Tag Archives: books


The Horrors of “Eating Animals”

Yesterday, at the gym, I had the TV turned to No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain was somewhere in Louisiana sampling local Cajun cuisine. In preparation for a community hog roast, a pig was shot and killed; then on camera, the still-quivering pig was shown bleeding out, and a group of people began prepping it by scraping the hair off of the skin.

At that moment a guy on the rowing machine turned to me in disgust and said, “That’s gross. I can’t believe they’re showing that.”

I laughed, but his comment stuck with me for the rest of the night. Isn’t it strange that we hardly bat an eye at zombies getting shot through the head on The Walking Dead, or a man getting his throat cut on Breaking Bad, yet a pig being prepped for a meal makes us recoil in horror? Are we so far removed from the food cycle that watching it is more terrifying than a viewing of Saw?

We’re not six degrees of separation from what we eat — we’re fifty degrees of separation.

If the guy at the gym thought No Reservations was bad, he should read the book Eating Animals. He’ll have nightmares. Author Jonathan Safran Foer goes where other books and movies have gone before — opening the curtain on the industrialized meat industry — and blows those curtains wide open with his unsparing, forceful and passionate writing.

That chicken on your dinner plate? That piece of bacon with your eggs? Those eggs themselves? Chances are the animal that became your food suffered immensely, contributed to an ever-growing environmental disaster, and was diseased, sick, covered in feces, or otherwise unfit for consumption.

Foer is a vegetarian whose essential stance is that we shouldn’t eat meat at all. I’m an omnivore. I eat meat, and have no ethical opposition to eating meat. I just don’t want to eat THIS kind of meat.

Foer spares no details as he shines a light on the unimaginable animal abuse and cruelty taking place on factory farms. Chickens toppling over on broken legs because they’re unable to support their own weight, pigs slammed to the ground and having rods stuck up their anuses for worker amusement, animals having their eyes popped out, cows skinned alive because the bolt fired into their heads failed to render them unconscious. The horrors go on and on.

I felt the same reaction in my gut as when I read about Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in the book The Rape of Nanking: How can humans do this to another living creature??

If animal abuse fails to sway you, then let’s get selfish and consider what factory farming does to us. It seems everyone has food allergies these days. Asthma rates are on the rise. Guess what role genetically modified food played in that? We consume animals pumped with hormones and antibiotics and who knows what else. They become part of our bodies. It’s no wonder our bodies react by going haywire. We all want our cheap meat now, but lord do we pay for it later.

A chapter is devoted to the environmental disaster of factory farms — an unending amount of animal waste that flows into our waterways and contaminates everything in its path, even dispersing into the air as a mist, making residents in nearby communities you guessed it… sick.

Factory farms turn the natural symbiosis of a working farm (animals create manure, manure fertilizes crops) on its head. It’s just tons and tons of shit with nowhere to go. You want to breathe in a mist of shit? Me neither.

And guess what all that shit also does — it creates disease. Foer ominously forewarns how dangerously close we are to another avian/swine flu pandemic.  Jam thousands of animals together (many of which are sick), feed them ground bits of other animals, confine them in their own excrement, and you’re gonna have a problem. When the next deadly flu virus rears its ugly head, there’s a good chance it’ll come from a factory farmed animal. Lovely.

So what’s the solution? I have no idea. You can ask people to stop eating meat altogether (not likely), ask them to eat less (maybe), or ask them to only buy from local farmers’ markets (way out of reach economically for the average person). Or you can encourage the public to rise up and demand real change from the meat industry (difficult, but I suppose possible?).

And uh, you may want to avoid those Smithfield hams.

I’ve gone the eating-less-meat and buying-local route. For the past few years I’ve cooked the Michael Pollan way — “Eat mostly plants” — cooking with small portions of meat, or none at all. I no longer buy meat from regular supermarkets and try to mostly purchase it from farmers’ markets, where at least I have a little more understanding of where it comes from.

Of course, this doesn’t make me at all morally superior. In fact, I’m more of a hypocrite than ever. When I dine out I still freely eat meat (without questioning where the meat came from), I’m attached at the hip to my iPhone and Macbook (assembled by exploited Chinese factory workers), I like clothes (likely made in an overseas sweatshop), I print documents at work (bye bye trees), I wear leather and use hair products (likely tested on animals), and if I get sick, I take medicine (also tested on animals).

Does my “eating mostly vegetables at home” lifestyle make any difference in the world, or does it simply serve to make me feel good? Sadly, I think it’s the latter.  As my friend Danielle at work said, “It’s so hard to not exploit something or someone.”

