Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A BONE TO PICK

     Those of us who are interested in food and the politics of food - food safety, healthy food, access to affordable and healthy food, food-related health problems and food as a way to improve our health, the dysfunctional relationship between consumers and the industrial producers of food - are fortunate to have so many knowledgeable and concerned individuals taking up the cause of telling us the truth about what we put in our mouths. These writers include but are not limited to Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), David A. Kessler, M.D. (The End of Overeating), Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and more), and Mark Bittman, whose many cookbooks and New York Times columns would provide a much-more-than-adequate education in all things food-related even if no other resources were available.


    I have quite literally been reading Bittman for decades, and so I was delighted when Blogging for Books offered me the chance to review his newest book, A Bone to Pick. Since he left off writing his "Minimalist" column for the Times, Bittman's columns and blogs have addressed the tougher and trickier topics of, to quote the subtitle of this book, "The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more." Much more.
     No one can deny that we do not eat as healthily as our grandparents did, or that we eat things they might not even have recognized as food, full of ingredients even we, even if we could pronounce them, would be unable to define or explain. From the addition of antibiotics and pesticides and herbicides to GMOs, much of our produce and animal products look very different from the way they did fifty years ago, and the ways in which they are processed before they get to us have also changed radically. These changes, and the science and the politics behind them, are just some of the things Bittman covers in the chapters of A Bone to Pick, which is a collection of his writings in recent years for the Times, mostly from his opinion column, with the rest from the paper's Sunday magazine.
     The book's many short chapters are divided among six main sections: 
          Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between;
          What's Wrong with Meat? (no, he doesn't say we should all be vegans);
          What Is Food? And What Is Not?;
          The Truth About Diet(s);
          The Broken Food Chain;
          Legislating and Labeling.
Each well-researched, well-written, and clearly argued, and in fact entertaining chapter is designed to inform readers about what's really going on with what we eat as well as to persuade us to take action, beginning with our own food choices, to improve the situation when it comes to what we eat and its effect on our lives and those of others. 
     Bittman pulls no punches when it comes to his views on our broken food system, but he is also extremely fair and gives credit where credit is due. One chapter is even titled "Not All Industrial Food Is Evil," and really, wouldn't it be naïve to think we could feed ourselves and the world without some forms of industrial food? Bittman is certainly not naïve, and neither is he a prophet of absolute doom. In the final part of the book, in a chapter called "Why Take Food Seriously?", he writes: 
     "I've never been more hopeful. (In fact, I was never hopeful at all until recently.) Each year, each month it sometimes seems, there are more signs that convenience, that mid-20th-century curse word, may give way to quality - even what you might call wholesomeness - just before we all turn into the shake-sucking fatties of Wall-E
            We are taking food seriously again."

Bittman writes like the smart, knowledgeable, concerned friend we probably all wish we had, one who can tell us what we need to hear because he's right there with us; he just has more information (and, thankfully, a sense of humor). His short, clear, compulsively readable chapters are as addictive as potato chips (sorry - I couldn't resist); you'll probably finish one and think "I have time for just one more." What's so wonderful about this book is that it's not only something that should be read, it's also enjoyable to read. Readers will learn so much, and even if much of what we learn can be disappointing and discouraging (how can those corporate and legislative bigwigs be so insensitive and callous when it comes to the needs of real people?), can come away feeling empowered about issues we should probably all be paying more attention to. It's kind of the next best thing to actually sitting down to a meal with one of America's very best writers on the very important subject of food, in all its aspects.

Friday, May 1, 2015

COOKBOOK REVIEW: PURE FOOD by Veronica Bosgraaf

On the cover of his 2008 book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan distilled the basic guidelines of healthy eating to 3 points: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”  Elsewhere he added a fourth point: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food” (p. 148). That’s pretty much my philosophy of eating too, though I won’t claim to be 100% pure about it 100% of the time.


Philosophy can be inspiring, of course, but sometimes one prefers one’s inspiration in a more concrete form, and that’s where Veronica Bosgraaf’s new cookbook, Pure Food, comes in. She provides the recipes to help home cooks follow Pollan’s advice by bringing clean, seasonal, plant-based recipes to the table with a minimum of effort – and cost, since the book is organized by month to take advantage of what’s in season and therefore less expensive. Just turn to the index and look up whatever there’s an especially good deal on at the market (or what arrived in your CSA box that you have no clue how to use) and you’re likely to find something you might not have thought of on your own, something that’s both simple and delicious. That’s why I was so delighted to receive a copy from Blogging for Books (http://www.bloggingforbooksorg).

