Winter book club

Though the solstice has passed and days are theoretically growing longer, we have settled into deepest winter here. Famed organic farmer Eliot Coleman calls this the “Persephone period,” when winter days are less than ten hours in length. Late sunrises, early sunsets and a chilly winter sun barely peeking through the gloom create perfect days for curling up in front of the fire with a book. Though we should be studying farming materials – and we are, I promise! – I also devote plenty of time to non-farm reading, too.

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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai

This book appeared on a number of 2018’s “Best Of” lists and won numerous prizes, and for good reason. Like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, this book, to me, perfectly represents The Great American Novel. It concerns two parallel stories, one set in Chicago in the mid-eighties during the height of the AIDS crisis and one in 2015 Paris, and both stories grab you by the throat and consume you completely. This was a book that I had a hard time putting down even when I couldn’t keep my eyes open late at night, and one that I dove into when I was supposed to be doing ten million other things. It’s only been a few short decades, but it’s difficult to acknowledge now just how blind and how cruel we were when AIDS ravaged our country. Now that HIV/AIDS is no longer a guaranteed death sentence, it seems even more shocking that we let thousands of people, mostly young, vibrant men, die horribly – because we didn’t agree with their lifestyles, because “God is punishing them.” Along with Vietnam and civil rights, I’d identify this period as one of the most truly shameful in American history. Layered, gorgeous and tragic, The Great Believers is one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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Restless book club

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This should be a gorgeous shot of the San Juan Mountains; unfortunately they are completely obscured by smoke.

A heaviness sits over our Western Slope mesa right now. For two weeks we’ve seen evidence of numerous wildfires nearby plus California, too; the normally clean, crisp air is thick with a sickly haze and it smells as though you’re standing in the middle of a campfire. Our pure blue sky hasn’t been seen in some time, and you can almost taste the ash on your tongue. The rains are infrequent, but when they do come – even when they disrupt an annual town potluck – they seem to wash the smoke away, and people rejoice. It feels charred, dry and desperate here, and we’ll be the first to admit that we’re getting restless. We’re mired in an enforced and extended waiting period on the farm we’re trying to purchase, so while there have been plenty of farm visits, long, hilly bike rides, hiking in Grand Mesa National Forest, fruit picking and hours of tennis, there is also a lot of escapist reading going on these days.

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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The FAQ Series: Sugar, Part Three

We promise that this is our last post on sugar (for now). As you’ll remember, in this three-part series we’ve already talked about sugars you have at home and sugars used by the food processing industry. Now, let’s discuss how the sugar industry has worked so hard to convince us all that sugar is not only benign, but actually good for you!

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Before we get into the sugar industry, we’d like to clarify exactly what we mean by added sugars. An added sugar is any quantity or type of sugar that doesn’t naturally occur in a specific food. A perfect example of this is applesauce: in its simplest form, applesauce is made by cooking apples until they’re soft, then mashing or puréeing them. Lots of ingredients can be added to applesauce, including spices like cinnamon and acidifiers such as citric acid to preserve color. Fresh apples contain plenty of natural sugar; primarily fructose, but also sucrose and glucose in small proportions.

Most store-bought applesauce, however, includes added sugars, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, honey or any of the other sweeteners we’ve mentioned. So if that applesauce label were adhering to the now-abandoned revised nutrition labeling laws, it would have to list both the naturally occurring sugar in the apples, plus all of the sugar added by the manufacturer. Hopefully this clarifies the concept of added sugars – it doesn’t occur naturally in the food or drink.

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Both the apple and the soda contain sugar, but all of the apple’s sugar occurs naturally. All of the soda’s sugar is added.

The sugar conspiracy is one of the most significant health-related stories to appear in the news recently. Essentially, the claim is this: fifty years ago, the sugar industry funded studies on the potential correlation between sugar and heart disease. When preliminary studies did appear to confirm this link, the studies were shut down, and research findings were concealed. The Sugar Research Foundation also reportedly paid Harvard scientists to obscure the link between sugar consumption and heart disease, pushing them to blame saturated fats instead.

And that, friends, is one reason why we’ve spent decades being told not to eat bacon, eggs, butter, cheese or burgers – because they cause heart disease. While excessive consumption of the low-quality saturated fats found in most American diets definitely isn’t a healthy choice, the point is that sugar should also shoulder a lot of the blame. And we now consume a lot more sugar than we do saturated fat, and our heart disease rates are still rising.

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All dried fruit contains natural sugar, but processors add a lot, too. Buy unsweetened dried fruit (this means no Craisins!).

