Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization ambitiously considers fishing as a source of food from pre-historic times to today. Starting with Neanderthal bands on the banks of the Rhone river, the author reports on the weights and shapes of fish bones (since the rest of the bodies are long gone), and I wonder about how many grad students painstakingly separated tiny bones from the rest of the excavations! We should be very thankful for those bones, and the grass students counting them, since the fish have no antlers or other distinctive features that would indicate their bring consumed otherwise. As we step into the centuries it becomes very obvious that fish has been a very important source of food, and especially protein, through winters, ice ages, and droughts. Interestingly, technology in the form of spears, harpoons, nets of all kinds, boats of course, and basins for raising fish is a surprisingly large part of the story.
I was disappointed by Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America. I expected a historical summary of ice cream in America, perhaps a primer on manufacturing, and plenty of stories about regional specialties — and I did get some bits and pieces here and there, but in a chaotic format. The book starts well, with the confession that the author keeps emergency pints in her freezer in case she needs comfort after an earthquake (she’s a Californian), or more likely a stressful field trip with her kindergartener. But then starts the complaint that repeats throughout the book, that most ice cream shops buy their base. Horror! (Why? Isn’t the ice cream delicious anyway?) Some chapters are tiresome, such as the long descriptions of turf wars between New York ice cream trucks. And the author chooses to use the overdone motif of adding a recipe at the end of each chapter, only to tire of it midway through and stop abruptly.
There are delectable nuggets, most notably that ice cream, properly stored, has no expiration date (a rather useless feature, since ice cream lovers won’t wait too long to finish the tub!) and also a tempting description of Milwaukee’s custard creams. Not enough to my taste. Now where’s that Chunky Monkey?
That innocuous can of baking powder in your kitchen cabinet comes from a long line of chemists (understandably) and also schemers and corporate villains who made consumers believe their competitors sold poison and in the process changed the way home cooks baked. Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking tells all about it, in often excruciating detail.
Parts of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America are unexpectedly sweet, and I don’t mean sugar-sweet, but emotionally sweet, starting from the very start when the author recalls, fondly, his father’s love of food shopping and his marveling at the variety and convenience of supermarkets. He also follows the family that owns and manages a chain of supermarkets in his home town of Cleveland, giving us a good feel for the remarkably thin margins of the grocery business, the amount of hard work required to physically move all products into position, the skills required to be a good bagger, and the zaniness of food conventions. As for the rest of the book, when he goes preachy on us about agribusiness, the horrible American diet, or vitamins, I could have done without. Turn the pages quickly in those chapters, the rest is really worth it!
You might cleverly deduce from the subtitle of Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future that this is a doom-and-gloom book. I did not, and I regret my oversight. The author does a great job showing that relying on just a handful of the most productive crops is a recipe for disaster as pests and diseases can wipe out entire species. But he does so in the most apocalyptic manner, which weakens the argument, I think. For instance, he could just say that United Fruit planned the Guatemalan railroads to be as useful as possible to transport bananas, rather than as useless as possible to the people of Guatemala. The latter may be a consequence of the former, let’s not exaggerate.
In the same vein, it’s clear we need seed banks, and scientists that are not on the payroll of agribusiness companies. But more inspiring stories (about the survival of the Leningrad seed collection during the WWII siege, for instance) and fewer doomsday descriptions would carry the message forward just as effectively.
As a descendant of the Stroh family, of beer-making fame, Frances Stroh could expect a privileged childhood followed by a comfortable adulthood financed by a hefty trust fund. Instead, as she tells in Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, she got a rich but difficult childhood growing up with an alcoholic and tyrannical father, followed by little money as the once-flourishing family business shrank drastically, victim of changing times and not-so-great business decisions. The first part of the story reminds us that children desperately need parents who are present rather than rich, and we feel very sorry for the author. The second part shows how entitled heirs can be, expecting “their” share of the money to somehow fall in their laps without having to do anything about it. No more pity, or perhaps only pity for how ill-prepared she was.
Do you hate Bill Gates? Then you will love The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, which often reads like a 300-page diatribe against him personally and his charitable foundation.
Why the author would choose this form of expression is unclear. Basically he hates everything about food programs. He hates the fact that the percentage of very poor people in the world has fallen (because the absolute number has increased — which is sad, but does not negate progress, right?) He hates that many people involved in antipoverty programs (including his nemesis, Bill Gates) are optimistic that the situation will continue improve. He thinks that we should all stop all optimism, right away. He knows, just knows that harvests will fail and we will all starve and he and Malthus predicted it: there are just too many humans on too small a planet. He hates that philanthropists choose to fund school before everyone knows that we should, instead, feed babies and toddlers (he has a point but perhaps it’s better to fund schools than say, wars). He can’t even start to consider the benefits of GMO crops because women in sub-Saharan Africa are still having too many babies (Should we pause all efforts while they decide that 2.2 is a good number? That would be insane.) He also deplores that the same antipoverty mavens noted above (and in particular the very bad Bill Gates, did I mention he hates him?) are able to applaud when countries headed by dictators make some progress fighting poverty.
It’s very tiring to read a book filled with such hate of everything. Too bad, since there are many valid points in the book, in particular the problem of doing good only when good can be publicly recognized and admired.