Every time I talk about the evils of corn subsidies, feed lots, and farmed fish I feel myself being perceived as some kind of hippy, communist, preacher. I haven’t yet figured out how to address agribusiness and chemical companies’ undermining the health of America in the interest of profits without sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theorist. The idea of GMO’s frustrates me so much I find them hard to discuss, or actually hard to stop discussing.
It is a very confusing time in food in America. While on the one hand we have created a situation where butter and sugar are actually better for the average American than the shortening and corn syrup that are pervasive as the only choices they can make while shopping at Wal-Mart or other such places, on the other we have services like Fresh Direct featuring a locally grown produce section, and Whole Foods is one of the hottest stocks on the market.
I believe there is a difference between real food and its alternatives. Right now it is February in NYC and the organic arugula I tossed into a salad last night leaves so much to be desired when compared to the arugula I buy in the summer at the Union Square Green Market, but both still beat the hell out of the Foxy romaine that is most ubiquitous these days. I have always figured go with the food that tastes best, pay some more for it if you have to, and quality of life will follow. I have just not been good at conveying that message to my friends, family and random people I see in supermarkets buying half cooked, half water, Tyson chicken crud. So now I just give them a copy of The Real Food Revival.
Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas wrote The Real Food Revival claiming not to know a lot about food. I suspect they were being more modest than truthful, but either way they may have been the perfect people for the job. Most people I know claim to want to be consuming better tasting food, however there is an apathy in their approach to procuring it. Most people I talk to believe words like “natural” and “organic” mean actually nothing more than marketing and, as a result, buy what’s cheap and easy, claiming there is too much work involved in finding local and/or organic. The Real Food Revival serves the consumer best as a shopping guide, informing the reader of the current conventions for producing foodstuffs, who is currently producing real food, what words like “natural” and “organic” have to mean by law, and places in your daily life where you can easily make a better choice.
Real food, as defined in the book, is grown naturally and locally and as a result is therefore both more healthful and better tasting. I am a person that sees a valid logic in this claim. Strongly believing in the notion of terroir, it is a natural conclusion for me that food born of the dirt I live closest to, and nurtured with the rain and sunlight that falls in my life, would taste better to me, so maybe they were preaching to the choir when I picked it up, but I see this book as serving a big purpose for anyone who wants to eat better.
The book starts with some very romanticized version of a youth spent nestled in a world of perfect produce with mongers for all foodstuffs stopping by the house to give health reports on the local bovine heard and fish haul and how the turnip buds are setting at the farm this guy somehow had just walked his cart over from. This beautiful world is systematically crushed by the money lust of successful big business that started developing after World War II. Thankfully this does not last long. Really we are living in a world with kiwis, pomegranates and all sorts of things that add to quality of life and are only available as a result of the industrial revolution.
The industrial revolution has also had some real downsides for both food and agriculture, and those of us who want to eat better need to become aware of both what is causing food to be tasteless, and how to find the better versions people living in the richest (both agriculturally, and monetarily) land on earth, should be able to get. Without screaming about resolution by legislation, The Real Food Revival simply tells you how to get what you are looking for.
Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas break each of their chapters down into two sections. In the Industrial Agriculture Snap Shot (IASS) section we learn of the places where the zeal for all things industrial and efficient may have gone a little awry. It is here that things like the decision to stress color and uniformity for features like shipping and stacking which have led to things like perfect, round, light pink, flavorless tomatoes from Florida are discussed. This is where the book runs the risk of getting one-sided and a little preachy, but the authors stay on the safe side of the line (though, like I have said, I am their choir on these topics). I have never had good corn (GMO or otherwise) that wasn’t picked that morning in the late summer. The fact that my wonderful summer corn could be forever lost because pollen from some subsidized corn, genetically modified to grow to be a more expensive fuel substitute for oil in any weather, got carried on the breeze to the farm near me, is something I take very seriously.
But it is in the Reviving Real Food sections where this book seems to do its best work. The authors talk about simple, proactive solutions on many levels -- from buying a basil plant for the window of your house, to just trying to choose snack foods made with real sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup. Alternatives are offered for all of the troubles brought up in the IASS section. Alternatives that are applicable to your life no matter what that may be.
At the end of each chapter is a profile of someone in America offering a good “real” alternative to the bigger-is-better school of foodstuff production. Every one is in a legitimate business with a valid business model that they are successful at. It is here the book won me over. Not a group of weirdoes bucking the system, and not a group of charity cases bitching that there is unfair competition, these are all people that saw a market not being served, started serving it, and have reaped the benefits. The kind of people you would like to believe farmed all of America in its infancy before subsidies, and agribusiness, turned them into wage slaves.
I am a strong believer that the solution to what I see as problems in America is to get people to stop supporting markets that allow things to be bad. Hate bad movies? don’t pay ten dollars for them; want more movies like the ones you are seeing? see them in the theater multiple times.
As far as food goes, there are things like subsidies to overcome in order to be a free market. In this day of the Internet, though, that is as easy to overcome as popping an email to an elected official whenever you are bored saying, “end subsidies or I won’t vote for you again,” and then simply not voting for them or, better, voting against them. People, even farmers, are now realizing subsidies are ultimately doing more harm than good for everyone, everywhere. I think we can make real headway towards eliminating subsidies. Then, if we aren’t buying they won’t be making, and that really is how America works best.
Maybe this book could only be written by people who “know very little about food.” I think, being regular people who spend a significant amount of their energy procuring ingredients in stores, these authors had the insights to figure the way to real solutions and then explain how easy they can be. This book basically serves as shopping guide for people who want more out of their food dollar, as long they are paying for flavor not pounds.