One of the things we try to teach M is not to waste water. Last year, after reading Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It by Elizabeth Royte, I tried to take extra steps to ensure we were using as little water as possible around the house, or at least not automatically dump it down the drain if there was some other use. Now, the pasta water is occasionally dumped on the weeds in our walkway (did you know that boiling water kills weeds–chemical-free weed killer!), or the water left over from rinsing veggies and such goes into the window boxes. Things like that. I still need to get that bucket for the tub though…I know there are lots of drops being wasted while the shower heats up.
In any event, M loves to play with water, and given that it’s presently summer, it is a hot topic in our house. It’s in the kiddie pool. We use it in the garden. She loves to wash her hands, over and over and over and over. Ditto for brushing teeth. The nightly bath is practically a spa destination to her. We now have a doll in the house that drinks water and “pees”. But she’s starting to get it, the not wasting water part, that is. She voluntarily will turn off the water while brushing teeth and we’ve even heard her mention why she’s turning it off (she’s still at the age where she narrates a large portion of her day). She’s learning about how to use the rain barrel instead of the hose (although she likes to water our already dormant grass…we’re working on getting her to water things that are actually still green). She won’t leave home without her trusty reusable water bottles. And she likes to use her doll’s “pee” to water the terrarium. Although last time I checked, it’s becoming more of a swamp-arium.
So with water conservation constantly on my mind, this post today from Brian Clark Howard at The Huffington Post (which came across my RSS blog feed) seemed very timely. It then made me think about this movie from Annie Leonard that I recently viewed and found quite interesting. Soon enough, water will become the new black (oil) and possibly the source of local and global dispute. It’s coming folks. Do your part now.
In high school and for part of college, I was a vegetarian–although not technically, because I was still eating fish. The reasons behind my choice were 9 parts humane, 1 part teenage rebellion. I wasn’t a healthy vegetarian in the sense that I ate loads of starchy foods and processed foods, if only because I really wasn’t too sure how to incorporate non-meat protein sources into my daily cooking repertoire. Somewhere not too long before I graduated, I slowly started re-introducing meat back into my diet. And I was fine with it. I really liked, and by that point missed, the taste of meat. I still do, as long as I don’t think about it for too long.
But within the past year or so, after more than a decade of eating meat–fish, chicken, beef, turkey and pork (bacon only)–I have done an about face. I want no part of it any more. There are many motivations behind my shift in perspectives, including environmental, humane, health and social, not to mention now being a parent where I am now responsible for feeding someone other than myself, and there are many sources of information guiding my decision. Books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, The Food Revolution by John Robbins, and Food Matters by Mark Bittman all certainly fanned whatever vegetarian flames remained. Views of the photographs and video footage available at the Humane Farming Association and the The Humane Society of the United States showing how animals raised for food are treated really struck a chord with me. And most recently, the movie Food, Inc., which I just finished viewing this evening, sealed the deal on my shift. The two images that stick in my mind the most are the deplorable conditions in which the vast majority of our food animals are forced to live and what happens to them between the time they leave the “farm” and reach the grocery store. Prior to reading these books and viewing these videos, I was already aware of things like de-beaking chickens, but accounts of pigs who have had their snouts sliced off like slices of bologna by overworked slaughterhouse workers or the fact that a lot of meat is sanitized with ammonia before it gets eaten, forced me to re-examine my role in this process. If you have limited time but want to know more, I suggest the book Eating Animals, some visits the two websites I mentioned above and watching Food, Inc. If none of those things change your mind, perhaps nothing will.
But it isn’t your mind that I am worried about. It’s mine. Because I am struggling with the line that I have, for now, drawn arbitrarily in a place that stops short of no longer eating dairy or eggs. Why? Shouldn’t it matter just as much that the dairy cows that are working so very hard to produce an endless supply of milk are often times treated in less than humane ways and given a score of hormones and prophylactic antibiotics that are questionable at best just as the cattle that I am not eating anymore? When I read what conditions must exist in order for a dairy cow to be able to produce milk–including having her calves taken away from her so that nature’s intended consumer of mama cow’s milk does not deplete the supply for us humans–I had to take another step back. I always thought that by not killing animals, it’d be enough for me to feel good about what I was eating. To be clear, I do not think that drinking or eating milk from a cow is important or even healthy for a human diet, even for children (mental note: blog about pediatricians pushing milk). As many others have so eloquently said it long before me, milk from cows is designed to grow calves into 1,500 pound animals, not humans. But I really like ice cream, butter and cheese. Should that be enough to override the consequential collateral damage that is taking place?
