Good Food Tastes Good: An Argument for Trusting Your Senses and Ignoring the Nutritionists
by Carol Hart
Published by Springfield Street Books
255 pages, 2007
A Dose of Common Sense
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Where the self-help market was once awash in love books -- how to fall in, how to fall out, how to survive or thrive, we are now deluged with treatises dwelling on another unavoidable human pastime: eating. The average reader cannot walk into a bookshop, open a paper, or log online without falling over the latest gastronomic advice. Eat organic. Eat local. Eat low-fat. No butter! Margarine is poisonous! Eat carbs. Avoid carbs. No sugar! No red meat! Eat more leafy greens, except the bagged ones contaminated by e.coli. Eat more fish, but memorize your Monterey Bay Aquarium do’s and don’ts card, lest you buy fish nearing extinction, high in mercury, or otherwise toxic.
No question about it: food is a fraught issue.
Science writer Carol Hart enters the fray with Good Food Tastes Good. She contends that Americans are conditioned to ignore fresh, tasty foods in favor of boxed, canned, ultraprocessed products manufactured by a handful of megacorporations. The evil media has drilled into us that fresh foods like spinach or peas are just plain yucky, that the fresh ham from your local farmer is bad for you (ham fat!), that life is better if you never cook at all. Off you go to Food Mart, where, ever gullible, you buy wilted, sprayed produce shipped from Chile or February’s pallid greenhouse tomatoes.
And Hart wants to set you straight. To this end, she takes you on the miserable journey of commercial feeding: the chemicals, the ads, the slaughterhouses, endless shelf life, the perils of trusting the USDA, the shockingly small world of agribusiness. Only the book has some problems.
Good Food’s trouble begins with audience. Hart is an able writer, but her discussions of nutrition, food production and shipping practices, while well-researched and informed, are laced with scientific terminology so technical even the educated lay reader will have difficulty following. Frankly, food politics are the bailiwick of wealthy, educated people who have the time, income and inclination to worry about CAFO farming practices and free-running chicks. These people already have ample choices when it comes to engaging reading about food politics: Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Nestle’s What to Eat, Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. These same worried folk can then turn to any number of cookbooks -- Jessica Prentice’s Full Moon Feast, Mollie Katzen’s books, Paula Wolfert’s work, Gourmet magazine’s increasingly political articles -- for more good writing interspersed with recipes.
Further, Hart’s premises are dismayingly repetitive: on page three she writes: “There are at least one million distinct, chemically active substances naturally present in our food.” (Italics hers) She goes on to say this seven more times between pages three and 83. I know. I counted.
All those distinct, chemically active substances mean food is complex stuff. Hart wants readers to use their senses: If food looks good, is bright red or blushed pink or deep green, if it smells good, well, it probably is good. If it’s wilted, or watery, or yellowing, well, it probably isn’t good. Did you need a book to tell you that? I hope not. Hart thinks you do. She also wants you know that agribusiness is scary, ConAgra and Cargill are bad guys, and advertising campaigns singing the praises of, say, walnuts, are likely funded by the Walnut Growers Association. This is all good to know, but Hart is preaching to the choir.
Hart is adamant about what she calls “Food Prudery,” the sexualized connotations surrounding certain foods. Broccoli is good for you because it tastes bad; delicious, desirable chocolate is sinful. Implicit in this notion is the idea that Americans are trained to consider vegetables and fruits unpleasantly necessary; these “good” foods suffer due to poor preparation. If we ate vegetables as our grandparents did, with sauces and perhaps a pinch of sugar, well, the goodness wouldn’t be so very bad.
Last night my husband and I ate daikon radishes stir fried with chard, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and a smidge of Thai chili paste. They were not only delicious, but with their pink centers shading out to jade peels, exquisite. We devoured the entire panful.
At times Hart’s personal bias slips into an otherwise fairly impersonal book. She likes to keep her BMI “around 18.” A quick check of the National Institutes of Health BMI calculator indicates a BMI below 18.5 is “underweight.” (In fairness, Hart does not give her height. She may be quite petite.) At five feet, three inches, 123 pounds, I am “21.8.” And believe you me, there’s some fat round these parts. She also mentions caloric restriction, a movement wherein people reduce their caloric intake to the minimum possible, believing (with scientific proof in mice) that near-starvation prolongs life. Hart writes:
I find my everyday aches and pains offer ample suffering. Why induce more? So when I, like Hart, must travel the interstate, I pack a lunch. Cheese, fruit, proscuitto, salami and fresh breads keep in all but the hottest weather, when one may reach for an insulated lunch bag or cooler.
In a culture where farmer’s markets and locavores are gaining a needed foothold, Hart writes:
This incredibly simplistic statement neatly sidesteps the environmental hazards of our current food dynamic. Eating locally means more than delicious, high quality food: long-distance trucking, cargo planes and trains all contribute to global warming. Maybe Hart doesn’t care about the melting Polar icecaps or hasn’t noticed the frightening change in our weather patterns. She just wants her food -- what little she seems to eat of it -- to taste good.
Strangely, Hart has little to say about food preparation. For the novice cook, Hart suggests three cookbooks: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, Rombauer, Rombauer, and Becker’s The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking and Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. All good cookbooks, but rather limiting. How about Elizabeth David, that wonderfully wry proponent of careful shopping and cooking? Mollie Katzen’s The Enchanted Broccoli Forest is charmingly illustrated and easy to use? Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook is full of easy, delicious recipes requiring minimal kitchen equipment. You can’t go wrong with Marion Cunningham or even Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse cookbook series offers scores of recipes even a kitchen newcomer can handle.
Never once does Hart mention personal responsibility. She sees us as a nation duped: by agribusiness, by publicists, by restaurants. This is disingenuous. If you can’t read the ingredient list on your frozen diet dinner box, why are you eating it? Do you need dinner at the chain lobster joint’s the all-you-can-eat surf n’ turf bar after a long day sitting at the keyboard? Of course not, and as a sensible adult, you have the responsibility -- and ability -- to think for yourself. You don’t need this book to tell you common sense and moderation (and, perhaps, a tiny bit of political inclination) are the keys to a healthy, tasty diet. Or, as Laurie Colwin said, far more succinctly: “Provision as much pure and organic food as you can and let the rest go by.”
Laurie Colwin said something else worth bearing in mind as we obsess over every mouthful: “These essays [referring to Home Cooking] were written at a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that many of our fellow citizens are going hungry in the streets of our richest cities. It is impossible to write about food and not think about that.” | February 2008