Tag Archives: food

The Man Who Ate the World, Jay Rayner

Henry Holt, 2008, 273 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-8050-8669-0

If you’re like me (and, on general principle, I hope you’re not), the notion of a high-end restaurant stands somewhere between irrelevance and affront.  It’s not as if I’ll ever need to go to such a place (or spend that much money on food), and my middle-class populist sensibilities are vaguely disgusted that such places exist as displays of conspicuous consumption.  No matter how much I keep telling myself that expensive multi-starred restaurants are about the experience, I still can’t place them in my universe of five-dollar sandwiches and weekly fifty-dollar grocery bills.

Fortunately, there’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner to go do the heavy eating in my stead.  In The Man Who Ate the World, Rayner embarks on a quest for “the perfect dinner”, whatever that may be.  Going around the world and making his way to high-end restaurants, Rayner takes the opportunity to reflect on what makes a perfect meal, what justifies such three-star experiences and other related issues coming to mind as he jets between his home base of London and his targets in Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, New York and Paris.  The rationale of the book, as stated right after a mock warning not to read it while hungry (“Hunger can seriously affect your ability to concentrate and, after a few pages, you will be incapable of appreciating either the grace or the subtleties of my writing” [P.1]) is to investigate the result of more than two decades’ worth of changes in the upper gastronomy landscape.  Since 1990, haute-cuisine has escaped the confines of Paris and is now to be found in not-so-likely places from Las Vegas to Dubai, neither of whom have much of a local food culture.  What does this mean for the current state of eating around the world?

Fortunately, Rayner’s not your average restaurant critic.  Born in a showbiz family, he became a solid investigative journalist before turning to restaurant reviewing and novel-writing.  You can feel all of those influences coming together in The Man Who Are the World, as Rayner reminisces about childhood experiences, explores the socioeconomic context of the restaurants ecosystem he’s studying and tells the story of his odyssey like an accomplished raconteur.  While the book may share a superficial resemblance with Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, they’re substantially different: Bourdain’s travelogue is about discovering local foods of the world (and getting drunk along the way) whereas Rayner aims to find commonalities between high cuisine outlets around the globe.  Both of their Tokyo experiences are worth reading in their own ways.  (Incidentially, Rayner does mentions Bourdain on page 145, and not entirely favourably.)

The first stop on Rayner’s worldwide tour is Las Vegas, a place that has invented itself as a culinary destination thanks to large amounts of gambler-fuelled money infusions.  Never mind the famous all-you-can-eat buffets: Las Vegas is now home to a number of high end restaurants and that’s where Rayner first wrestles with the ethics of eating on the house, and restaurants that have to import their foodstuff over hundreds of kilometres given the lack of a local food-growing infrastructure.  In Moscow, Rayner confronts the consequence of a restaurant scene that caters to the unsophisticated oligarchs that have filled the void left by the fall of communism.  Organized crime, kitsch, eye-watering prices and the shadow of the Soviet Empire are all on the menu.  Rayner’s not entirely happy about it all, but the chapter is a lot of fun to read.

In Dubai, he begins at the Burj Al-Arab Hotel by reflecting that eating at an expensive restaurant is like temporarily living as a rich person without the permanent moral karmic debt that becoming a rich person requires.  A passage about Gordon Ramsay becomes necessary when explaining how Dubai became a gastronomy destination by importing foreign expertise, much in the same way the rest of the city was built.  Not-so-random digressions on trying to keep fit as a restaurant critic and the hollow mirage of authenticity quickly follow.

However weird Dubai can be, Tokyo is even stranger.  Rayner manages to find ways to eat both well and badly in the Japanese capital, in trying to explain the very different culture that still manages to confound westerners even after decades of cross-cultural influence.  He eats indescribable stuff while doing his best to describe it to us.  He visits a fish market, has an emergency bowel movement, gets lost in trying to find small restaurants and finishes his chapter by telling us about an unforgettable meal in the care of a sushi master.

