Monday, October 13, 2008

Come to the Table: A Book Review

Last month a rep from Rodale Books contacted me about reviewing Come to the Table: The Slow Food Way of Living on my blog. I agreed, so here it is.

Although the slow food movement started in 1989, it seems like the idea of locally grown whole foods is gaining more traction today than even before. A 2001 study concluded that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate, a staggering number considering today's fuel prices and the cost to the environment. While this number has been disputed, there is no question that our food supply comes from countries far and wide. A trip to the grocery store will reveal garlic from China, and grapes from Chile. In response, the word locavore has now entered the lexicon.

The Slow Food movement is essentially combination of the organic and local food trends. According to Come to the Table, slow food is about countering industrialized farms by producing food via "ecologically sound and humane methods." The point, then, is to eat real food produced locally and organically.
Come to the Table is a collection of stories edited by Katrina Heron about farms in California that have adopted the slow food mentality and are trying to make a profit in a market economy dominated by factory farms. Combined with beautiful colour photos, these stories make you want to flee the city to get back to nature and in touch with the earth. Of course, the authors make no bones about the fact that it is back breaking work and certainly not a life of fame and fortune. Interspersed between the chapters are tips for living a slow food life, and brief explorations into the issues facing farmers like USDA organic certification. The book ends with over 40 simple recipes, in keeping with slow food philosophy.

Although the slow food movement is rather appealing to vegans (especially those whose veganism is tied to environmental concerns), slow food also embraces meat, egg, and dairy production. This raises several interesting questions that readers may want to discuss in the comments below. Does small-scale, humane, ecologically sound meat production negate the need for veganism? Would you eat eggs that came the kind of farm described in Come to the Table? Do these farms, while more attractive than factory farms, still perpetuate an ideology based on human dominance of animals? Do you oppose animal husbandry? What about the impact on health from saturated fat, regardless of how the meat and eggs are produced? Can the population really be sustained by small farms? The list could go on and on.

In the final analysis, Come to the Table is an interesting read, but I am not sure it is worth the $32.95 (CAN) price tag. While the farm stories are interesting, I would have preferred more practical tips on growing your own food. The information given is scant, and none of it particularly insightful (have your own herb pot, for example). The recipes are solid, but not worth buying the book for. While they do focus quite a bit on vegetables, there are also many meat and dairy-based recipes that are of little use to vegans. Curiously, one of the recipes calls for instant pancake batter, which doesn't strike me as particularly slow food-esque. Whether you buy the book or not, it is certainly worthwhile to tap into local food networks wherever you live. Support your local farmers' market, try to buy organic, grow your own, and try to eat food that remembers where it came from. That is what slow food is all about.


Bex said...

A well written review. I always find myself getting annoyed with ideas like these. Where people seem to be really cool and clued in ("eat locally for the environment" "know where your food comes from" "build the community") but they just don't go all the way. You've already hit the points in your questions. There really isn't such a thing as humane meat and farming it will never really be ecologically sound we can only make it less of a mess then at the moment.
I do like the idea of the local food movement and the sense of community it can bring. I'll go with that.

Anonymous said...

Local food is always the best food (home-grown is even better). But local non-vegan food is still unethical. You still run into ethic questions such as where did the animals that local producers grow come from? I know in Australia, where I am, all of the local producers of free range eggs and meat source their animals from the same places that intensive animal farms source theirs from, or source their animals from the intensive farms themselves. If there's one term that riles me, it's "happy meat."

Regardless of how happy an animal's life is because of 'kind' farming practices, you're still bringing an animal into the world with the sole purpose of slaughtering it. Animals would rather live than die, full stop (like the rest of us!). Considering we can nourish ourselves perfectly well, and some say far better, by not consuming animal parts and foods derived from them, there's no ethical basis on which to raise an animal with the express purpose of killing it for food. 'Because we like it' is no ethical ground to stand in regards to consuming any animal product, no matter how 'happy/humane/friendly' the animal is treated beforehand. The animal's treatment before slaughter is a non-issue. However, it is popularly discussed amongst vegans and omni's alike, all the while the property status of animals elephant sits in the corner of the room, screaming for attention.

I'm against animal husbandry and pet ownership as I subscribe to the abolitionist form of veganism. As long as we view animals as an economic commodity to do with as we humans see fit, animals will continue to be exploited. That is not to say that we shouldn't take care of the animals already with us, I myself own two dogs I took in as strays (and yes, they're vegan too). I enjoy their company, and they mine, but were they the last two dogs on earth I would never consider breeding them so I, or others like me, could keep them as pets.

The only way to end animal exploitation is to abolish their property status. Only then will animals truly be free.

Peace and love.


Binx said...

Interesting. Although I intend on remaining a vegan for the rest of my life, I'm not opposed to meat eating in general-- just the current "factory farms", slaughterhouses, etc. So having this change would make me really happy, but would not change the way I eat.

QuantumCognition said...

