This is the first book recommendation to come out of my "contest." The reason it is first is pretty simple; it's the one that I could find at the local library. At least a dozen or so recommendations came out of the contest, and I intend to read at least two or three--I may eventually do all of them--but only one turned up in the local library system. Not the local library, the local library system. For reasons unknown to me, they can't borrow books from libraries outside of their system, which means I suppose I shall have to either add to my own library, or hole up in some university library and look studious. I really miss the college library where I was an undergrad. They could get any book in the world for you and mail it to you, no matter where you were. Sigh.
But this is a good book. It's not a great book--there's very little in Food matters that some other author doesn't cover as well or better, but the thing is Bitman manages to cover all of the topic. And he does it in a friendly, accessible way.
The topic is the environmental and nutritional problems with the standard American diet, plus suggestions on how to eat better. There is history, ecology, politics, nutrition, climate science, the author's personal history, recipes...and the recipes are my kind of recipes. Here's one;
about two pounds of any vegetable, prepped appropriately.
lemon juice or olive oil, as you like
herbs or seasonings (optional)
boil or steam the vegetables, then add what you want so it tastes good.
I've edited that rather severely--he did have a bit more detail--but that's the gist of it. And that's how I cook, and how I learn about cooking. This isn't recipe as algorithm, it's walking a relative newbie through thinking about how to work with food.
Food does matter. Food matters because it is the stuff we build and fuel our bodies with, for better or worse. Food matters because food production is a major industry, and our collective choices about it dictate much of the course of our economy. Food matters because food production is a major part of human environmental impact, and our choices about it dictate much of the course of our biosphere. Food matters because, as a necessity for life, who controls food production and how is an axis of history. Food is what my thesis adviser would call a lever--something one does well to pay attention to, because it makes other things move.
All of that is here, at least in an introductory way. If it is not already obvious to you that food matters, you need to read this book.
And if it is already obvious to you, the book is still worth a gander, because where Bitman makes mistakes, the mistakes are food for thought.
For example, in the Introduction he says that "Global warming, of course, was accidental. Even 30 years ago we couldn't know that pollution was more than stinky air." That just isn't true. Assuming that those words were written somewhat before the copyright date of 2009, that means he's talking roughly about the year of my birth. OK. Except I learned about man-made global warming, including the possibility of sea-level rise, when I was no more than seven or eight years old. My Dad told me about it. I'm a science geek and a daughter of a science geek and a scientist (my mother trained as a geologist and has spent her career cleaning up contaminated sites) so I learned about a lot of things kind of young, but there is no way an eight-year-old, no matter how geeky, was one of the first people in the country to hear about global warming.
The Mona Loa Observatory has been recording the changing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since 1956, a study initiated because some scientists were concerned that human-caused climate change might be happening (http://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/datasets/mauna/welcome.html). In 1977, that study had already collected twenty-one years of data confirming the scientists' suspicions. That carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas was discovered in the mid 1800's, by the way, according to John Houghton (in a book I recommended to you last November). It's simply a well-known property of the gas.
I don't know how old Mark Bitman is, but I'm pretty sure he's closer to my parents' age than to mine, and that he remembers 1977 clearly. Why he asserts that we "couldn't" know something in that year that pretty much every expert in the subject actually did know is puzzling.
My personal challenge to anyone is to see how many times Bitman makes these interesting mistakes; they're common mistakes, in one way or another, and if you can catch them all you're probably doing pretty well with your personal science literacy.
One of the things Bitman is not mistaken about is his assertion that it is impossible to feed all living human beings as much meat per capita as the average American eats, and it is impossible to produce as much meat as is currently eaten without recourse to factory farming. You can come to the issue from ethics, economics, environmentalism, environmental justice, or nutrition, but then there is physics; certain things are not so much wrong--or not merely wrong--as physically impossible, not an option. One of the things that is not an option is any substantial change in global food production without an associated change in consumption. Sorry.
Bitman never says "you must," or "you are a bad person if you don't." He says these are your options, here are some suggestions, now think about this. And, by the way, here's how I eat, here's how I prepare food, and it tastes pretty good. I'm healthier, too.
So think about it. Read this book.
Bitman, M. (2009). Food matters: A guide to conscious eating. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY