Choosing healthy, quality provisions in a food culture awash in highly processed, overly packaged products, adulterated olive oils and factory farmed meats can be a complicated affair. As interest in local, organic and slow food movements spreads, the desire and demand for real food — from seasonal produce to wild game — has grown. Somehow, finding real food seems to have become challenging; even for informed consumers, making sense of labels such as organic, natural, free range or extra virgin can be challenging. The following books offer their own take on simplifying and clarifying our food choices. From raising kitchen chickens to hunting wild game, and from deciphering olive oil labels to losing weight by ditching the diet products, the authors of these five books are on a mission to empower their readers with facts, tips and encouragement.
By Joel Salatin
Publisher: Center Street
Joel Salatin is one of those people who you can’t help liking, even if you don’t agree with him on everything — and considering how opinionated he is, that’s saying a lot. A third-generation family farmer and the prolific author of a small library of books about farming and food, Salatin has passionate and well-informed opinions on everything from chicken nuggets and airline meals to factory farming and school gardens. His latest book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” considers the myriad ways in which we’ve lost touch with wholesome food and the land it’s grown on and offers an unflinching, no holds barred look at the decidedly abnormal turn American food culture has taken over the past 60 or so years. He calls kitchens “the vital link between the field and the plate,” worriedly noting that in modern developed countries, many young people “think that scratch cooking means you have to use a can opener” and kitchens have become simply “the unpackaging center.” He describes what he does at his Shenandoah Valley-based Polyface Farm as “the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.” Through a mix of his wise and witty personal anecdotes, first-hand experience as a farmer and a father, and a thought-provoking assortment of tips and ideas, Salatin encourages all of us to become healers of the land, food, economy and culture. Each chapter ends with a list of “doable things to reconnect and reeducate.” Instead of going on a cruise or Disney vacation, Salatin suggests that families choose a working ranch experience or even just a day spent visiting a local farm. He proposes that city slickers and suburbanites consider raising backyard chickens, because they’re quiet, and they’ll eat your kitchen scraps and lay eggs. More of Salatin’s tips toward returning to normalcy: Experiment with preserving your own food; process something simple, like applesauce; quit buying processed food with ingredients you can’t pronounce; do some price comparisons between processed and unprocessed foods; read things you’re sure will run counter to your current thinking. Salatin’s lists go on and on, and so do the provocative, challenging and sometimes controversial ideas that fill his book. “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” will leave you with plenty to think about and discuss.
Publisher: Da Capo
There are those who say that if you can’t kill an animal yourself, you shouldn’t eat it. It’s a stance that would arguably convert many of us into vegetarians if put to the test. Last May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he announced that he had committed to eating meat solely from animals he had killed himself. Now Georgia Pellegrini — chef, blogger and author of the IACP-nominated book “Food Heroes” — has published “Girl Hunter.” Part memoir, part travelogue and part cookery book, “Girl Hunter” chronicles a year in which Pellegrini set out to “feel what it is like to be human again,” which for her meant hunting her way across the U.S. (and even making a quick jaunt to Cambridgeshire, England, for a British Driven Shoot.) Wondering if it’s possible to eat only the meat that you kill, and if that kind of kill is more humane than “the rest of it,” Pellegrini set out to hunt everything from wild turkeys and javelina to deer and pheasant. “Girl Hunter” occasionally raises some important points about mainstream meat. “Four companies — Cargill, JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield — control over 90 percent of this meat system across the world,” Pellegrini writes, noting later that when grabbing a couple of chicken breasts from the meat aisle of the grocery store, there aren’t “pictures of the bird whose breasts were bred to be so big that it couldn’t walk but only drag its chest, along with the thousands of others sitting in a dark, confined place.” While these moments in the book acknowledge the pressing problems of industrialized, factory farming, “Girl Hunter” primarily focuses on the immense pleasure Pellegrini seems to derive from killing, butchering, and of course, eating animals. For Pellegrini, animals are food and it’s not about whether or not to eat them, but how best to kill them. “In the dark morning, those small hogs didn’t look like hairy four-legged creatures to me,” she admits, “[but] rather, like running sausages.” So much does she enjoy the process of butchering her kills, that while taking a javelina apart she suddenly notices that she has “unwittingly shod in flip-flops” and her toes are “speckled in blood.” Though the book does include plentiful, gourmet recipes with which to cook game, Pellegrini’s experiences are more posh than practical, and won’t be especially useful to hopeful hunters of lesser means.