Humans instinctively love the taste of sweet things; sweetness implies carbohydrates, which are quickly converted to energy in our bodies. Now, however, our satiety point is ever higher: as food manufacturers use more and more sugar (or artificial sweeteners), we need more and more in order to stay satisfied and for things to taste sweet. In short, we’re hooked. Sugar has repeatedly been shown to have addictive qualities; one controversial study demonstrated that rats preferred sugar to cocaine.

Not only does eating sugar give you a quick hit of dopamine, causing you to crave it more frequently, but it also ages your skin prematurely, causes inflammation that may increase joint pain, builds up in your liver (causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and thickens your artery walls, leading to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. And obviously, we know it rots our teeth. But because sugar kills so slowly, it’s taken us decades to acknowledge its risks. Sound familiar? Indeed, this is the tale of Big Tobacco, with a different villain. (Fun fact: cigarettes contain a lot of sugar. It dramatically increases their inhalability and therefore their addictiveness. This is true.)

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Notice the percentages? If it’s only 27% juice, the rest is most likely corn syrup, water, colorings and flavorings. And even if it’s 100% juice, it’s still sugar.

While our entire standard American diet (cheap meat! low-fat dairy! refined starches! hold the vegetables!) is to blame for the astronomical rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., sugar is a big part of this – and by far, we consume the vast majority of sugar in sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola has spent millions funding studies shifting blame for obesity away from sugary drinks and onto “lifestyle choices,” and we’ve long been told that “fruit juice is part of a healthy diet” – remember every breakfast commercial with its tall, frosty glass of Florida orange juice? But soda and fruit juice are still simply liquid sugar, and we’ve been convinced that drinking our calories doesn’t count. This is proving immeasurably detrimental to our health.

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They all contain sugar. But they also contain fiber.

Drinking juice, or soda, or sweetened coffees or teas, or energy drinks, is basically a great way to mainline sugar, with no health benefits whatsoever. Eating whole fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, offers your body accessible sugar – with the immensely important addition of fiber. Fiber is key, because it acts like those traffic lights allowing timed access to busy highways: it slows the sugar down in your body, giving you more time to absorb it. This is precisely why a soda gives you a sugar rush and then a crash, but a roasted sweet potato allows for sustained energy. The standard American diet is shockingly low in quality fiber, and this deficiency seriously affects our overall health; increasing rates of various GI diseases, including Crohn’s, IBS and colon cancer, prove this. For optimum health, you have to control the way your body absorbs sugar, and the fiber in whole foods does just that.

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Salted peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie, anyone?

Let me be clear: I am in no way advocating a 100% sugar-free diet. First, it’s virtually impossible to achieve, and second, it takes a lot of the joy out of eating, which should be one of our greatest pleasures. I obviously bake frequently, and I use real sugar when I bake. But I want people to know when they’re eating sugar. When you drink your calories, or when you eat yogurt that doesn’t taste that sweet, or when you drown your industrial burger in high-fructose corn syrup, you’re consuming a ton of sugar, but you’re not getting the true enjoyment out of sweets. I want people to eat delicious, satisfying, well-made desserts, but I also want people to appreciate those for what they are: occasional treats. Hidden sugar simply does not need to be part of every single food, beverage, condiment and snack we consume, but our processed food industry has convinced us otherwise.

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So after all this lecturing, how can you reduce sugar in your own diet? It’s actually pretty simple.

  • Eat whole foods, including unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables. Eat whole grains and quality fats, like good butter and olive oil.
  • Work on your own sugar satiety point. If you regularly sweeten your coffee or tea, start by using a little less. Then a little less, then a little less again. Do this gradually. Eventually, you’ll reset your own taste buds.
  • Don’t drink your calories. Despite what the label says, there is no health benefit, and you’ll end up eating more because drinks don’t satisfy the way actual food does. Black coffee, unsweetened green, black or herbal tea or sparkling water with lemon will do just fine; stay away from fancy juice bars. And soda is poison. End of story.
  • Read every single ingredient label. Learn the names of all the industrial sugars. Then avoid them. Even better, save yourself lots of reading time by purchasing foods without ingredient labels, like fresh produce and bulk grains.
  • And above all else, cook or make it yourself. When you prepare food from scratch, you control exactly what’s in it, and you know that you don’t need six teaspoons of sugar in your morning yogurt, or eight teaspoons of sugar in your coffee.

Thanks for following our sugar series! If you’d like to read more about the processed food industry and the sugar conspiracy, I’d highly recommend these two books: Food Politics, by Marion Nestle (or anything else by her) and The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes. And let us know what else you’d like to learn more about, and we’ll get on the case!