Case in point: I just bought 6 ears of fresh corn for $1, but I’d like to try something beyond corn on the cob (much as I love it). Bosgraaf’s Fava Bean and Corn Salad sounds yummy, though I’ll probably substitute frozen edamame for the fresh fava beans, which can be hard to find and a bit more trouble than I want to go to. Or how about her Sweet Corn Pudding, lightly sweetened with honey and the delicious surprise of chopped fresh peaches? Hey, I may have to go buy some more corn!

Along with the recipes Bosgraaf provides pages of useful tips and interesting sidebar comments in which she reminds us that she’s just like many of us, a working mom who wants to feed her family well, both in terms of taste and clean, healthy food. (There’s also a useful section at the beginning on “The Pure Pantry” – ingredients that are good to have on hand and information about them).  This is my kind of food and I’m always happy to learn about new ways of preparing it, though I may tweak a recipe because I don’t have exactly the ingredient it calls for (as mentioned above, with the Fava Bean [or Edamame] and Corn Salad, or using another fruit in the Sweet Corn Pudding if I don’t have fresh peaches. But this is home cooking, not industrial production, and a little creativity is generally welcome, at least at my house.

If I have any quibbles with the book, it’s that Bosgraaf seems sometimes to be trying too hard to have it every way possible. She touts certain recipes as purely vegan but includes eggs and/or dairy in others. I don’t really care either way; it just seems inconsistent. And she makes kind of a big deal about some recipes for baked things being gluten-free, while others are not. If she really wanted to appeal to the audience of readers concerned about those things, she could have included “gluten-free” as a category in the index, for example. And since I’m unlikely to go out and buy gluten-free flour unless I know I have a guest coming who eats that way, it would be nice if she’d included information about making, say, Lemon Poppyseed Cupcakes with regular wheat flour. But I’ll probably experiment with that one on my own, since they do sound yummy.


Overall, I like this book very much. In fact, I’m thinking about tonight’s dinner; Linguine with Tomatoes and Avocado Pesto sounds really good, with Watercress, Cucumber, and Toasted Pecan Salad (though I have arugula in the garden, so it will stand in for the watercress), and Vegan Orange Pops (a recipe created by Bosgraaf’s 15-year-old daughter!) for dessert.  On the other hand, that Hummus Pizza with Arugula and Wild Mushrooms looks awfully tempting! It’s going to be fun cooking my way through this book.

FIRST LIGHT - April poem #29

The April 29 prompt on Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides blog http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2015-april-pad-challenge-day-29 was to "write a what nobody knows" poem. Here's mine. The first line is what my husband said as he brought me my tea this morning. I told him he should put it in a poem, but he said no, he was giving it to me:

FIRST LIGHT

Isn't just waking up in the morning resurrection enough?
After long nights of throwing off blankets or reaching for more,
of stumbling through darkness so complete it lacks even shadows
to shut off the fan or turn up the thermostat,
pushing the cat off the bed, readjusting pillows,
sliding back into confused dreams of people long dead,
after all this, isn't pale morning light filtered through white curtains
enough? And the soft sounds doves make,
and the long moaning bark of the neighbor's hound,
aren't they really the voices of angels?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE, NO MATTER WHO SAYS OTHERWISE

I lived in San Francisco for seven often wonderful, intensely melodramatic years, and I wouldn't exchange them for anything. When I saw this morning's prompt from NaPoWriMo, to "write a poem about bridges," I briefly considered a number of other bridges - the narrow one over the Snake River between Ontario, Oregon and Fruitland, Idaho where a couple of my ex-husband's trucker buddies used to run side-by-side, so close that one's left sideview mirror would be inside the other's righthand window, just to see if they could do it; the lovely covered bridges of New Hampshire and Vermont; the high trestle railroad bridges that look so beautiful and deadly - but I knew all along I could only write about the Golden Gate Bridge, so familiar even to those who have never been within a thousand miles of it, that bridge I crossed and recrossed so many times, the source of so many urban legends that, as far as I've found, aren't even acknowledged on Wikipedia or elsewhere. So they must be true, right?



THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE, NO MATTER WHO SAYS OTHERWISE

There are rattlesnakes on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Crotalus viridis, the Western rattlesnake.
Even the San Francisco Bay Area National Park Science and Learning
website acknowledges their presence in the area, but they downplay it
and sure as hell won't say you'll find them on the bridge.

Crotalus viridis, the Western rattlesnake,
likes to sun itself on the cables and pylons
of the Golden Gate Bridge, much to the consternation
of the painters who work up there every day,
since they never finish painting the Bridge.

