember what it was like when such simple dishes were still mysteries. I grew up with a myriad of bottled salad dressings on our fridge door, which was not for a lack of healthful eating (I’m still pretty sure my mom is made of salad, not blood and bones). It was just what was, and I can’t remember when I had the moment where I learned how to make salad dressing, but it was what spurred my interest in replacing the processed foods I purchased with a homemade alternative. From there I went on to make bread, cheese, pasta, tomato sauce, pickles, ketchup, ice cream, stock, salsa, and a number of other simple items. I don’t make all of these items all the time, but even making them once gives you such a better understanding of what really should go in a product, and makes you a more informed purchaser.

Whether you are a beginner or Jacques Pepin, there are many lessons to absorb from Flinn’s book. As a new cook it is comforting to hear the setbacks other new cooks have faced, and the incremental lessons that provide a knowledge base to feed oneself. Flinn does a great job of incorporating much of the content of the lessons she provided, and includes insights from the students for a beginner to absorb. For anyone interested in teaching others to cook, Flinn lays out a great set of lessons for teaching the basics.

Besides a lack of the basic knowledge and lack of confidence that kept most of the cooks from success in the kitchen, the main kitchen issue brought up was food waste. Many participants stopped at big box stores or purchased in larger quantities because it was cheaper per unit, but ended up throwing out a lot of food (especially produce), because they couldn’t use it. Flinn emphasizes that food wasted costs more than food used, so buying something large that you throw out a large percent of is ultimately far more expensive than the smaller product that is more expensive per pound that you use in entirety. The suggestions were to evaluate your fridge weekly and have a basic set of recipes that are easily adapted to use up leftovers, like making a big pot of soup, a salad, or a frittata. This is something I struggle with especially during the summer when all produce looks so good and I just want to cook with everything. Or when I plan out a meal for every night of the week, not accounting for more leftovers than I planned for or extra ingredients from a recipe that need to be used up as well. Not all of the kale can go into breakfasts, so I’m trying to be better about leaving a meal unplanned to leave room for using up everything.

My hope is that every person has the knowledge to cook themselves a basic meal. Eggs and toast can become breakfast; lettuce, oil and vinegar – lunch; and beans and rice – dinner. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School provides background on why many people may be reluctant to enter the kitchen, and an excellent overview of basic lessons that can take them from instant mashed potatoes to gratins. I especially liked the end where Flinn revisits the students to see their kitchens post classes, share another meal with them, and hear about what they took away from the lessons. She accepts that she can’t expect to change every aspect of each student’s eating habits, but instilled the confidence that everyone was lacking.

Gulp. and Thoughts on Taste

Gulp. and Thoughts on Taste - Vegetal MattersWay back in January I talked about food resolutions, and added on a few related books on my 2015 to read list. I’m pleased to say I’ve made some progress, and read More Home Cooking back in January (over a single very snowy weekend), and though I haven’t read The Unsettling of America yet, I did read another Wendell Berry book: Bringing it to the Table.

Gulp. by Mary Roach was another on my list, and has been on display at my local library and taunting me for months, so I finally grabbed it. Earlier this year I read Spook, her book about the science of the afterlife, so two books in I have a good grasp of her writing style and interest. Even though her books are popular science, they are much less about the science and more about the stories that made the science happen. She does talk about how things work, but her interest is far more in the people who did the research and the often very weird stories that relate to them. So Gulp. did have some overview information on how the alimentary canal operates, but it was overwhelmed by anecdotes and stories of scientists and research. If you’re interest is strictly in the science, then seek out another book (and let me know which one you read).

This is an easier read where Roach tries to be an olive oil tester, goes to a pet food manufacturer, visits saliva scientists, and reports on the creepy relationship between a man with a hole blown directly into his stomach and the man who researches digestion by sticking things inside him attached to a string and pulling them back out. Most interesting to me was the beginning about our sense of taste. Roach starts off with how little taste has to do with actually putting things on your tongue. Besides smell, sight and perception play heavily into how things taste to us. Since wine tasting is such a thing, many a study have been done on how various factors affect how wine tastes to people. One set up is having people taste wine without the labels or knowledge of the price, and then again with those factors. When the price is known, people often like more expensive wines better, but don’t when they are brown bagged. Roach also described an experiment where people were tasting white wine colored to look like red wine, and described it using the red wine lingo.