Maybe simply being informed is a positive first step. I strongly encourage everyone to read Eating Animals. It should be essential reading in schools and book clubs. I don’t care what your stance is on all this going in. Just read it. Read it with an open mind.

Because if you think watching a pig get killed on No Reservations is gross, you ain’t seen nothing yet.


“In Defense of Food”: More Wise Words from Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was horrifying and illuminating, exposing the nightmare of food industrialization and pointing out how little people know about what they’re putting into their bodies.

That book captivated me in a big way. I’m late to the game, but I finally got around to reading his 2008 follow-up book, “In Defense of Food.”

It’s a quick read – at around 200 pages, you can plow through it in no time. Made for good reading on the Metro; almost missed my stop one morning because I was so engrossed.

Pollan doesn’t break any major new ground with this one – essentially, if you’ve read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” you’ll already be familiar with the subject matter – but he  does clearly elucidate the vagaries and complexities of nutrition, the clever use of “nutrition” by food companies as a marketing tool, and the direct contribution of the Western diet and its processed food (if you can call it “food”) to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Pollan’s most basic rule for eating may sound ridiculous: Eat food (DUH!), but you’ll understand once you read the book.

Among his other rules:

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

Cook, and if you can, plant a garden.

There’s nothing extreme or fad-like about what Pollan’s recommending. Everything makes perfect sense.  And yet, so few people seem to follow his core principles.  Sadly, even as we’re inundated with more and more nutrition information, our country just gets fatter and fatter. Let’s hope more people begin returning to the basics, and Eat food.

Frank Bruni’s “Born Round”

There were several things I didn’t know about Frank Bruni before reading his autobiographical book, Born Round: That he grew up in White Plains.  That he was hired in ’04 as the New York Times restaurant critic despite having no food writing experience.  That he’s completed a triathlon. That his outsized appetite was matched only by his outsized food demons.

It’s really sort of crazy when you think about it – a person with lifelong weight problems and compulsive eating tendencies accepting a job that requires him to dine out religiously, practically every night.  That’s like inviting Tiger Woods to be a judge at a Miss Hawaiian Tropic pageant.  And it’s not as though the restaurant critic can get away with ordering a side salad.  He’s expected to try everything, from appetizers to desserts.

Born Round’s a zippy and interesting read.  Bruni pulls no punches on himself, sharing every revealing and embarrassing detail of his food issues, beginning with his childhood in a tight-knit Italian-American family where food, and loads of it, was a way of life.  (He tells the story of turning down his grandmother’s frits on one occasion, much to her horror.  To an Italian grandma, passing on her food was like telling her he didn’t love her.)

We follow along with Bruni as he struggles with eating disorders and yo-yoing weight through high school, college, and into adulthood.  Have to admit, I found myself frustrated at times, wanting to reach through the book and shake Bruni with a, “Come on, stop doing this to yourself!”  His wildly swinging love/hate relationship with food is something I’ve never encountered, not even with friends or girlfriends who had some strange eating habits. The only thing I can equate him to is the self-battling Gollum from Lord of the Rings: “We loves to eat… we hates to eat!”

Near the end of Born Round, as Bruni reaches a weight normalcy, he shifts gears briefly to detail his stint as the Times critic. Some people may consider that section the least interesting of the book, but I wanted more of it, mainly because I find the general mechanics of being a restaurant critic fascinating.  (But then, I guess that’s what Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires is for.)  Surprisingly, the job doesn’t break him.  In fact, he not only survives, but thrives.

Now Frank Bruni has moved on to New York Times Magazine. Sam Sifton has taken his place as Times restaurant critic.  I don’t know much about Sifton, but it’s a safe bet he’s probably not ridden quite the food roller coaster of his predecessor.

Beach Reading


As a general rule of the beach, where there’s a crevice, sand will find its way into it. This applies to cars, bags, odd body parts and books. If you’ve got a book that you’re trying to keep in pristine condition, don’t bring it to the beach — chances are it’ll get scuffed up with sand, globs of sunscreen and a splatter of food stains.  A paperback that you don’t mind trashing is preferable.

Two other criteria for the perfect beach book:

  • Weight.  No one wants to lug around a 1,000 page monstrosity.  That’s just unwieldy, and tiring to read, especially if you’re lying on your back and holding the book up.  200-400 pages max seems about right.
  • Ease of reading.  There are so many distractions at the beach: scenery, intermittent naps, pretty women… a good beach book shouldn’t overly tax your brain.  You want to be able to pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down, and not miss a beat in the process.  The Da Vinci Code was pulpy trash, but it made for better beach reading than Guns, Germs and Steel.