If you can get a job painting the Bridge,
you've got a lifetime gig. It takes seven years,
they say, from end to end, and then you just start over.
Those guys can tell some stories, you bet,
and not just about rattlesnakes. Consider the jumpers.

Two thousand plus people so far. You pay your toll
and walk across, and maybe on the way out,
maybe on the way back, when no one's watching,
you just slip over the rail. That water's cold.
You'd better hope the fall kills you.

Only the ones who aren't really serious, who just want
attention, make sure they're seen by someone
willing to interrupt their tourist photo opportunity,
who'll go back to Colorado or Vermont
to tell the story wide-eyed over martinis or beer.

Those tourists never see the rattlesnakes, of course.
It would scare the piss out of them.
They'd never pay the toll to walk the bridge.
But you can believe me, those snakes are there.

Monday, April 27, 2015

WAITING FOR THE MIRACLE - April Poem #28

Today's prompt from NaPoWriMo http://www.napowrimo.net/day-twenty-seven/ actually comes courtesy of my friend Vince Gotera http://vincegotera.blogspot.com/2012/04/day-14-napowrimo-poem-day.html, who named the hay(na)ku form that was created by the poet Eileen Tabios http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/eileen-r-tabios. The above links will allow you to get acquainted with both poets and let you read a delightfully playful hay(na)ku Vince wrote for NaPoWriMo in 2012. At its simplest, a hay(na)ku is a three-line stanza, with one word in the first line, two in the second, and three in the third. Vince's poem, and the one below, are hay(na)ku sonnets with, as Vince explains four 3-line stanzas for a total of 12 lines, finished off with a couplet in which each of the two lines contains three words, so the whole poem comes out at 30 words, a challenge in itself.
         I've written a couple today myself; the one that follows owes its title and possibly some of its mood (though not the content) to Leonard Cohen, whose songs tend to pop randomly into my head sometimes. I also should credit a recent re-reading of James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-creation/. Between them, Cohen and Johnson can put your head into a pretty good place.

WAITING FOR THE MIRACLE

When 
that day 
comes, we'll sing.

Transfigured,
like birds
with silver wings,

reclaiming
an earth
made whole again.

Green
where green
belongs, and blue,

water and sky,
kissing the land.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

COLD-BLOODED, April poem #26

Today's prompt from Poetic Asides is to ". . . take a word or two invented by William Shakespeare, make it the title of your poem, and write your poem . . . . here are a few: advertising, bloodstained, critic, dwindle, eyeball, hobnob, luggage, radiance, and zany. He invented more than 1,700!" I did not know that! PA also provides a link to some words coined by Shakespeare: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html

Or maybe it was Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, played here by Rhys Ifans in Anonymous.

COLD-BLOODED

George Sand likened her body to a marble envelope.
Let's extend that to the mind, but make it glass,
equally hard, cold, rigid, but transparent.
We need to be able to see out.
Of course it's more breakable than marble,
but we can live with that, learn to take precautions.
After all, we watch life, and are watched,
through windows all the time.
We just don't always realize they're there.
Wouldn't the young George Sand and DeVere (as played by Ifans, of course) have made an interesting couple?

April Poem #25

None of yesterday's prompts did it for me yesterday, and I can't come up with a title, but that's okay. We got rain last night and it's still cloudy so there may be more in the offing. I'm sitting at my desk watching birds at the feeders, in a considerably better mood than last night or earlier today.



They always fly away when I come to the feeders,
not far, of course, since they’ll return
as soon as I turn my back and take a few steps.
It’s like two different restaurants a couple of feet apart:
one with cheap seed to fill the greedy masses
and the other offering only the best,
tiny glossy black nyjer seed for the finches, goldfinches,
that is, since the house finches
will eat pretty much anything—
Maison Pur et Délicieux next to McDonald’s.
McDonald’s needs refilling much more often.

I didn’t even notice the young goldfinch
on its feeder till I was just a forearm’s length away.
It flew when I hung the other feeder, and
I stood there a moment, enjoying the cool morning air,
the fragrance that follows rain,
the yellow trumpet-shaped flowers on a shrub nearby,
nearly as big as a goldfinch.

And then the little yellow bird came back.
With just the slightest glance at me, it settled on the feeder
and began pecking out seeds through the small black mesh
that screens out birds with larger beaks.
Just a baby, really, fluffy, with pale baby feathers
and no way to tell its sex, whether or not it would develop
the male’s dapper black cap, and only a hint
of the sharp black and white stripes to come later on its wings.
It ignored me as it fed, and I pretended to ignore it,
to be a garden statue. We had two minutes, maybe three,
of absolute grace, a morning benediction,
before it flew away.