Our Inner Critics: Reviews
Founder Jamie Oliver
Publishing Info online
In a Nutshell: Good for Beginners – 4 out of 5 shovels
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few years, you probably noticed that issues surrounding school lunches have been in the news quite frequently. In addition to Michelle Obama taking up the issue, Jamie Oliver has been agitating for change in school lunch programs. The UK’s resident rabble-rouser has been working through television shows and with the UK government since 2005, won the prestigious TED Prize in 2010, and tackled both the most obese city and the largest school district in the US in his Food Revolution television series.
Thankfully, Oliver’s schtick is that eating healthy is not hard – anyone can do it, and everyone should care about it. As a working mom with a husband in graduate school, I think his Food Revolution cookbook was the only thing that kept me sane (and out of drive-thrus) for two years. So I appreciate his efforts to get busy people moving and motivated on this topic without having to change their lives in the attempt.
The Giving Assistant web app is in this same vein – if you’re interested in helping support the work his foundation is doing, but you don’t have a lot of time/energy/money, they make it easy. The app installs directly into your browser (I now have a happy little ‘fight the power’ fist with a spoon right in my browser header), and when you go to a shopping site (so far I’ve seen it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target) a yellow bar shows up and tells you what percentage of your sale benefits the foundation. That’s it. Make your purchase as usual, a portion of your sale benefits the foundation, you feel good, call it a day.
I do have a couple of nitpicks about the app’s dashboard (where you see your stats on his site) – the data only updates weekly, which seems odd in this era of instant communication. I have yet to see a list of participating sites, which would help me plan my online shopping. At the moment, I only know that I’m on a site that supports the foundation once I’m at the site and see the yellow bar (I tried googling things to see if the fist icon shows up as the FAQ says they will; it didn’t appear to work). And they’re hawking prizes, which always strikes me as awkward. I’m here because I want to be here, not because I can win a foodie trip to London (not that I would pass up any trip to London, mind you). But I understand it’s a bigger draw if they entice people in.
And yes, I’ve only generated $4.70 so far – but that’s $4.70 they didn’t have before. As I figure out what websites help the foundation, my numbers will go up, I’m sure. Vive la révolution!
Founder: Oregon Association of Nurseries
In a Nutshell: Informational, 4 of 5 shovels
This weekend I attended the annual Yard, Garden & Patio Show at the Oregon Convention Center This was my very first “show” experience of this sort, and I was a little bit suspicious about what to expect, especially the “patio” component of the event which sounded like something that targets people with lots of money to spend on imported stone water features, silk chaise lounges, and other luxury items. But I was intrigued at what I might learn that could benefit our backyard garden this year, and so I picked up discount tickets at a local nursery for my husband and me. Kids get in free, so we brought our two boys along, too.
The Yard, Garden & Patio Show was founded in 1988 by the Oregon Association of Nurseries. Part trade show and part education, several non-profits participate whose mission is to educate the public on horticulture, including the Oregon State University Master Gardeners – a fantastic resource for my state.
The best part of the show was a stroll through the “Edible Garden," which included raised beds, a chicken coop and unique ways in which to garden. Flowers are beautiful and a compelling reason to garden, but you can’t (usually) eat flowers. My interest lies in how to make the most of a couple of raised beds and several pots in a semi-sunny urban backyard. Specific questions I had included 1) how much can a family expect to grow and harvest for personal consumption in a typical season? and 2) how do we ensure that we are growing seeds or starts that are locally sourced and a natural part of the Pacific Northwest landscape? Several “edible experts” were on hand and eager to talk about how to prepare garden beds for the best possible results. Their eyes lit up when asked about veggie selection, preservation and other gardening-related tips and ideas. Other interesting and gardening-related information included a presentation on honey bees and how to keep a backyard hive.
The least attractive part of the show focused on those items that to me aren’t relevant – enormous hot tubs, bizarre sculpture, ostentatious outdoor lighting and patio furniture come to mind. But they did not detract from the pleasant and informational event.