It is fun to try to get beyond someone’s perceptions of what a food should look and taste like. I work with students on the farm and we incorporate vegetable tastings into a lot of the programming. In the learning garden we grow three varieties of cherry tomatoes: sungold (bright yellow), sweetheart cherry (red and heart-shaped), and black cherry (dark green/reddish and the most delicious). A lot of the time getting a kid to try a new food can be a struggle, especially if they don’t come from a place where trying new things often is the norm. It’s much easier when you stay in a realm they are comfortable in. So if they have tried a tomato before, a black cherry tomato is still something mostly familiar, just with one factor changed (except the taste is also so much better than flat grocery store cherry tomatoes). And hopefully this makes different things seem a little less scary, and loosens the rigid perceptions of what any one food’s qualities should be. Maybe this could help lessen the strictness of what we all expect vegetables and other foods to look like, and embrace greater varieties and new definitions of perfection.


On Food and Cooking

On Food and Cooking - Vegetal MattersHarold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is the best known food science cookbook, and has been for the last 30 years (and deservedly so). The first edition came out in 1984 and the second 20 years later. I found a copy at a library book sale years ago, but didn’t end up referencing it as much as I wanted to (maybe because I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information). It was a challenge that needed to be taken head on, and last month I decided to read it cover to cover. McGee has a doctorate in English Literature, so it is incredibly well written but also peppered with stories about the origins of certain foods and their names. Popular science books tend to glaze over concepts and leave out the gritty details, which McGee does absolutely none of. The chapters are broken up by types of food, including dairy, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit, bread, sauces, alcohol, and additives. Most chapters contain the history of the food in our diet, overview of the chemical structure, chemical changes during cooking, and tips to avoid common mistakes and why they produce inferior foods.

The breadth of this book is proof that McGee is not one to be scared of seemingly impossible tasks. The chapter “Fruits and Vegetables, Herbs and Spices” starts off with descriptions of plant food in mythology, quickly moves to botany, fruits and vegetables in language (we use fruits to “praise”, and other plants to “disparage”), history of the spice trade, plant breeding, photosynthesis, molecular structure, flavor, nutrition, storage and preservation, cooking, notes on 50 different plants/families, and then finishes with tea and coffee. You learn where the best nutrition in plants comes from (the skins), why to cut off green potato parts (alkaloids), why legumes cause gas, why you should blanch vegetables before freezing, and how canning kills the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Why food behaves the way it does as it develops, deteriorates, or cooks and how cooking affects foods are essential questions to answer to be a better cook.  This book is so well known because no other food science book compares to its breadth or depth. It belongs on every home cook’s shelf because sometimes it takes a little more than googling to understand why and how our foods behave the way they do, and why we are even eating them, and it is rare to have such information delivered with McGee’s eloquence. If taking on the whole thing at once doesn’t interest you, it is definitely the kind of book you can read a chapter or section of, and then leave for a while and return to. It is a rare and wonderful thing when such an informative book is also a delightful read.

Consider the Fork

Vegetal Matters - Consider the ForkIn Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson takes us through the development of ubiquitous cooking tools, some of which have changed very little since their invention (like the spoon) and others that have improved many times over (like refrigeration). Wilson is mostly concerned with history and adoption, but does cover some science when appropriate, like in the development of canned foods. Maybe Consider the Fork was deemed a catchier title, but I think a spoon would have been more appropriate as it is the almost universal utensil. Wilson notes that the fork is not loved by all (chopsticks and fingers are the other main utensils), but just about everyone uses a spoon. Cooking and eating are the grand unifying activities across all cultures, which are also united by a simple but ingenious tool.

It was the fork though, that changed our bodies. Many of us deal with a lot of metal in our mouths during adolescence to achieve the ideal straightness and overbite. The aptly named Professor Charles Loring Brace is an American anthropologist whose researches the development of the overbite, which didn’t appear until the late eighteenth century. As there was no big change that happened to diets at that time, his theory is that it was caused by the widespread use of forks. We no longer needed our top and bottom teeth to touch for optimal biting and ripping, so the top layer progressed forward. Evidence has so far supported this theory, as cultures that adopted the fork later (or not at all, such as the Chinese) have corresponding overbites (or not).