Following such a peak experience is tough even in New York, so Rayner changes tactics and goes on a good old-fashioned restaurant crawl alongside food blogger Steve Plotnicki: Five high-end restaurants in a single evening, a sprint that ends up inviting reflections on the relationship between New York and its restaurant, the Zagat guide, Rayner’s Internet gastroporn habit and what a place’s clientele says about it in a passage subtitled “Hell is Other People.”

London is a return to family, familiarity, bad experiences at expensive restaurants and quite a bit of autobiographical material.  But that’s just a warm-up for the book’s last expedition in Paris, an upper-class Super-Size Me in which Rayner sets out to eat at three-star restaurants every single day for a week.  (It begins with a medical check-up.)  Part of Rayner’s goal is to find out if eating every day at a three-star restaurants makes the experience slide into familiarity.  What he finds out is that while one can get used to rich food on a daily basis, there are still worlds of difference even between expensive restaurants: His good experiences at some places are magnified by the bad ones at others.  Still, it’s impossible to read about his lunch at L’Arpège without feeling a vicarious thrill, especially when the experience at that restaurant alone end up costing him a (low) four-figure sum.

The conclusion of the book (“Check, Please”) may not be what you’d expect.  In-between reflecting on the state of high-end world cuisine circa 2009 and all of its social and environmental implications, Rayner starts asking himself how long he still wants to stay in the restaurant-reviewing business.  As this review is written, he’s still actively updating his column on the Guardian site… but maybe “not indefinitely.  Just for a while.” [P.270]  After such an all-star tour of the world’s kitchens, who could blame him?

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

Harper Perennial, 2002 updated re-edition of a 2001 original, 383 pages, C$22.95 tp, ISBN 0-06-093845-5

Almost ten years after its publication, it’s not a stretch to call Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction exposé Fast Food Nation a budding classic.  It’s been influential enough to spawn one direct film adaptation (as an ensemble drama, no less) and inspire a documentary picture (Food, Inc), while becoming a primary inspiration for a basket of food-related non-fiction such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  The 1,462 reviews on Amazon.com so far hint at the influence it had on readers during its decade-long history.  Best of all; it’s still a terrific read in 2010.

It’s not as if his basic thesis is controversial: Fast-food (ie; food you order at a counter and get almost immediately) is a uniquely American creation, and its continued existence hints at a number of profound second-order effects.  Born in the socio-economic context of 1950s Southern California, its growth as an industry has changed the way America feeds itself.  That much is unarguable, but as Schlosser set out to examine American through the prism of fast-food, the less savoury aspects of the fast food industry quickly emerge.

It starts with the food, obviously: Chemically manipulated to a point where basic taste and smell can be manipulated at will, fast food is laden with salt, sugar and fat designed to fill you up and make you ask for more.  The resemblance with traditional food is more a matter of habit than substance.  Thankfully, Schlosser doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the health impact of the industry: the point having been made elsewhere, he feels free to talk about the second-order effects of the rapid-restaurant agri-cultural complex: The regression of the meat-packing industry to appalling standards that would make even Upton Sinclair blanch; the transformation of agriculture into a corporate cartel (a subject that has since been explored in greater detail by a variety of sources), the transformation of food in neatly marketable categories… if you thought fast food was bad for your health, just wait until you realize the impact of the industries that had to be built in order to make that cheap burger possible.

Once we’re sliding down the greased rabbit hole of the fast food underbelly, through, it’s hard to stop.  What about the voluntary servitude asked of the largely teenage employees employed at fast food restaurants?  What about the far less optional servitude of illegal immigrants employed in the meat-packing factories?  What about the lower food safety standards that result from a system concerned with profits and speed?  Fast food is not just a way for people to buy food, it’s a system that, domino-like, affects everything it touches.  The idea that one can explore a culture through what it eats has seldom been as troubling.