I have been wondering about whether more local/more humane means more acceptable in terms of eating animal products. There are primitivists out there who might claim that this is what native populations have done to survive for eons - hunting, fishing, herding, etc. As it stands in the US right now, I believe that there is simply too much careless animal consuming going on to make conscientious consuming acceptable. Thus, I opt for no consuming whatsoever. I think that this is the only way to somewhat counterbalance the environmental degradation of eating animals.

Furthermore, I wonder if the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle are such that it would simply be taking steps back to return to meat/animal product eating. And, if it wouldn't be more work to raise animals than plants. Edible forest gardening seems to be a somewhat self-perpetuating food source - why not keep it so simple?

Perhaps the population cannot be sustained on small farms as it stands right now. But if these farms supplemented everyone's home/community food gardens, maybe so...

JohnP said...

Good review. I am on the email list for Nashville's slow food group. Occasionally, they sponsor events of interest to vegans (e.g. a sourkraut-making workshop), but most of their events (and all of their dinners) are very focused on meat and cheese. I haven't seen a dinner menu yet that had enough plant matter for me to make a full meal of it. As plant agriculture is more easily sustainable than animal agriculture, and produces more food for more people (not to mention the cruelty, the health reasons, etc), I just don't get it... I'm all for eating local, growing food, making food, but sometimes the slow food movement seems like trendy omni foodies who are at odds with their own principles.

QuantumCognition said...

Here, here, johnp!

I feel I'm guilty of the same type of behavior that you are calling the slow foodies out on. It's sort of like Whole Foods environmentalism - not a drop in consumerism, just a shift. That's not the way to go. The way to go is to consume less and create more (i.e. grow your own food). A good lesson to remember for many of us. I am reading "Depletion and Abundance" by Sharon Astyk and I recommend it to the environmentally-minded, low-impact leaning type. Really, I recommend it to anyone who wants to prepare for an uncertain food future.

veganmum said...

A thought-provoking review; thank you.

Earlier this year another book (Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) had me thinking seriously about local eating and my own veganism. I've been vegan for 10 years and never before had I even considered the possibility of eating eggs or dairy. It was a bit of a shock to me that I was considering eggs again. I know I will never again eat the flesh of a dead animal, no matter what kind of life that animal lived, and the idea of eating dairy, even "humanely" produced dairy, is so foreign to me now that it actually turns my stomach. But I have been giving a lot of thought to whether I would eat eggs if they came from local, happy hens I personally "knew," and I still don't have an answer. I do struggle with maintaining a primarily local, well-rounded vegan diet for my family. It can certainly be done, even in my area of the continent, but it is not easy, and we still rely on (non-local) soy more than I am comfortable with. After all these years, am I so hung up on the semantics of "vegan" that I am now shunning what I don't actually ethically oppose? Or worse, am I causing more harm to the environment, or costing more lives than I could be as a not-quite-vegan?

All that is to say, I will be watching these comments with interest.

Bianca said...

Thanks for the review! I'm definitely pro-local and eat as much local foods as possible.

Tracy said...

Well, it certainly is an interesting review and I am sure, a very interesting book. Personally, I welcome the interest of the average meat eater in the slow food movement, because my hope is that while we work towards the abolition of meat-eating altogether, perhaps in the meantime some of those food animals will at least have a better (albeit too short) life. I am a realist, and I know that a vegan world is not exactly right around the corner. However, at least the whole debate growing in society right now about the treatment of animals in agriculture is getting the word out there that cruelty is rampant. Most people I know still think that the cows and pigs they eat frolic in the sunshine until the day they get bonked in the head with no warning and die a painless death. Yeah, right....

Anonymous said...

Great review.
I just wanted to say living Switzerland you know from where almost all of your food comes from. It is labeled and most vegetables and fruit come from within 100 miles from your home. Even processed foods can be very local. The economy here is set up to produce and manufacture for the people not so much for export.
Even vegan "meat" products are pretty local, as in 100 miles from the shop.
I would love to see the US and CA adopt this. So many things can grow locally.
Great site and great review.

Joelie said...

I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Kingsolver) as well, and it is the main reason I have become vegan. I live in France and I can easily find "bio" (organic) or "eleve en pleine air" (free-range) meat, but for me, that's not enough. The only way I can know that meat I eat has lived a life of peace, happiness and freedom from hormones/antibiotics is if I raise them myself. Since I live in an apartment building right now, that is impossible. However, one of the main reasons for my being in France is to save up enough money to buy a farm back in the States. This has become our family project. My husband works for a great company who pays our expenses and we rent out our home back in the States, so all money we have after paying our bills goes to the "farm fund." Until we have our farm and are responsiblbe for the sources of our meat, eggs, and dairy, I will strive to live a vegan (well, except for honey... I'm still gonna eat honey) lifestyle.

In truth, my own personal belief is the ONLY purely responsible way to be an omni is to learn to hunt (preferably natural hunting like with a bow). Hunting helps maintain the balance of nature since there are increasingly fewer natural predators (thanks to our growth) for many animals in nature, resulting in overpopulation and rampant disease. I'm not there, yet.

While I may continue to be vegan the rest of my life (I'm coming to the end of my first month and am almost completely convinced this is "the way"), I still want to make available to my omni friends and neighbors a clean and human alternative to the industrial meat farms.

Great review, BTW!