The Yard, Garden & Patio Show was well organized and family friendly (except I don’t recommend taking a toddler). Exhibitors were pleased to talk anything related to dirt, compost, seeds and starts. A few over-eager exhibitors put me slightly off as they pushed their wares upon me, and to those I gave a polite “no thank you, not just now” smile as we moved on. But generally the scene was courteous, not pushy. The energy of the edible experts was contagious, and at the end of the day my entire family was excited to get started on our backyard garden plans. Free organic broccoli and lettuce seeds provided by friendly Boy Scouts were just a few of the fun takeaways we brought home.
The sun may not be shining consistently yet, but the show provided a great change of pace during another rainy mid-winter weekend. Spring is truly on the horizon!
By Theresa Weir
Published 2011 by Grand Central Publishing
In a nutshell: Good for Beginners, 4 out of 5 shovels
Part romance novel, part dysfunctional family drama with a strong female protagonist (with an underlying environmental message), Teresa Weir’s The Orchard reads like a cross between Nicolas Sparks and Barbara Kingsolver. And though it reads like a novel, the book is actually a memoir. Before she was a bestselling fiction author (you might also know her by her pen name, Anne Fraiser), Weir fell in love with Adrian Curtis, the handsome heir to an apple orchard, in rural Illinois. A story of passion, heartache, troubled marriage, family feuding, and misfortune ensues.
But this book is also about farming and the dangers of pesticides, which is why you’re reading about it here instead of on some chick-lit blog. Throughout her intimate story of love and loss, Weir sheds light on the significant health and environmental hazards of chemical pesticide use. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that the author experiences personal tragedy caused by prolonged exposure to the chemicals used on apple orchards.
The book will make you think twice about ever eating another conventionally grown apple again. It’s not as though the information she imparts is new. The issue of pesticide contamination has been around for decades, and the Environmental Working Group consistently places apples on their annual “Dirty Dozen” list. The most intriguing part of the book is Weir’s ability to get us thinking about this issue in a whole new way, appealing to our emotions rather than our intellect. Her storytelling elicits a reaction against chemical pesticides that statistics and scientific analysis simply can’t.
Another reason I really like this book is that it humanizes the farmers. I have a tendency to imagine industrial growers as faceless, mechanized robots doing the bidding of evil chemical corporations. Weir does a great job at highlighting the difficult choices farmers have to make in order to stay in business. Romantic notions of environmental harmony and a bucolic farming existence aren’t worth much when the coddling moth is destroying the trees that have been in your family for generations. In an argument about the chemicals, Adrian defends his family’s choice to spray: “Everybody does it…Everybody. We couldn’t survive otherwise…And decades of pesticide use have created resistance. It’s going to take stronger and stronger chemicals for farmers to stay in business, not weaker ones.” The issue of pesticide use is complex and multifaceted, and it’s good to remember that once in awhile.
The bottom line: If you’re looking for a good story, not just another lecture on sustainable food, this is a great read. I was initially reluctant to give this book a whole 4 shovels, but despite its sappiness, it is a story with staying power. A week after finishing the book (holding back tears as I turned the last pages), I still can’t get it out of my head-– that’s got to count for something.
[Spoiler alert!] Beyond Pesticides –in-depth information on the link between pesticides and various cancer.
By Chris Butterworth, Illustrations by Lucia Gagiotti
Published 2011 by Candlewick
In a nutshell: Good for kids, 4 out of 5 shovels.
A good friend of mine gave this book to my daughter on her birthday. I read it to her the very next night, after the frosting come down, and then it sat on the shelf for a few months. Then, for no apparent reason, except that kids are totally unpredictable, she pulled it down and asked me to read it again. Now it is in regular rotation, right in there with Curious George, who apparenty NEVER gets old.
It's a great book, basically taking apart some basic contents of a lunch pail and talking about where everything comes from - the cheese, the clemintine, the chocolate in the cookie, and so on. It actually starts off by saying "Food doesn't grow in stores. So where did it come from before it was in the store?" In this way I feel it's really accesable, and written for kids who don't live on farms or even ever go to the farmer's market. This book is for any parent who wants their kid to understand that food doesn't magically appear in the supermarket.