In delivering this work of investigative journalism, Schlosser depends on a wide variety of historical sources, personal interviews, documented statistics and verifiable press clippings.  One of the book’s smartest decisions is to ground its subject in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and examine the facets of the fast food community through a community small enough to be understood.  This microcosm becomes a way to grasp an issue that would otherwise be too overwhelming to contemplate.

Circa 2010, Fast Food Nation continues to show the way.  There is now a lot more material available to those who would like to learn more about the modern food industry, and others have picked up the threads identified by Schlosser.  There’s a reason why it’s still selling briskly: But even today, the book is still a fun, engaging, noxiously informative read… even as most of its points are now common sense.

[March 2010: As an experiment in investigative criticism, I actually went out of my way to go get lunch at McDonald’s shortly after finishing the book.  I was reminded within moments of stepping into the lunchtime rush of the restaurant why it had been years since my last Big Mac.  I’d like to say that the food was horrible, but it was… fine.  I did have some trouble at the office due to the smell of the meal, however: plans to stealthily eat at my workstation as usual were foiled by the unmistakable aroma of the combo I had ordered, and I had to retreat to the lunch room where I got a few surprised comments about what I was eating.  All in all, not an experience I’m bound to repeat soon.]

Food, Inc. (2008)

(On DVD, December 2009) The past decade has seen an unprecedented boom of interest in the way we eat, and after conquering TV networks and bookshelves, those ideas are dripping onto the big screen as well.  In this case, the kinship between books and documentary is obvious: Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) are two main interview subjects and if Pollan is merely credited as a special consultant, Schlosser also co-produced the film.  Food, Inc takes on the task of exploring the less attractive aspects of the secretive food production industry, from corn to cattle to burger.  Along the way, it explains a number of troubling realities that will be familiar to Pollan and Schlosser’s readers: How family farms are a charming relic of the past; how (de)regulation is having a disproportionate impact on our health; how food production is being controlled by very few entities; how those entities have captured governmental agencies and are given extraordinary rights to silence their critics.  Discussing food, it increasingly becomes obvious, quickly comes to touch other crucial social issues such as migrant work, copyright reform, and the role of government in industries.  As a documentary, Food, Inc is up to current standards, with a mixture of interviews, infographics, location footage and archival footage.  It’s not always pleasant to watch, but it’s informative, and gives added context to the growing amount of information about the food supply.  Though heavily US-centric, it describes issues at play in Canada as well -although I’d be curious to see a comparative examination of our regulatory regimes.  Well-made, provocative, stirring and (eek) important, it’s well worth watching as another warning light on our modern dashboard.

Julie & Julia, Julie Powell

Back Bay Books, 2009 movie tie-in reedition of 2005 original, 307 pages, C$16.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-316-04427-1

Movies based on a single book are common, but the 2009 food comedy Julie & Julia is actually based on two books: Julia Child’s autobiographical My Life in France, and Julie Powell’s own Julie & Julia.  If you have both books available, tackle Child’s book first: It’s a warm narrative of Child’s experience learning to cook properly in Paris, then taking years to transform that skill into a now-classic cookbook.  It’s charming, faithful to Child’s voice and a terrific incentive to learn more about cooking.  My Life in France also provides the foundation upon which Julie & Julia is built: When Julie Powell decides to cook all the recipes in Child’s cookbook in a single year, she’s drawing inspiration from the events that Child describes.

But this isn’t a review of My Life in France.  For various reasons, it’s more interesting to tackle Powell’s book.  Whereas Child sound happy, confident and masterful, Powell depicts herself as a neurotic, confused and cranky administrative assistant, adrift in life until she sees the chance to do something epic.  It doesn’t make her as admirable a figure as Child, but it sure makes her more interesting.

So it is that Julie & Julia describes how Powell literally picks herself up from the floor and launches herself in a project that most of us would rightfully consider to be a bit mad: 524 recipes in a year, chronicled as a blog.  The book is not the collected blog; it’s rather a book-length essay, written after the fact but generally espousing the chronology of the events in that “year of cooking dangerously”.