Yes, it’s true, purchasing organic dairy does reduce some of these negative conditions, but let’s face it, other than milk itself, it is hard to find other organic dairy options in a store–how often do you see things like organic cheese or organic ice cream? And what about when you eat out or at a friend’s house? Do I really want to be that person who is constantly asking whether the cream in the alfredo sauce is organic and how was the cow treated? I imagine I would not get invited over for dinner very often. And while I fully acknowledge that there are some responsible farmers out there–Niman Ranch and Polyface farm are two good examples of how even meat can be done right–how can I ever be certain that what is on my plate will satisfy the mental checklist in my head? Is that the kind of association I want to have with food, which is not just a means of survival but also large part of our family dynamic and social fabric? So why not just cut it out altogether to avoid the issue?
Eggs pose a similar problem. Generally speaking, hens and their eggs–unless they are certified as humanely raised by one of three independent certifying organizations–are a large cog in the factory farming wheel. And while it is true that a hen is not dying at the instant she lays the egg that might become part of my quiche, notwithstanding the conditions in which she must live, for every female chicken that is born (and later will become an egg layer) you can bet that there was a male chicken that will have another demise given that he cannot lay eggs. Is there such a thing as carnivorism by association? Tools like this one created by the World Society for the Protection of Animals help the concerned consumer like me.
But it’s more than just deciding to cut these things out entirely for the sake of the animals and our planet. Even if I do take the plunge, would it be necessarily any better? Most dairy and egg alternatives are heavily processed and have their own environmental footprint. Is eating vegetables and grains that are transformed into something else by a factory–often one that is very far away from where I live–something that I want my daughter to associate as being food? Granted, the bucolic scenes of hens and cows in pastures near red painted barns that appear in my daughter’s books are far from the truth of where most of our food comes from today–unless you seek out the farms with the most humane and environmentally friendly practices like we try to do–but milk and eggs do conjure up, at least in my mind, a more idealistic form of what food is. And there are some things that factories still cannot duplicate well enough for me find satisfaction in a vegetable based alternative. Cheese is a big one. As I type this, perhaps I am making a new argument for becoming a raw or whole food vegan? Ack.
So, for the time being, I am still eating dairy and eggs. I am not even entirely sure why, but a large part of it is certainly because I am avoiding the commitment that is required for an all or nothing approach. Eating in absolutes seems like a very hard thing to do. Perhaps that is because it is potentially genetically wired within us since many, many thousands of years ago, we did not have the luxury of “choosing” what we ate to survive; we ate what we could find or kill. And that remains true for many people around the world today, with purchase money or arable land being the likely present limiting factors. Reading articles like this one, Veggieworld: Why Eating Greens Won’t Save the Planet in the July 17-23, 2010 volume of New Scientist magazine, only further calls into question my overall rationale for an increasingly plant based diet. In the end, my quest for figuring it all out continues. At least waffles are appropriately still acceptable on the menu.
M will be 3 in September 2010. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am not really a “girly girl”–whatever that really means–and you won’t find much pink among my threads. A few dresses hang in my closet, but the fine layer of dust gives away that I am not very comfortable wearing them often. So whether it has been a conscious or subconscious decision on my part, M has not had more than a dress here or there in her wardrobe over the past few years, other than those purchased for special occasions. Aside from my own personal clothing preferences, they just were not worth the hassle, what with the jamming of pudgy little legs and diapers into tights and all.