The illustrations are unique, with bright colors and interesting diagrams that break down the steps foods go through as they are processed and packaged. It's really quite ambitious, some of the things they break down. Like the chocolate. Chocolate goes through a lot of steps from bean to chip, and travels all over the world, and the book manages to capture that in one page. Impressive.
The only reason I gave this book a four shovel rating instead of a five is that I feel it lacks an element of goofiness. I think one of the reasons it took my girl a little while to get into it is because it falls a bit on the serious side, and given that it is for kids, I feel they could have gone sillier - even if just in the illustrations. That said, now that she is just the tiniest bit older, her attention is less dependent on the goof factor, and she's interested in the actual content. So if you have a little one (or need a holiday gift for a little one) in the 4 year old range, this would book would be a great choice.
Edible Magazines & Edible Radio, published by Edible Communities Publications
In a nutshell: good for beginners, informational, 5 out of 5 shovels
I'm the kind of nerd who thinks a lot about "scaling up" in regards to food, questions like: "Well, if more people want grass fed beef, can we raise and distribute enough to meet demand?" OR "Can you take this community garden model and put it in that city?" OR "Do we HAVE to use industrial-scale agriculture to feed a growing populations?"
I'm not the only one. Scaling up is at the heart of the food discussion. Because we have to feed everyone and nobody knows how.
But local, it turns out, is local: different communities may be asking the same questions, but each region has it's own, um, flavor, so to speak, that influences their specific local food story. Which not only makes it challenging to scale up but also begs the question, why should we?
This conundrum is PRECISELY why the Edible Communities is the bees knees. Nerdy foodie me loves them with the passion brighter than a million suns.
What it is: most notably, FREE FOOD MAGAZINES, in more than 60 cities around the country - in full color, with articles written by local authors about local food happenings with local business ads.
Who does that? Who can afford to do such a thing? It's crazy, I tell you. But it's TRUE. You can walk into a market and just take one home. Now, there is a subscription option, at least in the Fall/Winter Edible East Bay there is, of $28 and I agree with them that it makes a great gift. But I really like that there's an option that removes barriers to learning that's not just free content online, but is also visually beautiful and, well...real.
So Edible Magazines are hyper local, and even better, if there's not one in your community, you can start your own. And this is where they really win - the "award winning magazines that celebrate local foods, season by season" are also scalable: the model is there for whomever wants to create a new one for their neighborhood.
AND (can you tell how excited I am? I gave it the coveted 5 out of 5 shovels after all) if you fall in love with your local mag and you want to know more, the Edible Communities website has lots more: Edible Radio with podcasts "from the movement's smartest thinkers and eaters," a cookbook, an Edible Institute event coming in spring 2012, and a resource list that's not half bad.
Well played, Edible Communities and thanks for the opportunities for us all to learn more and get involved.
100 Days of Real Food published by the Leake Family
Ditch the Box published by Kristi Willis
Both, in a nutshell: informational, good for beginners, 5 out of 5 shovels
Interested in living life with less processed food? No problem.
I'm tag-teaming on April's recent Eating Rules review as "October Unprocessed" continues, and reviewing two more awesome websites where you can learn how to makeover your pantry and live off the processed grid, should you choose that particular path.
The Leakes are also "bloggers like us," who were curious to experience what 100 days without processed food for them and their two kids would be like. They finished last October and went immediately into a new challenge: a 100 Days on a Budget pledge: a family of 4, eating unprocessed, for $125 a week. It's pretty inspiring to check out their stories and follow along with the challenges and successes they've had along the way.
In addition to being all crazy for unprocessed foods, they're clearly web gurus who've put together a super-duper site that invites readers to join in and do "mini pledges," offers 100 days of tips, recipes, and tricks for how to get the kids eating unprocessed stuff - AND (my favorite part) all of that information is well organized and easy to find.
In particular, I like the resources half of their Recipes & Resources page, which you get to by scrolling down past dessert. There they're listed their favorite blog posts detailing how to stock a real food kitchen, restaurant options, the changes they've seen to their health, and their own favorite sources for information.
