Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Eating Up The Book Tour

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver has a new book to promote, marked by an appearance that was sponsored by the beloved Women and Children First Bookstore. She spoke at the Swedish American Museum Center, an appropriate venue to discuss food culture.

The non-fiction being touted describes the Kingsolver family's adventures in eating locally grown foods for a year. There's a whole movement out there, apparently, to eat locally grown foods, but I guess when you live in New York City and not the heartland, it's a bit of a novelty to eat something that's just been picked. For those of us who have always had a vegetable patch in the back garden, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Ms. Kingsolver bemoans America's lack of a food culture. Sure we've been bemoaning a lack of food culture in Ireland as well. Peas boiled to a mush and then let simmer an extra ten minutes, just to be sure they're done, boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, boiled bacon....not exactly a culinary delight, but filling the belly is the highlight of the poor man's table. And I wouldn't describe Swedish cooking as much of a culture to treasure, based on the comments of some friends. The fruit soup in the summer might be pleasant, but that's about it. Rather like preaching to the choir, to complain about a lack of food culture, when you're sitting in the middle of Chicago's traditional Swedish neighborhood.

Food culture thrives in Chicago, where "a population's collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place" can be found on Taylor Street, in Bronzeville, on Jackson St. north of the Eisenhower Expressway, south on Wentworth....not trendy, but the locals know where to find culture. They live it, as their parents lived it and brought it over from the old country. I don't much think that those are the sorts of people who would buy Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and read it without laughing over the author's starry-eyed sense of discovery. There'd be less Type 2 diabetes if the nation only knew about fresh foods, the author claims. And there'd be less Type 2 diabetes if the nation got up off its collective arse and went out back to weed the bean patch.

There's more to this dreadful problem, however, for Ms. Kingsolver also decries the unsustainable nature of our food system. All the fossil fuels, the loss of topsoil....she hasn't heard of no-till agriculture, apparently, but then, not everyone is privy to the wisdom of Orion Samuelson and his weekly farm reports, readily available on WGN Radio. After Ms. Kingsolver finished talking, she probably was too pressed for time to drive into southern Illinois, to see what the farmers are doing to retain topsoil. And how is any farmer supposed to work his land without a gas-guzzling tractor or combine? Such answers are not to be found on some friend's hobby farm in Vermont.

Bacterial contamination, God in Heaven, it's a crisis. She apparently never read The Jungle, either. It's an old book, but the premise remains the same. Cutting costs to increase profits, the big meatpackers endanger the health of the consumer. Buy from a local meat purveyor, then, and presume that the meat's not coated with E. coli. But you'll pay more, and for those who are not best selling authors, it's a bit of a budget buster.

Speaking of busting budgets, there's a nutrition crisis out there as well. The government should spend money subsidizing organic fruits and vegetables, according to Ms. Kingsolver, even though there's no more nutrients in organic produce compared to the cheaper inorganic variety. Look at government subsidized children's lunches, for example. Fresh inorganic fruit gets issued to every recipient and most of them toss it in the trash, but would it be different if the fruit was certified organic? Perhaps the government could subsidize time outs until the little ones eat their apples and bananas, and there'll be no pudding, young man, until you eat every last carrot stick.

Ms. Kingsolver is highly impressed with friends in Vermont who grow tomatoes in fabric covered tunnels. It's a form of greenhouse, we used to call it a hothouse, and it's not new technology. It's the technology of the poor immigrant who wants fresh tomatoes when he lives in Chicago and the growing season is too short. She'd be impressed, I have no doubt, with some of my old neighbors who extend the growing season with a few planks of old two by fours and some recyled double-hung windows (a cold-frame for those of you keeping score at home.)

And how do we get people back into their kitchens? Well, we can educate people, as Ms. Kingsolver suggests, or we can take a shortcut that is favored by savvy Irish immigrants. Find a lovely Italian girl and settle down, and you'll not be living on boiled spuds for the rest of your days. Can I fix you a plate?

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