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Home / Articles / Arts / Theater & Stage Reviews /  Devour: A Locavore's Reading List

Devour: A Locavore's Reading List

March 12, 2008, 12:00 am
By
They've been there, done that.

The Omnivore's Dilemma
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, $27

Pollan's 2006 manifesto digs deep into the angst that should saddle all of us more than it does when we decide what kind of food to buy, cook, eat and order. Following his journey is an eye opener for anyone interested***image1*** in becoming more of a locavore. He starts out simply. In tracing the ingredients that make up the food at McDonald's, Pollan discovers that even though a Chicken McNugget wouldn't seem to involve any corn, in fact, 13 of the 38 ingredients in a McNugget can be traced back to industrially grown corn. Terrified by the specters of industrial agriculture, he ventures to Whole Foods and cooks a meal of entirely organic ingredients. He is largely convinced that organic is better tasting, better for you and better for the planet, but in tracing those ingredients to their roots, he realizes the organic products found in major supermarket chains seem to have one big thing in common with their conventionally grown counterparts: a massive consumption of fossil fuels. Because four-fifths of the energy used in agriculture is spent on processing and shipping (not growing), buying organic strawberries from Chile and organic tomatoes from Mexico threatens to defeat much of his purpose in buying organic. Then Pollan meets small farmers for whom "there isn't a world of difference between Whole Foods and Wal-Mart," and he becomes deeply enamored of local foodsheds. But, Pollan warns, "for local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons." More borscht, anyone?

Coming Home to Eat
by Gary Paul Nabhan
WW Norton, $15.95

Several years before The Omnivore's Dilemma, Nabhan, a Lebanese-American ethnobotanist living in Arizona, made a serious attempt at eating locally. Nabhan didn't simply spend his Sundays picking over organic arugula at farmers markets; no, his self-assigned task was much harder. He set out to make 90 percent of his diet come from native species. In Arizona. He harvested wild cactus fruits and yucca blossoms ***image2***and hunted for game birds; he planted pasilla chiles, pinto beans and tomatillos in "the pathetic-looking, alkaline earth and the scant, brackish waters of our desert homeland." (Notably, Nabhan chose not to plant or eat corn-because its closest wild relative could only be found more than 250 miles beyond the limits of his 250-mile foodshed.) When friends pointed out that his experimental garden would require watering far beyond natural rainfall, watering that drained an aquifer and required fossil fuels to pump, he made one of many "lesser-of-two-evils" decisions that are required of aspiring locavores. For Santa Feans, Coming Home to Eat provides a rare look at the difficulties of eating locally in a challenging environment. Probably few will be inspired to take the same challenge, but most will be glad Nabhan did.

Plenty
by Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon
Harmony Books, $24

In this version of the "I spent a year as a Locavore" memoir, a couple of 20-something writers in Vancouver give themselves the challenge of eating within a mere 100-mile radius of their home. Smith and MacKinnon are both writers whose 100-mile diet grew mostly from environmental***image3*** concerns about all the fossil fuel used to truck-and fly-food all over the world. Inspiration struck at a remote cabin in British Columbia where, out of necessity and curiosity, they put together an über-local feast, foraging for mushrooms, fruit and salad greens, catching fish and digging in their own abandoned garden. While many who aspire to eat locally wouldn't dream of giving up things like salt, sugar, chocolate or wheat, Smith and MacKinnon went all out. The pleasures they find are enviable, but their story is at its most pathetic when they are so starved for bread they are reduced to sifting the rodent droppings from a bag of local wheat. Smith and MacKinnon are younger than many of the people involved in the local food movement, and their perspective can either be refreshing or frustrating, depending on your point of view. No matter what, their story will force you to ask yourself what you'd be willing to part with in order to eat more locally.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
Harper Collins, $26.95

Several things make this book different from all others in its growing class. First, Barbara Kingsolver isn't a regular person on an unusual quest; she's a New York Times-bestselling novelist living an intriguing life that she's uniquely well-equipped to describe: "As the US population ***image4***made a mad dash for the Sun Belt, one carload of us paddled against the tide…to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain…Naturally, our first stop was to by junk food and fossil fuel." After living in Tucson for 25 years, she and her family moved to a farm in rural Virginia where they raise sheep, chickens, turkeys and grow tons of fruits and vegetables. The book is written mostly by Kingsolver, with contributions from her husband, Hopp, who's a professor of environmental science, and her 19-year-old daughter Camille. The way Kingsolver describes their bucolic existence makes Virginia seem as alluring as Provençe (almost) and even though they force themselves to give up some treasured non-local things, the whole experiment sounds rather like a vacation you'd pay to take. Planting peas, making mozzarella cheese, trying to figure out how to get turkeys to mate: These are the good times, right?

Full Moon Feast
by Jessica Prentice
Chelsea Green, $25

Jessica Prentice is one of a group of San Francisco-area women who take credit for inventing the term locavore; the group can be found at www.locavores.com. In addition to encouraging others to eat locally, this trained chef-she's a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Cookery School in New York-leads local food dinners and works at a community kitchen. She is totally committed, not as an experiment, but for good. Full Moon***image5*** Feast is organized around the 13 lunar cycles of the year, such as the Moon When Salmon Return to Earth in Autumn. It's a little…how shall we say…hippy dippy. But Prentice can also be refreshingly un-dogmatic: The book contains a recipe for Warm Frothed Milk with Saffron and Cardamom. And on the Web site there's a recipe for Coconut Milk and Palm Sugar Semifreddi that makes one wonder: Wha? Local coconut milk? But she writes: "While I don't believe we should be importing apples when we can grow them right here I think the ingredients in this recipe are exactly the kinds of foods it makes sense to import: healthy, traditional, naturally preserved foods that can't be grown or produced locally-eaten as a special treat." Now that's the kind of local-eating goal that sounds reasonable and achievable. So when you find there's not an ounce of chile in her calabacitas, forgive her and add as much as you like.

Eat Here
by Brian Halweil
WW Norton, $13.95

One of the first problems that confronts any aspiring locavore is the cost of eating locally. Why would I pay twice as much for a bunch of spinach at the farmers market as when I can go to Super Wal-Mart? And many local food activists will say the same thing: ceci n'est pas un good deal. Cheap food belies the grim reality of the globalization of our food system. Halweil is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute (a global environmental think tank in Washington, DC) who established a ***image6***student-run organic farm on the Stanford campus when he was a fellow there. Before Michael Pollan published Omnivore's Dilemma, he blurbed Halweil's book, calling it "the definitive work on the most interesting and encouraging change in the way Americans eat now." If you're into real science, facts, charts and graphs, you'll like the very persuasive Eat Here. It is the Mars to Full Moon Feast's Venus. And when he describes a local market project in Nebraska-"Sitting in refurbished wood hen nesters are jars of corn cob jelly and blueberry jam…the coolers are filled with ground beef, bacon, chicken legs and other butcher standards…all of it raised by Nebraska family farmers-you may find yourself worked into a lather of enthusiasm (or jealousy).

 

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