Consider the Fork covers more than just utensils though. Continuously puzzling, is American’s reluctance to join the rest of the world (except for Liberia and Myanmar) in adopting the French metric system for measurement. Instead we insist on measuring dry goods by volume, even though this is highly variable. Wilson says that our measurement tools should fulfill these five requirements: accuracy (adhering to a fixed value), precision, consistency (measuring the same amount time and again), convertibility (fitting into a system and being able to measure butter as well as flour or any other ingredient), and ease of use. (113-4) Volumetric cups do none of these well, except for being as simple as possible and portable. But, “a cup of something is not just a cup. Experiments have shown that a cup of flour may vary in weight from 4 to 6 ounces, just by changing the degree to which the flour is sifted and airy or tamped down.” (116) I did an experiment with 5th graders where they each scooped a ½ cup of flour and then we measured them, and they varied by 15 grams. Besides the variability, the system just does not make sense. Even after a decade of independent cooking, I still find myself having to look up how many tablespoons go in a cup, whereas I never need to question how many milliliters are in a liter. I know large infrastructure changes as at first a setback, but I think we owe it to the sanity of future generations to embrace metrics. We can measure by the liter, run by the kilometer, record heat in Celsius, and measure in harmony with the rest of the world. (And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of daylight savings please.)

Wilson doesn’t devote many pages to the subject, but she brings up labor saving in an interesting way.  The general view of devices such as fridges and food processors is that they use less labor to get food from the field on to our plates. But really we’ve just been further removed from the labor: “We do not see the hands in the chicken factory that boned the breasts, never mind the chickens that gave their lives, nor the workers who labored to assemble the parts of our whizzy food processors. We only see a pile of ingredients and a machine ready to do our bidding. Alone in our kitchens, we feel entirely emancipated.” (173) She certainly paints a lonely picture of the kitchen, disjointed from the connected and transparent food system that is increasingly called for.

Consider the Fork was well researched, and a mix of anthropology, history, and science. The emphasis was more on the anthropology and history than science which disappointed me a bit, but it didn’t detract from my reading experience much. It was an entertaining read, and a great addition to the general culinary history library (if these kind of books are your jam, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is another great one).

Further reading (or listening): The Golden Spoon

Edible (a book about eating bugs!)

edible-final-cover-hi-res-1Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet is a mouthful, and entomophagist Daniella Martin’s plea for the world to eat more insects. The first two thirds of the book are Martin’s case for eating bugs. She compares the energy and space required to raise the mammals we most commonly eat to the same requirements for bugs. The remainder of the book describes how to raise your own bugs, a detailed glossary of edible bugs, and then the final part of the cycle: recipes to get the bugs on to your plate (Hakuna Frittata is by far my favorite, and Crickety Kale Salad sounds like just the thing for trendy farm to table menus, but I haven’t tried either yet).

Martin’s case for eating bugs is well organized and supported. The numbers that really speak in favor of insect proteins are the food, water and space requirements:

  • 1 pound of beef = 10 pounds of feed, 1,000 gallons of water, 200 square feet of pasture (2 acres per cow)
  • 1 pound of pork = 5 pounds of feed, 600 gallons of water, 175 square feet of pasture (⅔ acre per pig)
  • 1 pound of chicken = 2.5 pounds of feed, 150 gallons of water, 75 square feet of pasture (100 square feet per chicken)
  • 1 pound of fish = 1.5 pounds of fish meal, variable amounts of water, considering spawning
  • 1 pound of insects = 2 pounds of feed, 1 gallon of water, 2 cubic feet of land space (18-19)

Martin also adds that “since most bugs don’t require deboning, there are also big savings in energy and water on the processing end, and because they require far less space to raise and thus can be farmed in an urban area, the fossil fuel required to transport them is minimal.” (18) So bugs take up almost no space, require barely any water, and can be deep fried?? It’s a wonder insects aren’t taking the place of popcorn chicken on menus across the country.