Ditch the Box is the new brainchild of long-time Austin food blogger, Krisi Willis, who approaches the issue with organic and local in mind, so it's a good site to follow if that's an important element you want to add into your un-processed experience. For example, she has a post about how to stock the pantry with affordable organic products.
She also offers something unique: her services as a pantry maker-over. If you don't have the time or interest in reading blogs all day but you'd like to eat more unprocessed, then you can hire her to work with you to make food healthier at your house. She serves Austinites face-to-face and has a virtual option for those of us who live outside the great state of Texas.
Q: How do I gently broach the subject of my concerns about GMOs with friends and family?
A: Wear this chic conversation starter from Threadless:
Or, you could just send them to the website: Just Label It (.org, not .com, unless you need fancy new stationary to match your fancy new t-shirt.)
In a nutshell: Informational, Good for Beginners, 5 out of 5 Shovels
The site is user friendly, simple, and clean: within 3 minutes you know why you're there, why you care, how to take action, and ways to dig deeper. It's also put together by some heavy hitters who I already trust for good science: Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety, and Union of Concerned Scientists for a start...I like this new way to cut to the chase and take action to encourage labeling. Go check it out, lend your voice, and pssst...pass it on. http://justlabelit.org/
By Christy Morgan
Published 2011 by Benbella
In a nutshell: Informational, Good For Beginners, 5 out of 5 shovels
Last night I went to a book signing and cooking demo by one of my favorite foodies - the Blissful Chef, aka Christy Morgan. Christy and I first crossed paths while she was living here in LA, working as a personal chef for health conscious movie stars like Alicia Silverstone.
She's a charming, petite brunette with a Betty Page hair cut, but the thing you really can't forget after talking with her for five minutes is how much she loves food. As a vegan and a macrobiotic specialist, she is very particular about what and how she cooks, but never ever have I felt judged by her for the fact that I myself am not vegan or macrobiotic. She's simply a die-hard cheerleader for good healthy food.
So I'm super excited to say that her new book Blissful Bites is beautiful. It has over 175 recipes (which granted, I haven't tried yet, but I plan to start tonight), with inspiring photos. They are organized by season to help you cook up what you find at the farmer's market, and highlighted with icons such as "chef fave," to let you zero in on the super special dishes. She also uses icons to highlight foods that are gluten free, soy free, raw, low in oil, and take less than 45 minutes to make. For the beginners, she takes a few pages in the front to break down basic cooking tools and techniques.
Personally, this is exactly the kind of book I need. I want to cook more vegetables, but sometimes I just don't know how or what to cook. Now I have 175 new ideas to pull from.
By Nikki McClure
Published 2011 by Abrams Books
In a nutshell: Good for Kids, 4 out of 5 Shovels
An excellent introduction to where food comes from, "To Market, To Market" gives a basic overview of how foods get to the farmer's market in a way kids can easily understand.
From apples and kale, to salmon and cheese, each item on our narrator's shopping list is given two pages; the first to introduce the food and the person selling it (by name), the second to explain how the food is grown/harvested/created.
In a lot of ways this is exactly the book I had hoped to find for my daughter. The illustrations are beautiful, the writing has an upbeat rhythm that keeps a kid's attention, and I have to give serious props to the inclusion of animal products (in a way that is totally appropriate for an almost-four-year-old).
If it falls short anywhere it would be the imbalance of the first and second pages of each topic. The first page has a few lines in large font, and the second is a dense page of informational prose.
That said, I actually learned a lot while reading it for the first time, which is not something I think I've ever said about a book I bought for my preschooler. Also, even while I was reading the longer page of more in-depth text, my little one never tried to turn the page before I was done (which is her oh-so-delicate way of telling me to get to the good stuff).
This book made me yearn for a Sunday morning trip to the farmer's market. It made me think about asking the names of the folks at the stalls. It made me realize that I actually skip past a lot of the vendors selling things like honey and baked goods. In Los Angeles it's easy to just go to Von's and forget that there's a whole community involved in delivering food to the table, if you just take the time to engage in it.