For these reasons, books about food fit the bill nicely.  For instance, the book I’m reading now, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, would make a great beach book; it’s a look at the origins of Chinese food in America, including the fortune cookie, take-out and General Tso’s Chicken (which, as you might imagine, is not an authentic Chinese dish.)  An easy read; an interesting read.  I’m loving it. Thumbs up as a beach book.

A few other recommendations:

A behind-the-scenes glimpse at the kitchen of Babbo, Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant.  You get a real feel for what it’s like to cook in a high-pressure restaurant environment (not so glamorous), and a much better sense of the larger-than-life Batali himself.

Feeding a Yen
A collection of Calvin Trillin essays compiled into a very entertaining and readable book.  Trillin travels around the world on a series of culinary adventures — his sense of humor and love of food are infectious.

Garlic and Sapphires
Ruth Reichl’s memoirs of her days as the New York Times food critic.  Food critic is the job we all want, right?  Well, it still is, but Reichl does a good job conveying how exhausting and challenging it can be as well.  It’s especially interesting to read about the lengths a critic must go to remain incognito.

The Making of a Chef/ The Soul of a Chef/ The Reach of a Chef
Ah, three of my favorite books.  Ideally you should read them sequentially, but it’s not the end of the world to read them as one-offs.  If you have a deep interest in food, you’ll adore these books — Michael Ruhlman explores how one becomes a chef, what drives the world’s most renowned chefs, and what it means to be a chef in a world of tv superstardom and celebrity. I guarantee this: after reading all three, you’ll start saving up for a trip to Napa Valley and a meal at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry.

The Apprentice
Jacques Pepin’s autobiography.  The guy’s my culinary hero — a true icon who exudes class and has somehow remained humble.  As you’ll read, he’s had quite an interesting life with several major ups and downs.  And holy hell can the guy cook.

(Note: Many years ago in Boston, I took martial arts classes with Pepin’s daughter, Claudine; you may remember her from their series Cooking With Claudine.  It took all my restraint not to endlessly pepper her with questions about her father.  Did manage to get in a few, though.)

And of course, the Bourdain books are top notch entertaining beach reading, but you’ve probably read those already.

On that note, have a very happy 4th and a relaxing long weekend!  Dear God, don’t let it rain.

Julie & Julia: Another Streep Tour de Force?

Meryl Streep!  Amy Adams!  Passion.  Ambition.  Butter.  Do you have what it takes?

Am I describing Doubt 2: Nuns in the Kitchen?  Nope, I’m talking about Julie & Julia, a movie coming out this summer that should interest any food lover.

(And I didn’t make up “Passion. Ambition. Butter… ”  That really is the tagline.)

The movie’s based on the book written by Julie Powell, a secretary-turned-blogger who in 2003 blogged about her year-long experience of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I finished the book last night after weeks of starting and stopping.  I went in with high hopes but never sunk my teeth into it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Powell’s blog was a hoot, and had I known about it in ’03, I would definitely have been one of her loyal readers (or “bleaders” as she refers to them — blog/readers.)  But as a book, even as a breezy light read, it’s uneven.

The story itself feels disjointed and the fictional imaginings of Julia Child’s relationship with her husband Paul are contrived. What works are the cooking sections; Powell has a knack for writing about food, and I wish she’d done more of it.  Instead, she spends a lot of time whining, snarking, and in one section, showing an appalling callousness towards 9/11 victims.  She doesn’t come off as terribly likable.

That’s where the movie should be a big improvement over the book.  Amy Adams plays Powell; Amy Adams couldn’t be unlikable if she were playing a serial killer. This is also a Nora Ephron movie, so undoubtedly she’ll smooth over Powell’s rough, whiny edges and portray her as a perky, adorable Meg Ryan type, with perky, adorable, attractive friends and a lovable husband.

Then there’s the big gun — Meryl Streep (icon) playing Julia Child (icon).  Meryl Streep’s the kitchen tongs of actresses: all-purpose, multi-functional, useful in any situation, indispensable. From what I’ve read, she KILLS it as Julia Child.  Hello, Oscar nomination!   In the book, there’s a lot of Julie, very little of Julia. In the movie, with Streep as Julia?  More Julia, less Julie.  That’s a good thing.

Julie & Julia practically screams chick-flick.  I’m expecting to be the only male seeing it aside from guys dragged by wives and girlfriends when they’d rather sneak off to watch Terminator Salvation.  My mom will probably drag my dad one Saturday night, and he’ll go, because he’s good like that.

What’d you think of the book?  Are you looking forward to the movie? Will Philip Seymour Hoffman make a surprise cameo as a morally ambiguous sous chef?

Here’s the trailer.