But about three or four weeks ago we were going through a bin of second hand clothes that had been hibernating under her bed and there was a floral seersucker dress in there–bright pinks and greens. Probably something you’d find on Lilly Pulitzer’s cousin’s bathroom walls or something. And M was immediately drawn to it…in a way that I had never expected. Here was a little girl who had never before expressed any interest in any particular piece of clothing now begging to put it on and wear it. Every. Day. She was using phrases like “it’s my favorite” and “I love that dress”. And you could see it in her body language and her eyes how amazing and confident she felt in it.
Being at such a young age, I did not expect her to have that same kind of feeling that I have had for certain clothes over time. You know the ones. Even when you’re feeling a little stout or blimpy, there’s that shirt in your closet that does wonders for your shoulders. Or those pants that somehow gracefully hide the mounds of ice cream you ate last weekend so that you can still walk with your head held high. Even the funky socks that you break out when you’re otherwise not feeling up to the task of impressing anyone, at least your feet will look fantastic.
Given that her father and I are really the only ones who say anything about what she’s wearing for the day, minus those days we’re with grandparents, I really think that this feeling came from within, and is her first foray into experiencing a boost of self-esteem purely based on what she’s wearing. And so, despite the fact that the dress may soon be walking on its own, we have been indulging her and thus the dress is being worn almost daily. We can have the battles about clothes later when she’s older. For now, if she’s feeling pretty who am I to tell her no…I hope she always feels that way.
What clothing makes you feel fabulous?
I had never heard of Kim Severson or her recent book, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, until hearing the tail end of an interview of the author on NPR one evening. Hearing that she was a food writer for the New York Times first caught my ear, and then hearing about the premise of her book, a memoir really, intrigued me even more because it sounded like it would fit perfectly into food genre that has been attracting me lately. Based on the interview I had heard, and then after reading the brief description of the book, I was honestly expecting some really deep analysis about her connections to food that helped her overcome some large obstacles in the author’s life. While it is true that author had her demons to deal with — namely alchoholism and coming to terms with her sexual orientation — I had a hard time connecting exactly how the eight cooks she highlighted really had anything to do with her overcoming those things. In many ways, I felt like she had worked through those issues a long time before meeting these particular chefs.
Her style of writing was very easy to read and engaging for many stretches, although there were definitely some patches that were as bland as dry toast. Personally, I got the most satisfaction from the chapters about Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters. Being a very huge fan of Alice Waters I was almost refreshed to see a slightly different interpretation of her than the one I tend to conjure in my mind, one that almost made her seem more human, and I learned quite a bit about her that I had not known before. Same with the insight about Marion (most noted for her work on the Fannie Farmer Cookbook). She also includes some recipes in the book, but I can honestly say they did not jump out at me as things where I thought “hey, I’ve got to make that!”
Towards the end either I lost interest or the author lost steam, and I was ultimately left confused about what exactly was the author’s ultimate point. She eventually gets near it in the final pages, but did not pull it together enough for me personally. All in all I think the book could have been presented with a clearer thesis and less name dropping and sound bites about celebrity chefs, but it certainly was worth reading as my summer “beach read”.
Overall rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 (0.5 star bump for the interesting tidbits about Alice Waters!)
By way of background, I read this book after finishing a series of food related books that had, by this point, essentially changed how I view the food I eat, enlightened me about the true status of our farming and food industries and the (lack of) regulations that protect us, and most importantly, how I want to feed my growing daughter. Specifically, in the year prior to reading Organic Manifesto, I had already read (in the following order)
• In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
• Food Matters, Mark Bittman
• Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
Each of these books were eye opening and intriguing in their own right, and I hope to add some thoughts about them in other posts. But none of them really provided an extensive examination about the merits of organic farming over conventional farming and that is what I hoped to gain by reading Organic Manifesto. I was already familiar with and greatly admired the Rodale Family as a general matter through my subscription to Organic Gardening magazine and another book that I own (but not have finishedd yet), Our Roots Grow Deep: The Story of Rodale, the history of J. I. Rodale, published by Rodale Inc. As a result, my expectations of a thorough analysis and pep talk from one of organic farming’s leading individuals were high.