Besides the very limited space and energy requirements, crickets can reproduce incredibly quickly: “A cow gives birth to one calf per year. In that same time, a pig can produce twenty-five to thirty piglets, and a chicken lays three hundred eggs….In comparison to these warm-blooded livestock, a cricket lays around a hundred eggs in her three-month lifespan. Assuming half are male, that makes 50 female crickets, each laying a hundred eggs. After three months, we have 2,500 laying female crickets; in a year, 312,500,000. If 1,000 crickets weigh a pound, that’s 312,500 pounds of cricket in a year, a weight equivalent to 312 cows.” (27-8)

Westerners eating bugs is an important part of more of the world eating them, and the cultures that do continuing to do so. Martin fears that the more Western culture spreads, the more others will adopt the habit of only eating the meat of larger livestock and leave behind their insect eating traditions.

Last year I was able to try cookies made by Bitty with cricket flour. They were delicious, and tasted like any other well made cookies with whole grain flour.  Insect food companies in the US are well aware that there are many cultural issues for Americans to get over before insects become a part of our diets. They are smart to begin with flour, which has the same nutritional benefits of whole bugs, without the ick factor. This is another example of insect’s versatility–what other animal protein can also be used as a flour? With all our culinary innovations, beef crust pizza, chicken bread, and pork flour pancakes are nowhere to be seen (except maybe at a Guy Fieri restaurant, but that doesn’t count as real food).

Part of what gets you on Martin’s side is that her argument is so reasonable. She doesn’t expect insects to take the place of the meat we consume, or even get them in every kitchen.  There is no such one food solution to sustainability.  But insects should be part of the mix, right alongside poultry, game, pork, beef, seafood and vegetal protein options.  As she states, veganism is “not a realistic choice for all or even most humans living on earth” because of cost and lack of year round access to plant foods. And I wholeheartedly agree with Martin that “it’s certainly not fair to expect someone who struggles to get enough to eat to limit their own biology according to a philosophy that nature itself doesn’t seem to echo.” (170)

Especially for those wary of eating insects, Edible is a great introduction to the concept. Martin’s style of writing is witty and conversational, and she includes enough numbers to to prove all her points but not so many to make you dizzy. With books like this that try to be both an introduction and a case for a certain diet or way of life, (such as In Defense of Food), shorter is always better. And if you are so moved by her case to start eating bugs, the recipes are right there to get you started. In an increasingly resource strained world, it’s important to keep all our options open. Insects aren’t going to be for everyone, but they should stay on the table.

Further Reading: Your Post-Workout Protein Shake Should Be Loaded With Insects (written by Martin for Slate); her website and blog (warning, lots of bug photos)


Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper - Vegetal Matters

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China is Fushia Dunlop’s account of her introduction to Chinese (particularly Sichuan) cuisine, obsession and immersion, and her calling to record and share little known regional delicacies to the English speaking masses. Dunlop built her career on eating in China, after going to Chengdu first as an exchange student and realizing her intense interest in local cuisine, and the fact that it was widely unknown outside China. The title captures so many of the struggles in this book. Between the revered but environmentally destructive delicacies, and the authentic and truly unique flavors that make Chinese food so legendary; the wonderfully diverse regional cuisines and the blanket unification of “Chinese” food outside the country.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is one of the best food memoirs I have read. Dunlop’s descriptions of specific foods and meals are so intense you can taste them yourself. But her real talent lies in describing how she fell in love with the food of another country and the infinite complexities that few outside China have tried to fully understand. She says “Learning another cuisine is like learning a language. In the beginning, you know nothing about its most basic rules of grammar. You experience it as a flood of words, or dishes, without system or structure.” (71) Dunlop makes the effort to give us that basic grammar throughout the book, describing the history that influenced regional cuisine differences and explaining the techniques and tastes balanced in specific dishes.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper - Vegetal Matters

Most of the chapters end with a recipe, but my favorites had what are more like little cheat sheets on one aspect of Chinese cooking. This one pictured is “A small taste of the ‘complex flavors’ of Sichuan.” I have always been frustrated coming across dishes on restaurant menus with vague descriptors such as “strange-flavor.” If only I had known that those two words really describe “the harmonious mixing of salty, sweet, numbing, hot, sour, umami, and fragrant notes.” Dunlop also describes the many, very specific shapes food can be cut into and the wide ranging types of mouthfeel.   It certainly makes our food descriptors seem inadequate, and I think any level of familiarity with Chinese cooking could improve skill cooking and appreciation of all other cuisines.