Food politics book club

Our house is filled with books. On shelves, stacked by the bed, in my office…the only place that doesn’t contain any books is the kitchen. N reads a lot of military history mixed with an eclectic selection of farming books and autobiographies, and my choices tend to be modern fiction plus just about anything on food. I feel as strongly about books as I do about food: if they’re not good, I won’t finish them. I have no sense of obligation having started a book; there are simply too many stellar books out there to waste time on the appallingly bad ones. I’ve written before about how choosing books for our trip was one of the toughest parts of packing; I didn’t care at all about which tattered shirts and frayed cargo pants I brought, but I cared a lot about the reading material.

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Because I talk a lot about food politics both here and in my cooking classes, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’ve put together a compilation of some of my favorite books on food politics and America’s desperately compromised food system. Know that there are many more great selections out there, and if you have recommendations for books I haven’t included, please share them! If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive list of some of the best books on food politics, go here.

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It is not possible to have a discussion about food politics in America without mentioning Michael Pollan. In my opinion, no author has done more to explain how what was once just “food” evolved into “industrialized agriculture.” I think Cooked is by far his most accessible work; even for me, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire get a little…technical. But really, anything by Mr. Pollan is guaranteed to get you questioning your assumptions. And if you can’t commit to reading his books, watch his Netflix series based on Cooked. Plus, his breathtakingly simple manifesto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” is by far the best seven-word statement on food I’ve ever encountered.

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Four FishPaul Greenberg

It is virtually certain that certain species of fish currently used as food will become extinct within our lifetimes; our visit to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market simply stunned us with the sheer quantity of seafood caught and sold every single day. There isn’t much positive that can be said about the world’s fishing industry, but this book explains it in a clear, simple manner. (Please, if you’re in the U.S. and you choose to eat fish: consider buying only sustainably caught or responsibly farmed American seafood. Or eat much, much lower on the ocean food chain, like sardines and anchovies. Whatever you do, please don’t buy farmed fish from southeast Asia; their abuse of both humans and the environment makes ours here in the U.S. look positively benign.)

The Meat RacketChristopher Leonard

One of the best and most difficult books I’ve ever read on our industrial meat supply, The Meat Racket exposes the brilliantly cruel “bracket” system used in modern CAFOs. This book is a carefully researched and shockingly grim portrait of the massive corporations like Tyson currently controlling the vast majority of America’s meat market, and of the farmers trying desperately to stay afloat in a game totally rigged against them. Read at your own risk; you’ll have a hard time buying frozen chicken nuggets after this one.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

This book, published in 2001, is subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and could be rightfully argued as the one that started it all. No one really has anything nice to say about fast food in general; it is toxic to the people who eat it, the people who work there, the animals sacrificed for it and most definitely the planet. But it’s great for shareholders…or at least it was, until the fast food industry started slowing down after decades of growth. This is one area where there may actually be something positive on the horizon: fewer Golden Arches across our country.

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Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger

Ever been curious about sodium caseinate? How about modified food starch? Hydrolyzed soy protein? Polysorbate 60? Learn more than you ever wanted to know about how our processed food is made. (Remember, food at home is “cooked.” Food in packages is “processed.”) And we wonder why our gut microbes can no longer handle anything.

The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Last December, N and I had the honor of attending the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at Chef Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside of New York City. I’ve admired and respected this chef since his early days of farm-to-table cuisine; in the professional chef world, he is at the forefront as an advocate for less food waste and a more conscious approach to cooking and food overall. Simply one of my very favorite food books.

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

This book sort of pretends to be just about tomatoes and is actually much more about the workers planting and picking them, but it’s still worth a read. We’ve had out-of-season produce in supermarkets for so long that we rarely think about it anymore, but it’s not just the earth that takes a beating – the people do, too. This book almost singlehandedly brought about a very public and (somewhat) successful battle with fast food companies and supermarkets over fair pay for farmworkers; learn more here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver might be more known for her fiction, but when she and her family packed up and left Arizona for rural Kentucky, then documented their attempts to eat solely from their own land for a year, the food cognoscenti paid attention. It’s a deceptively simple book (with recipes!) that explains why modern turkeys can’t reproduce naturally and why organic certification is almost impossible for small farms to get and why you should bake your own bread, but there is a lot more under the surface. If you’re thinking about running away to your own piece of land as we are, this book will push you farther in that direction.

Other books I recommend not pictured here (most likely because I loaned them to someone):

The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss

Anything by Marion Nestle

Anything by Joel Salatin