Much of the book is devoted to cooking by someone whose skills in that matter were good but not impossibly so: Julie occasionally sees recipes fail spectacularly, can’t find ingredients even in New York, makes mistakes and sees her personal life altered by her experiences.  This is all good fodder for comedy, of course: Cooking lobsters doesn’t sound like a big deal until you’re bringing them back home on the subway, and then killing them in various ways.  (The movie makes a big deal of the lobsters, but the book does a lot more mileage out of other traumatic experiences, including cleaving marrow out of bones.)

But Powell’s year of cooking Childishly isn’t all about laughs and madcap adventures: Child’s low-level work at a Manhattan federal organization dealing directly with the aftermath of 9/11 is fraught with heartbreak and frustration, not to mention workers who aren’t entirely sympathetic to her growing fame as a food blogger.  (She does tend to lump an awful lot of them in a group called “Republicans”, which sounds impolite even to my Canadian ears.)  At home, tensions arise between herself and her husband over the course of the experience: theirs is a mature marriage, and the crises that arise between them are typical of people who have been together a long time.

But in the end, it’s not the food (although Julie & Julia will shame you in becoming a better one), nor the tale but the words that hold up the story together.  Powell writes well, writes hilariously and writes with a good attention to detail.  The stories fit together, the episodes rise to a narrative climax and there aren’t many dull moments.  We get a glimpse at the mindset of a cook’s developing expertise, as well as a pretty good depiction of what it means to be a blogger who suddenly gets a lot of attention.

While Julie Powell may not be a super-heroine, she has achieved something extraordinary twice: First in cooking her way out of the book in a single year (something that still leaves me agog; how do you even manage to eat the leftovers during that time?), but also by writing a compelling memoir of the experience, a perfect treat for foodies and readers alike.  See the film (which isn’t all that faithful nor as funny as the book), read the book and cook for yourself.

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Harper Perennial, updated 2007 edition of 2000 original, 334 pages, $15.95 tp, ISBN 978-0-06-089922-6

In some ways, a great book is like great food: You can try to break it down to its individual components, but the final result will always be measured by how you sit back and say “Wow, that was good.”

But in most other ways, great food really isn’t like a great book at all, and that’s where Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential comes in.  Riding high on America’s renewed passion for all things foodish, chef Bourdain’s memoir was published in 2000 to instant acclaim, in part because it offers a refreshingly frank look at what happens in the kitchen of average restaurants.  While Bourdain can (and does, early on) romanticizes the power of great food, much of Kitchen Confidential concerns his own rocky path through the New York restaurant scene, and the hot, frantic, unglamorous reality of a restaurant kitchen when dinnertime starts, patrons rush in and the pressure builds.

Unlike other celebrity chefs, Bourdain was never renowned as a flashy or particularly meritorious cook: The chronicles of his earliest days includes one particular achievement (graduating from CIA, which should be understood not as the spy agency, but as the “Culinary Institute of America”, a New York school for chefs) and several less-admirable traits: Heavy drug use, fast-burn living, and a generally aimless career path.  His description of what happens in failing restaurants is informed by several personal experiences.  But his flaws are not exceptional in an environment where this type of behaviour is considered normal: It takes a special kind of personality to work in a professional kitchen, and Bourdain’s description of what happens there is one of the book’s most vivid qualities.

One of the book’s standout chapters, “A day in the life”, chronicles a typical workday for Bourdain, who was then kitchen manager at a middle-class New York restaurant.  It’s a chaotically choreographed ballet of ordering, inventory management, stocking, staffing challenges and, obviously, quite a bit of cooking.  One of Kitchen Confidential’s particular themes is to highlight the distinction between chef and cook: Once the chef (sometimes famous) has determined what the restaurant offers, it’s up to the line cooks to deliver the food to the customers, and that doesn’t take creativity and bonhomie as much as it asks for reliability, consistency and the ability to perform the job in a distraction-rich environment  while resisting the pressures to deliver substandard results in the name of efficiency, time, cost or convenience.  Bourdain takes a particular pride in his regular crew of immigrant workers, lauding their work ethics in comparison to born-and-raised-Americans.

