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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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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On bread (and gluten)

It is not hyperbole to state that wheat is the reason human civilization exists today. As always, Michael Pollan says it best:

“Compared with earlier and simpler methods humans have devised for turning plants and animals into foods – the roasted chunk of meat, say, or pot of stew, either of which an individual or small group can pull off – a loaf of bread implies a whole civilization. It emerges only at the end of a long, complicated process assuming settlement and involving an intricate division of human, plant and even microbial labor. In addition to an agriculture and a culture of milling and baking, the loaf of bread depends on a nonhuman culture as well: it won’t rise without the active contribution of some highly specialized living creatures besides the baker, the miller and the farmer. Few things are as ordinary as a loaf of bread, yet the process by which it is made is extraordinary – and still something of a mystery even to those who study it or practice it every day.”

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Nom nom nom.

That last sentence says it all: it’s ordinary, it’s extraordinary, and it’s a mystery, even when you do it every day. Is it any wonder people refer to baking bread as a religion?

It’s impossible to put into words how much I love good bread. I’d much rather eat bread than just about any dessert. With olive oil, with cheese, perhaps homemade jam or backyard honey, a thick smear of salted butter or just on its own, well-made bread is one of life’s great edible pleasures. Like Mr. Pollan, I particularly adore rustic breads with rugged, crunchy crusts that are thisclose to burned and conceal a “soft, custardy interior.” Many people don’t like this type of bread; they think the outside is cooked too much while the inside isn’t cooked enough. But as we know, one of the many magical pleasures of cooking at home is that you get to make things exactly the way you like them.

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My namesake grandmother’s bread bowl and one of my most treasured possessions.

Before we left on our round-the-world trip, when I was stressed and overwhelmed with all the things that needed to be done, I wrote a short post about baking bread. I honestly think it’s one of life’s most cathartic activities, and when you’re done with your cheap therapy you’re rewarded with a loaf of homemade bread. What I’m trying to understand nowadays is why we’ve so wholeheartedly rejected a truly time-honored and pleasurable task. It seems unreasonable to mourn bread when there are so many other things to mourn in the world right now, yet over the past decade, very few foods have been as maligned as the humble loaf of bread. More accurately, it’s rare that we collectively have found something to vilify on the scale that we’ve vilified wheat.

Humans have been eating wheat for about ten thousand years. Wheat represents one-fifth of all the food consumed worldwide, and it’s also the world’s most important source of non-animal protein. Its production surpasses every other grain, including rice and maize, and it can be grown almost everywhere on the planet. Human civilization as we know it would not exist without wheat and all the agricultural settlement that goes along with its production, processing, storage and conversion into digestible foodstuffs.

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Wheat fields in India.

Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in wheat as well as other grasses such as rye, triticale and barley. Gluten is one of the primary factors responsible for that amazing chew we get in pizza crusts and breads; softer baked goods, like flaky pie crusts and tender cakes, don’t perform well with high-gluten flours. The type of wheat, i.e. soft spring or hard red winter, determines the amount of gluten in the final flour.

Despite its importance, about 20% of the U.S. avoids gluten; numbers are increasing in the UK, Australia and other Western countries as well. Chefs and other food and nutrition professionals have questioned (both covertly and openly) why everyone has suddenly gone gluten-free. A very small percentage of the population – less than 1%, depending on which sources you choose to believe – has celiac disease, which makes digesting gluten difficult. But it is scientifically impossible for one-fifth of the Western world to suddenly, collectively develop the same allergy or intolerance. It simply can’t happen.

What can happen is for everyone to decide that a gluten-free diet is somehow healthier and – by extension – will help one lose weight with very little effort. People who go gluten-free say they feel better, and that may well be true. If you legitimately feel better eating a gluten-free diet, then by all means, please carry on. But I’d unscientifically attribute “feeling better” to avoiding processed foods, eating more fruits and vegetables and generally being more conscious of your diet, although a gluten-free doughnut is, ultimately, still a doughnut. “Gluten-free” also means profit; sales of gluten-free foods have increased nearly 70% over the past four years, which translates to billions of dollars. The vast majority of gluten-free devotees are middle- to upper-class white women, and savvy food manufacturers know well that there is an enormous amount of money to be made from this market.

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Chocolate stout cake. Yes, please.

Why have we all decided that gluten is making us sick? Some sources believe that GMOs are responsible, although there is no commercially available GMO wheat. (There are, however, escaped volunteer plants in Washington.) Many say it’s because we’ve hybridized our wheat, though we hybridize a lot of plants. And still others claim that it’s because we grind all of the nutrition out of the wheat to produce white flour, which travels better, stays fresher longer and produces the light, fluffy taste and texture that most people prefer. Once the bran and germ are removed and the flour is enriched, they say, we struggle to digest it.

If I had to choose, I’d fall firmly into the third camp, but I simply refuse to acknowledge that good bread is somehow singlehandedly responsible for the Western world’s catastrophic increase in diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle-related diseases. Bread isn’t the problem; our entire industrialized, inhumane, chemically-drenched food system is the problem. As usual, though, we’ve chosen one villain to attack because to address the actual issue would be tantamount to admitting that our shockingly profitable agricultural fiefdom – based on cheap corn, soy, and animal protein – isn’t working. We somehow selected gluten, an ingredient most people can’t actually define, and decided that it was to blame for all of our health issues. Plain and simple: I disagree.

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Every single culture in the world has some form of bread.

Ever wondered about what is actually in Wonder Bread? I’ve conveniently assembled the ingredient list here for your consideration: unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, contains 2% or less of each of the following: calcium carbonate, soybean oil, wheat gluten, salt, dough conditioners (contains one or more of the following: sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium stearoyl lactylate, monoglycerides, mono- and diglycerides, azodicarbonamide, enzymes, ascorbic acid), vinegar, monocalcium phosphate, yeast extract, modified corn starch, sucrose, sugar, soy lecithin, cholecalciferol (vitamin d3), soy flour, ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, calcium propionate (to retard spoilage).

Do you even know what most of these words mean? Can you buy those ingredients (separately) in your local grocery store to assemble your own homemade version of Wonder Bread? The simplest bread made at home contains four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast and water. No commercial yeast, even, if you’re using a wild starter. Review that ingredient list above once more. I don’t deny that we’re pretty sick, but we cannot logically blame gluten.

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