After reading this book (and loving it) I read some infuriating reviews on Goodreads. Some criticized the lack of detail about Dunlop’s personal life in the book. She does not talk at all about intimate relationships, and only vaguely about her family (I didn’t know she had a brother until I read the acknowledgements). But this was not a book about Dunlop’s personal life, as the subtitle clearly states. It was a book about her relationship with China and its food, and the career she built being an English and Mandarin-speaking foreigner willing to go anywhere and eat anything. Those topics are complicated and interesting enough to fill more books than just this one.

There were also numerous reviewers who put down the book (why are you reviewing this book if you didn’t read the whole thing?!) or were off-put by the descriptions of eating an incredible variety of animals, some of which were endangered. As a vegetarian or vegan you may wholeheartedly disagree with the consumption of these creatures, but these issues are fully acknowledged and part of meaningful discussion (especially in the latter half of the book). Dunlop fully acknowledges the questionable morals in eating living things, discussions she has that make her reevaluate her consumption habits, and the change in attitude she had towards eating any and all animals. These are all difficult topics, and they are described honestly as Dunlop experiences and wrestles with them. (She also tackles the use of MSG in cooking which was especially interesting.)

A quality I admire most in memoir writers is bring able to write frankly about situations in which the author made poor decisions, behaved less than admirably, or questioned a belief they once fully embraced. None of us behave exactly as we want to in all situations, but if we can reflect on and learn from ones in which we made mistakes we will grow. We also change as we experience more things, and hopefully become different people as we see and engage with more of the world. Dunlop’s love for a country, it’s people, their cuisine, and their complex relationship with food paired with another life in England, where food regulation is far stricter and public awareness of food issues more widespread creates a difficult situation. She wants to experience as much culture and food as possible, but is also increasingly conscientious of bad food practices and their effect on the planet. As a result she becomes more reserved, and instead of seeking out delicacies eaten because they are rare and prized, works to find foods that are delicious because of their heritage, thoughtful crafting, and ties to local agriculture.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper - Vegetal Matters

I’ve read through two of Dunlop’s cookbooks, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province and Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (her third, Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, is working its way to me through the library request system).  I especially loved Every Grain of Rice, which has dishes from many regions and gorgeous designs made with rice grains between each chapter. Over time I hope to fill out my shamefully inadequate Chinese cookbook collection with each of them, and recreate as many of Dunlop’s meals as I can. (The photo above is Bear’s Paw Tofu, Chinese Broccoli in Ginger Sauce, and Vegetarian “Gong Bao Chicken” from Every Grain of Rice.

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

catching fire

There are many things that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our language, expression through art, contemplation of the universe beyond us, and heating, mixing, and flavoring our foods before we eat them. Did all of these advancements develop simultaneously as we evolved? Or did one lead into all the others? In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham, he connects the point when humans harnessed fire and started cooking regularly with the point where we started evolving into the large brained, small jawed, small gutted, hairless creatures that we are today.

I was led to Wrangham’s book because Michael Pollan references it multiple times in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, and subsequent articles about the book (which will get a post of its own after a rereading).  Wrangham lays out expansive evidence that the whole reason our bodies have evolved to what we are today (and the additional developments that arose from our larger brains) came from the simple concept of adding heat to food.

“Cooked food does many familiar things. It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes, and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut, or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from our food” (14). Being able to more easily obtain energy from food had many advantages. Besides the fact that it tastes better most of the time, cooked food is far easier to eat (and in some cases makes otherwise inedible things edible, like the potato). Plus we spend about four less hours per day chewing cooked food (142), and then we extract far more energy from the food consumed. Four more hours a day where we no longer have to sit idly and chomp is the equivalent of sixty days a year (!!!) that we get back and can use towards all sorts of productive endeavors.

