Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Reviews

Some time ago - the 80's perhaps? - I attended a conference in Toronto and then took in an exhibit at the science museum, called "FOOD: feed your mind about it". This summer I seem to be feasting on food books, everything I requested at the library rolling in at once.

Today I finished and returned Mark Bittman's Food Matters and Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe. What the two books have in common is that both feel like they were rushed into print to take advantage of a Pollanated reading public.

Bittman's is breezy, sometimes flippant, sometimes given to hyperbole, with a bit of a slapdash feel about it. He recounts his story - learning that what's good for the individual human body is also good for the planet.

The big message is eat less meat, and no junck food, in whatever way works for you. But if you want to try it Bittman's way, there are menus and recipes. Some of the recipes are in his style - simple frameworks with myriad variations.

One I tried suggested we shouldn't limit our vegetable purees used as dips or spreads to hummus and baba ganoush. So I roasted lots of yellow summer squash with some whole garlic with a little olive oil, then when really done, squeezed out the garlic, added some fresh dill and black pepper and a little more oil and blended. Surprisingly good with crackers or pita chips.
(Dill, garlic, squash all home grown.)

If you have his vegetarian cook book, and have read his blog, you don't need this book. But if you know a gourmand who needs to rethink things, or someone who is interested in eating green but doesn't know where to start, this would be helpful.

If you want to think comprehensively about reducing your carbon footprint in the kitchen, then Cooking Green could be helpful. There's a lot here on energy use and choosing the right appliances, cooking methods, and pots and pans to reduce it. I learned a few things - and there are some I might shop for if I had any money. Mostly, it's about things you are already doing if you're trying not to overspend on your PG&E bill.

But beware - there is lots of sloppy or downright erroneous science in this book. Heyhoe has struggled hard to understand the physics of boiling water - but she might have done better to quote someone who really does understand it. And the biology! She doesn't know the difference between a cultivar and a species, thinks salmon are freshwater fish, etc. A good fact checker would have been handy. Again I had that feeling - that this book was rushed into print. Or maybe it's just the effect of blogging on acceptable writing (my tongue is in my cheek), so that the distinction between fact and opinion doesn't really matter anymore. Just say anything and maybe it will make it's way into Wikipedia as a fact for 15 minutes.

Heyhoe's preoccupation with energy interested me because of some of the stats she gives:
If "transportation creates 11% of an average US household's greenhouse gases generated by food consumption"
and "agricultural and industrial emissions from growing and harvesting account for 83%" of them,
well that leaves 6% - presumably caused by food preparation and disposal or composting. So - how one's food is grown, and how what it eats is grown, and how much, etc. are the most important considerations in reducing one's "foodprint" from greenhouse gases.

Cooking Green does have information on water usage, which Bittman does not. For example, a plant based diet requires 300 gallons of water every day to support it, but a meat based one needs more like 4000 gallons.

Don't buy Cooking Green, though. Borrow it from the library like I did. Or check out the two related web sites where the author has material if you like.

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