Before reading this book, I was already very familiar with organic farming methods from my own personal backyard gardening experience and from the research I had done over the past few years as a consumer of organic foods. But I still learned a few things from this book notwithstanding its short length, particularly about the historical use of fertilizers and how the use of chemicals and pesticides is tied to the end of World War II. In fact, I think the author could have said a lot more and provided additional factual support for the benefits of organic farming, if not more background about the relevant regulatory agencies and labeling standards, but if the point of this book was to be a primer for the average consumer, then the goal was surely met. Personally, I like lots of facts, arguments and analyses and I felt that this book fell short of what I wanted and was expecting. Maybe the author will deliver in another book since I believe she has probably left a number of organic champions like myself wanting more.
But more than the factual nuggets that are gained from this book, I think its strengths lie largely in the way the author makes some of her arguments and sets forth her points of view. For instance, on page 81 the author notably points out that “conventionally” grown food is presently considered the norm, even though such food is grown with pesticides or other chemicals, unlike organic produce. The author’s point in this passage is that conventional, in its normal usage, typically conjures up images of historical practices or generally accepted standards….yet when you look back at food production and farming, particularly when it preceded the relatively new age of chemical farming, that is anything but the case. In other words, we are only a few generations removed from the pesticide intensive farming practices that result in our “conventional” produce and foods today. How brilliant is that? I never thought about it that way. And she’s absolutely right. Can you imagine going to the supermarket and seeing labels advertising corn that was “grown lovingly with pesticides” or “chemically farmed”—which is arguably synonymous with “conventional”, at least as that term is used in grocery stores today? I can assure you it would give you more pause than just throwing some “conventionally grown” corn into a bag. Since reading this passage, I can honestly say that I now get angry when I see those “conventional” signs and feel like someone is trying to pull the wool over our collective eyes. While I try to buy organic as much as possible, sometimes there just isn’t any alternative so there is still conventional produce being eaten in our house from time to time. My complacency for purchasing conventional produce has waned since reading this book, particularly as a result of this passage and the way the author makes this point.
Maria Rodale makes several poignant observations throughout the book. On page 91 she writes that we are failing as a society by not using a whole systems approach to understand our world and the problems that exist in it. This is something that I have also thought about for a long time; the interconnectedness of so many things around us that we often forget to acknowledge or try to understand. She also seems down to earth and mainstream when she advocates for having things like organic Twinkies (page 170). By acknowledging that even the junk food can be perfectly OK if it is grown and made in a better way, ideally using organic ingredients, she gives the impression that she understands that as a society most of us are not going to give up junk food anytime soon so let’s find another more positive way to incorporate it into our lives. Often times I think people who champion for organic foods are perceived as elitist, and I wonder why that is the case. Maybe it is because the foods are often so much more expensive. But I just can’t see how wanting to eat foods that are grown in a manner that is healthier for us and our planet is akin to snobbery—isn’t that something we should all want?
The next big push in the organic movement should be to drive prices down so that they are more accessible to all of us, even those who would still buy the organic Twinkies over the organic apples. The author briefly notes that the reason “chemical foods” are so much cheaper is due to the subsidies these industries get—I wish the book had more information about that. Ultimately it will be consumers and the voting public that will need to demand that the current subsidy structure change, but without an understanding of how it all really works, change will be slow to come. I wish the author had written more in this regard. Overall she does a good job at the end of providing some brief action points for the reader to consider. Unfortunately, I am not sure how much this message will get out—that seems to be the main problem: getting the average consumer to change his or her buying habits and how they view food. Considering that I am someone who already knows quite a bit about this issue and buy organic as often as I can, I wonder who the intended audience was and who it ultimately will turn out to be.
All of the books mentioned in this post, including Organic Manifesto, are feeding my apparently insatiable desire to learn more about our food industry, the way mainstream society eats, why the way we currently eat is not environmentally sustainable nor healthy and why it is imperative that we all change the way we think about food and its production. To that end, there are more books in the queue to help me better understand the role of farming in all of this. Two books slated for review on this site (hopefully in the not too distant future) will be The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry and A Long Deep Furrow: Three Centures of Farming in New England by Howard S. Russell.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Have you read any of the books mentioned in this review? If so, what were your thoughts, particularly about Organic Manifesto? As always, book recommendations are much appreciated!
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