Studies today have compared cooked and non-cooked diets, and come back with ample evidence for the evolutionary benefits of cooked food. Those who were eating a cooked diet, whether there was meat included or not, did not show a difference in body weight. The more raw food consumed, the lower the person’s BMI and for women an increased likelihood that they partially or entirely stopped menstruating (20). This decreased the likelihood of conception, so women with a cooked diet who menstruated regularly would have a much better chance of conceiving and passing on their smaller guts and cooking knowledge.

Consuming solely raw food now is either an extreme necessity or fanaticism (and the fanatics are likely to be very well off) (38). When not done to the extreme, raw food consumption can be an effective weight loss strategy. Digestion is an energy intensive process though (as much as moving around), so not having to do as much of it and limited the space it is done in with a smaller gut are the evolutionary advantage (40). Heat denatures proteins, which makes them easier to digest because the complicated structures are open to digestive enzymes (65).

The idea that cooked food was the catalyst to our current body shape and the society that we know today is fascinating but not surprising. Cooking is a universal activity, done no matter what the local ingredients are. No cultures rely on raw diets (54), we all cook before eating. I’ve always loved cooking as a universal phenomenon, and besides being a cultural connection it is the evolutionary evidence that explains our physique. It is interesting that though cooking food provided an energy boost and positive evolutionary changes, the advent of agriculture led to the first widespread scarcity and malnutrition (as I discussed in the post about Sex at Dawn). Migrating, foraging,  and cooking food did not have any adverse affects, but staying in one place and trying to grow and eat the same cooked food did.  Some may see cooking as just one of the many activities that sets our species apart, but it was a monumental development that shaped our bodies and gave us the time and energy to pursue more than just survival activities and build a complex society.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

TRATEOTU“Would you like to see the menu?” he said. “Or would you like to meet the Dish of the Day?”

“Huh?” said Ford.

“Huh?” said Arthur.

“Huh?” said Trillian.

“That’s cool,” said Zaphod. “We’ll meet the meat.”

One of the most difficult conversations I’ve repeatedly found myself in is discussing where food comes from, and most often meat. Many people have told me they do not want to know anything about where their meat comes from before it gets to their plate. Or even have to take it off the bone. Preferably there should be nothing that indicates that it was once a breathing creature before it became a meal. This enrages me so completely that I have trouble expressing my views at all, for fear of it turning into a full out berating rant (which I try not to do so people will still want to talk to me). I wasn’t even sure how I would write about it, but then Douglas Adams beat me to the punch by about 35 years in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the second book in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in five parts, satirical space travel novels). The characters have just reached the title restaurant, are getting silly drunk (as you do right before the end of the universe), and are trying to decide what to eat:

A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beelebrox’s table, a large fat meaty quadraped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”

Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal’s shoulder appreciatively.

“Or the rump is very good,” murmured the animal. “I’ve been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there’s a lot of good meat there.” It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

“Or a casserole of me perhaps?” it added.

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat and animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

“That’s not the point,” Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. “All right,” he said, “maybe it is the point. I don’t care, I’m not going to think about it now. I’ll just … er …”

The Universe raged about him in its death throes.

“I think I’ll just have a green salad,” he muttered.

“May I urge you to consider my liver?” asked the animal, “it must be very rich and tender by now, I’ve been force feeding myself for months.”

“A green salad,” said Arthur emphatically.

“A green salad?” said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

“Are you going to tell me,” said Arthur, “that I shouldn’t have the green salad?”

“Well,” said the animal, “I know many vegetables that are clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

It managed a very slight bow.

“Glass of water please,” said Arthur.

“Look,” said Zaphod, “we want to eat, we don’t want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare steaks please, and hurry. We haven’t eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years.”

The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle.

“A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good,” it said. “I’ll just nip off and shoot myself.”

He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur.

“Don’t worry, sir,” he said, “I’ll be very humane.”

It waddled unhurriedly off to the kitchen.

I fully understand not liking the idea of killing a creature and eating its meat. If it bothers you so much, then DON’T DO IT. Pulling the “ignorance is bliss” card is an awful cop out. It’s like turning a blind eye to poverty because it doesn’t exist in your neighborhood. Thinking more about where your meat comes from makes you likely to care more about where it comes from, and in all likelihood that will make you want to consume less of it and a higher quality when you do.

