It’s Sustainable Santa, writing. Wee Barry Estabrook is preoccupied with putting together a new book proposal, so Santa thought it was a good idea to help him out (and lighten Santa’s sleigh) by stepping into this space to dash off a few words about Santa’s favorite books of food journalism for 2014—dandy gifts for the food lovers on your list.
Santa’s image consultants insist that Santa maintains the physique of a fat, jolly, old elf, so it should come as no surprise that he takes food ve-r-r-r-r-r-y seriously. And because Santa expects to be embarking on his annual sleigh ride for many more millennia, it should also come as no surprise that he has a vested interest in the long-term sustainability of our food system.
The Third Plate by Dan Barber
Which brings Santa to this year’s first book. (Always fair-minded, Santa will proceed in alphabetical order.)
Aptly subtitled Field Notes on the Future of Food, Young Dan Barber’s The Third Plate makes a perfect gift for the deeply thoughtful eaters on your list, the ones who gobbled up Michael Pollan’s Onmivore’s Dilemma when it came out. In fact, Santa will go so far as to say that The Third Plate is the most important book to come out about our food system since Pollan’s seminal work.
Dan, of course, is the James-Beard-Award-Winning chef-owner of the two Blue Hill restaurants in the New York City area. His cooking is earthy, imaginative, intellectual, sometimes playful, and always interesting, yet he never lets diners forget that his culinary tours de force begin in some nearby barnyard. The same could be said of his writing.
It seems a little unfair that such a talented chef writes as well as he cooks, but those of us who are unable to make it to a Blue Hill should be delighted we have the opportunity devour Dan’s masterful prose.
In Search of the Perfect Loaf by Samuel Fromartz
Santa freely admits to having a sweet tooth. He’s always delighted to find a few cookies left out on hearths. But each Christmas Eve after sliding down Sam Fromartz’s chimney, Santa head directly to the kitchen, where inevitably Sam has left a few fresh loaves of his just-baked bread.
Sam happens to be a journalist, and a very good one at that. But he is also one of the very best bread bakers in the land. His baguettes beat out those of all the professionals in a bake-off in his home town, Washington, DC, and when Alice Waters hosted a benefit in the capitol, she insisted that Sam make the bread.
In his book, In Search of a Perfect Loaf, Sam mixes practical advice and age-old wisdom and leavens combination with interesting characters and irresistible writing. What arises is an absolute must-have book for the bread baker on your list (Santa guarantees he or she will love it—and love you all the more for being so thoughtful). But it is also a page-turning read for anyone with a vicarious curiosity about how this miracle food is made.
In interest of full disclosure, Sam has edited Wee Barry’s work and supported his reporting through the Food and Environmental Reporting Network.
The Chain by Ted Genoways
Santa, back again for Wee Barry Estabrook who is supposed to be toiling away on a new book proposal but seems to be wasting a lot of time on social media instead.
As you know, Santa tends a small herd of domestic ruminants himself, so he has a soft spot for all livestock. After reading The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of our Food, Ted Genoways’ scathing investigative report on factory pig farming, Santa will be stuffing several large, dirty lumps of coal in his bag to be put into the stockings of the executives at Hormel Foods and other corporate pork producers.
From the dismal working conditions inside slaughterhouses to the rundown Midwestern “barrios” that house immigrant workers, Ted takes on Big Pig with investigative vigor and muckraking gusto not seen since Little Upton Sinclair lashed out at the same industry in The Jungle. Santa’s been around a long time. It saddens him to see how little has changed.
Give this eye-opener to all of the meat lovers on your list as well as those who shun animal products.
Labor and the Locavore by Margaret Gray
As the CEO of a worldwide company that gives its products (toys) away for free, Santa is well aware of how bottom-line realities can put pressure on worker wages and benefits. Nonetheless, Santa makes sure his elves make at least minimum wage, have full medical coverage, receive overtime, and have generous vacation schedules. He expects all farmers to follow his example.
Alas, Labor and the Locavore, Maggie Gray’s investigation of the growers who supply pretty products to New York City’s farmers’ markets, shows that those Carhartt-clad neo-agrarians under the pop-up tents hide the reality that unseen migrant laborers do the real work. The men and women who tend and pick urbanites’ upscale fruits and veggies live anything but upscale lives, without benefits, overtime, medical insurance—or even a guarantee that they will make minimum wage. Naughty, naughty.
Give this book to all farmers’ market shoppers on your list and ask them to share what they learn with their favorite vendors.
American Catch by Paul Greenberg
Santa considers himself fortunate. With much of the Bering Sea and Alaska lying within his foodshed, Santa has ready access to plenty of pollock, Arctic char, wild salmon and other local seafood.
But as Paul Greenberg points out in American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, Santa is the exception among Americans. Despite controlling more ocean than any other country, the United States imports in excess of 85 percent of its seafood. And at the same time as the country is bringing in all those fish from who-knows-where, it is exporting fully one-third of the fish that come from its waters. Alaska alone produces enough fish to feed the nation. How did this come about? Why don’t Americans give their seafood the respect it deserves? Why, oh why, does the definition of “locavore” stop at the high-tide mark? What’s the catch? The American catch.
Paul, who has to be one of the most amiable narrators taking on serious food issues today, uses this paradox as a stepping off point for a lively exploration of America’s complex relationship with the marine resources at its doorstep, from the oyster beds of the Northeast, to the salmon runs of Alaska. He encounters lots of problems and threats along the way, but ends on a hopeful note, which Santa might sum up as, “Yes, America, there is a way to have your seafood and eat it too.”
Give this book to anyone who loves to catch fish, dines on seafood, or enjoys the coastal waters of the United States.
Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman
When Santa stamps back into the house after his annual rounds, he looks forward to sitting down at the dinner table with Mrs. Claus for a beautiful standing rib roast accompanied by her unbeatable Yorkshire pudding.
So Santa’s been feeling a little conflicted lately, trying to justify his love of good beef in the face of all the human health and environmental horrors that have been attributed to cattle production over the last several years.
Leave it to Nicolette Hahn Niman—lawyer, environmentalist, rancher, mother, and (Santa isn’t kidding) practicing vegetarian—to lay out a vigorous, intellectually robust argument in favor of beef. With one huge caveat: Meat has to be raised the right way. From an environmental point of view, Nicolette argues, there is a huge difference between grass-fed, pastured cattle and those that consume a diet based on corn (and a host of chemicals) in massive feedlots.
At the same time, Nicolette presents a convincing case that sugars and simple carbohydrates, not cows, might be the real culprits behind the national epidemic of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
For the committed carnivores on your list as well as the environmentalists and vegetarians who aren’t adverse to a little food for thought.
The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard
By the powers vested in me as the one and only Santa, I hereby declare 2014 to have been the year of sustainable meat books. Christopher Leonard set the pace early in the year with the publication of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business.
Like Ted Genoways in The Chain, Christopher looks at meat production through the lens on a single company, in this case Tyson, which grew from a one-man, one-truck operation in tiny Springdale, Ark., in the early 1930s, to a vertically integrated chicken, pork, and beef colossus, one of a handful of corporations that control most of the meat Americans eat today. Collectively, these corporations damage the environment and destroy the economic and social fabric of rural communities, all in the name of cheap food—which isn’t all that cheap anymore. The most abused victims group are the folks who raise corporate animals despite the ever-present prospect of bankruptcy. They are called “contract farmers.” Back in Santa’s younger days, people who toiled under the conditions Christopher describes were simply called serfs.
The Meat Racket is a great gift for meat lovers with a taste for business books or anyone curious about how livestock production in America became controlled by a heartless oligarchy.
During long winter nights, Santa loves to immerse himself in a deftly-plotted novel full of vivid characters. He also enjoys evocative writing about his favorite topic—food.
He all but wolfed down Delicious!, the bestselling debut novel by Ruth Reichl, the author of popular food-related memoirs and the former editor of Gourmet magazine. Santa views Ruth’s novel as her personal twist on a genre made popular by Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, but with gravy-stained aprons instead of designer clothes. It’s the story about the trials of a young woman who comes to New York to work at a quirky food magazine. No one writes about food as well as Ruth, and few authors tell as good a story.
Wee Barry Estabrook, who worked for Ruth for several years, wanted to make sure that Santa told readers of this review that he had no hard feelings about being the real life model for Richard, the creative director character, who the narrator describes as “the most attractive man I’d ever met. His olive skin, emerald eyes, and chiseled cheekbones gave him the languid, unshaven arrogance of a model . . .” Santa is not so sure.
For fiction lovers and food lovers and lovers of Ruth’s memoirs—especially those who might be looking forward to some relaxing beach time in the not-too-distant future.
American Spirit by James Rodewald
Santa is never averse to sitting back in his big, comfy chair with a noggin of something to warm his insides (it gets damn cold up here). And he supports any trend that adds cheer to the season. So he has been a big booster of the craft distilling movement that has sprung up in the wake of the craft brewing upsurge a couple of decades back.
Alas, Santa has been disappointed at some of the naughty boys (most are boys) in the “artisanal” booze business. Far too many of them are not distillers at all. Instead they buy tanker truckloads of generic whiskey or neutral spirits from huge, industrial distilling corporations, pour the hooch into quaint bottles and slap on labels with olde-fashioned typefaces that mislead consumers into thinking that they are buying lovingly made, local tipple.
In American Spirit James Rodewald, former spirits editor at the late lamented Gourmet magazine (a tough job, but somebody had to do it), separates the phonies from the real McCoys through firsthand visits to and vivid profiles of more than twenty still masters across the country who are fully transparent about how their products are created. No “craftwashing” here, to use Rodewald’s expression. They are a merry bunch, all great raconteurs, who, even though their trade is now legal, maintain the swashbuckling attitude of bygone bootleggers. Santa raises a glass to each and every one of them.
Ideal for anyone on your list who loves honest liquors and well-made cocktails—and a must for any small-batch whiskey aficionados.
The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz
“Fat-is-good/carbs-are-bad” has become a nonfiction genre in and of itself in recent years, a direct reaction to the “fat is evil” doctrine that has become the establishment’s dietary mantra over the last few decades. The Big Fat Surprise is the first book in the genre that merits serious attention.
Santa has been around long enough to know that all entrenched wisdom should be viewed with a measure of skepticism. Nina brings that and more to the subject.
What pleased Santa the most is the depth and soundness of the research behind Nina’s claim that fat is not the poison it’s been made out to be. She takes readers back to the earliest studies demonizing fat, and shows how government, university, and NGO types (many with serious conflicts of interest) launched career-destroying ad hominem attacks on anyone who questioned their anti-fat contentions. Despite all but being blackballed by academia, a few researchers managed to publish work that refutes the blanket condemnation of dietary fat. Fat, in fact, may be good for us. It’s a bold claim. But Santa has yet to see a serious, scientific refutation of the assertions in The Big Fat Surprise.
Give to anyone on your lists who has followed conventional low-fat diets without losing weight—or anyone who is interested in nutrition and not afraid to question the status quo.
That’s it for book suggestions from Sustainable Santa this year. Happy holidays to all, and to all a good read.