By Tom Mueller
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
If you’ve ever stood in the olive oil aisle at your local supermarket faced with the copious bottles labeled Extra Virgin and Product of Italy and thought that something seemed fishy, then you were absolutely right. We’ve all heard that the highest standard for quality olive oil is “extra-virgin Italian,” but what most people don’t know is that that label has been deeply corrupted and is often meaningless. As Tom Mueller writes in his eye-opening book “Extra Virginity,” “A recent survey of supermarket extra virgins performed by the UC Davis Olive Center, in cooperation with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, revealed that 69 percent of oils tested had taste flaws such as rancid, fusty, and musty, which meant they weren’t extra virgin oils at all, and had been mislabeled.” Producing olive oil is a labor-intensive and costly process. Poor quality oils can be made from overripe or damaged olives, and extra virgin olive oil is extremely susceptible to oxidation and degradation. This has led to the widespread adulteration of olive oil, where extra virgin olive oil is blended with cheaper, refined olive oil, or even with seed or nut oils. As Mueller reveals, the olive oil business is rife with fraud, and America is regarded as “the best place on earth to sell adulterated oil.” How bad is it? Among the many shocking revelations in “Extra Virginity,” we learn that according to an EU investigator, profits in olive oil fraud are “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.” To add insult to injury, refined olive oils contain next to no polyphenols — those heart-healthy antioxidants olive oil is supposed to be full of — because they disappear during the refining process. “Yet olive oil labels rarely communicate this crucial health data — most contain just a heart health message about the fatty acids in olive oil, which lumps extra virgin olive oil and refined oil together as one undifferentiated commodity." “Extra Virginity,” which grew out of Mueller’s 2007 New Yorker article titled Slippery Business, digs deep into the history and big business of olive oil fraud, telling a story of globalization, deception and crime in the food industry. In addition to offering a powerful indictment of today's lax protections against fake and even toxic food products in the United States, “Extra Virginity” also offers much-needed tools to find honestly produced, quality product.
By Tyler Graham & Drew Ramsey, MD
It’s safe to say that the majority of us wants to be two things — happy and fit — so a book called “The Happiness Diet” with a photo of a big juicy cheeseburger on the cover seems destined to be a best-seller. Is it possible to eat this way and enjoy both physical and mental health? Tyler Graham and Dr. Drew Ramsey, the authors of the book, claim that it’s not only possible — it’s essential. They argue that the modern American diet — composed largely of sugar, refined carbs, industrial vegetable fats and factory farmed meats and dairy — has led not only to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, but also to skyrocketing levels of brain disorders like depression and dementia. In “The Happiness Diet,” Graham, a health journalist, and Ramsey, a psychiatrist, lay out the organic substances necessary for happiness: nutrients such as Vitamin B12, folate and omega-3s. They list and explain which whole foods contain them, and even offer a section of recipes and meal plans with dishes such as Grass-Fed Balsamic Flank Steak and Mexican Squid. Though the book enthusiastically promotes eating plenty of plant-based foods, the authors are resolutely opposed to vegetarian and vegan diets, insisting that to achieve the pinnacle of good health, one must consume animal proteins. Full of important facts and useful information (their "Top 100 Reasons to Avoid Processed Foods" will stun even the well-informed), “The Happiness Diet” offers a nutritional prescription for a sharp brain, balanced mood and lean, energized body.
By Christine Avanti, CN, with Bonnie Bauman
In the same vein and also from Rodale, “Skinny Chicks Eat Real Food” explains how women and men can control their appetites and lose weight by avoiding the fake and processed foods that are actually making them fatter. Brought to us by Christine Avanti, author of “Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salads” and nutrition director and executive chef at Passages rehabilitation center in Malibu, California, “Skinny Chicks Eat Real Food” shows how a diet rich in all-natural produce, whole grains and lean protein is better for achieving and maintaining weight loss than consuming diet products labeled “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” or “lite.” Avanti’s "Real Food Diet" guides readers away from fake food and shows them how to get healthy and slim eating the balanced, natural, whole foods we were designed to eat. Recognizing that for some readers the concept of eating "real food" may be a major lifestyle shift, Avanti offers clear, simple guidelines for making positive personal choices and dedicates a whole chapter to supermarket alternatives. She also delves into the science of nutrition and spends time exploring the psychological aspects of food addiction and weight loss. Brief profiles of dietary and culinary leaders such as Mark Bittman, Kath Younger and Kristen Michaelis pepper the book, offering inspiration and additional resources. Recipes, meal-planning guidelines and drool-worthy photographs round out this informative and thorough book.
Thumbnail photo: Amelia-Jane/Flickr