Exposing gruesome aspects of the meat industry has been a hot topic of journalism since Upton Sinclair, but there are still awful and pervasive manufacturing practices being reported. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser interviewed slaughterhouse workers who were grossly mistreated.  Many cows are still fed grain instead of grass since it fattens them up more quickly (a reality I’ve seen firsthand). Livestock are the largest single contributing factor to greenhouse  gas emissions[1] and “producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein”.[2]

Cows are the largest animal we raise for meat and therefore take up the most resources, and are the ones most written about. But we should consider the environmental implications of all the animals we consume, including pigs, poultry, and all manner of sea creatures. Ethically raised, slaughtered, and fished meat is more expensive because there has to be more care in every part of the process and it is harder to do on a large scale. Buying meat that has been responsibly farmed is the best way to support and encourage sustainable meat production. Like Zaphod, we should lovingly appreciate and get to know the animals that give their lives for our meals. Even if we can’t breed animals to willingly sacrifice themselves for our meals, we can certainly ensure their time on our little planet is as enjoyable as possible. Meeting the animal you are going to eat is not “heartless” as Arthur suggests, but the opposite. It is impossible to meet an animal and not care about how it is living. Distancing ourselves from the process and claiming ignorant bliss just perpetuates the persistence of unsustainable production practices and overconsumption.

Unlike Zaphod says, making a meal of the issues is exactly what we should be doing. Like Zaphod orders, the meat we do consume should be prepared simply and enjoyed, rare.



Book cover photo from here.

Sex at Dawn

sex at dawnOne of my goals for this space is to write about food-related books, so it is only appropriate that I start with one about sexuality! Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá explores the fairly recent development of monogamous relationships as the norm in many societies.  Our anatomy, what we know about prehistoric societies, and comparison to our closest animal relatives (primarily bonobos) suggests that for most of human existence we lived in equitable groups that shared everything, including food, child care, and sexual partners.

I picked up the book intrigued by this premise alone, but really got into it when Ryan and Jethá started discussing when the transition from egalitarian groups to property owning individuals happened: the onset of agriculture. This shift caused many changes in the set-up of society. Hunters and gathers stopped doing so much of those defining activities, and spent far more time in one spot. Individualism, owning property, monogamous relationships and having more offspring to work on the farm became main priorities.

I assumed that this shift would have accompanied more continuous prosperity and reliable food sources, but skeletal evidence proves the opposite: that our ancestors did not experience widespread scarcity until they settled in agricultural societies (181). The health changes caused by shifting from foraging to farming around 1200 AD were not positive: “Archaeologist George Armelagos and his colleagues reported that the farmers’ remains show a 50 percent increase in chronic malnutrition, and three times the incidence of infectious diseases (including bone lesions)….increased infant mortality, delayed skeletal growth in adults, and a fourfold increase in porotic hyperostosis, indicating iron-deficiency in more than half the population”( 173-4). This outcome is very similar to the nutrition transition that occurs when people move from traditional to western style diets highly concentrated in sugar, fat, and animal products, which increases obesity and the many diseases that accompany it.

There was no need for people to stay rooted to a spot that was not producing enough food before farming. Being constantly on the move also made close, successive pregnancies very unlikely so there were rarely more mouths than could be fed. This kept the population small and mobile in a world with abundant food (160). Because there was very little property and all things were shared, there was no such thing as poverty. There was also very little abuse of resources, because in a small society it is very easy to keep people accountable. But once the population size grew so big that individuals could not easily keep track of one another (Dunbar’s number), there began an inevitable abuse of resources (170-1).

In Sex at Dawn Ryan and Jethá quote Marshall Sahlins from his book Stone Age Economics: “Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relationship between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.” The shift to an agricultural society caused more disease, scarcity and the creation of poverty. We have also far surpassed the point where reverting back to a nomadic lifestyle would be a solution to our current widespread health, resource, and other issues.  Obviously our current population could never be supported by hunting and gathering, nor would most people want to live that way. So the question now is: how can we live in a capitalist agrarian society and be healthy, happy people? Can we live in large populations without poverty, and without reverting to an extreme vegan communist society?

PS – He doesn’t mention the agricultural aspects, but Ryan did give a TED talk that gives a good overview of the rest of the book.