Another of Kitchen Confidential’s big success is in the candid depiction of the atmosphere of a professional kitchen: a multicultural group united by a powerful under-the-fire camaraderie, characterized by vicious put-downs meant to test a comrade’s grace under pressure more than to actually insult the recipient.  Bourdain’s depiction of kitchen language is never less than R-rated, which is part of its authenticity.  But it’s Bourdain’s various portraits of the people he has worked with that round out the look at the very different sub-culture in which he belongs.  Bourdain’s fiction credentials (he had two novels published before Kitchen Confidential) serve him well in characterizing the essential details that spice up his narrative.

The result is not just a great book, but the kind of gripping narrative that makes one sorry for short commutes and early sleep times.  It’s a tough book to abandon in mid-read, and even non-foodies won’t necessarily be put off by the wealth of culinary knowledge assumed by Bourdain.  At a time where there is a lot of material on the shelves about every single conceivable aspect of food, Kitchen Confidential still holds up a decade later.  This being said, do try to get your hands on the updated edition, which describes some of what happened to Bourdain and his acquaintances since then (he’s become a world-trotting celebrity food commentator with his own TV show) and reports on aspects of the industry since Kitchen Confidential’s original publication.  Fortunately, write Bourdain, things have generally improved: standards are higher, food is more respected, and chefs earn more respect.  Of course, this doesn’t change why you should avoid buffets, fish on Monday or well-done steak… although, as Bourdain suggests, you only live once.  Try a bit of everything.

[February 2010: Bourdain’s follow-up, A Cook’s Tour, is a different book, although it is clearly prefigured by the closing Japan-based chapters of Kitchen Confidential: As a follow-up, Bourdain decides to live a life of adventure and go eat strange meals in even-stranger places. Alcohol, drugs, adventure and exotic food follow. The book led to a TV series, but it also acts as a commentary to the TV series. It’s all good fun in the tradition of hard-partying travelogues, although people looking for more kitchen-based material won’t find it here.]

Waiter Rant, Steve Dublanica

Harper Perennial, 2008 (2009 paperback re-edition), 302 pages, C$18.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-06-125669-1

I might as well get something unpleasant out of the way: I hate tipping.  I really, really hate it in the same way my Cartesian mind hates the unwritten rules of social interaction.  Oh, I still do it, sticking to the socially-acceptable “15% plus a bit more” standard, but I’m one of those who would rather pay more on my bill for fully-salaried workers and dispense with the added complication.  I like cold, hard printed numbers.

But after reading Steve Dublanica’s Waiter Rant, you can be sure that I won’t spend as much time raging against tips.  Part biography of a professional waiter, part anthropological exposé of the job, Waiter Rant tells you about life on the other side of the dining table.  Readers with an interest in fine web writing may recognize the title: After all, “Waiter Rant” was the name of a relatively popular pseudonymous blog.  Now the author, revealed during the hardcover publicity campaign to be Steve Dublanica, has stepped up to the demands of a major book contract.  Fans of the blog may be relieved to learn that the book is no mere reprint of blog notes, but that it arranges many of those incidents in a cohesive narrative.

It starts about seven years ago, as Dublanica becomes a waiter after professional setbacks.  At the time, it’s a temporary job at a pretty dysfunctional restaurant.  But Dublanica soon ends up working somewhere else as a waiter/manager, and the years pile up… by the time the narrative truly starts in Chapter 4, our narrator has been waiting tables at “The Bistro” for six years, and the pressures are piling up.  Waiter Rant tells us about the last year that Dublanica spent at The Bistro.

It goes without saying that Waiter Rant is an exposé of the waiter’s job.  The subtleties of the situations, the difficult clients that they encounter on a regular basis, the terrible things that happen even in high-end restaurants, the special holidays, busy shifts, tricks of the trade and ways to land on a waiter’s black-list: Waiter Rant has it all, and it’s told in crisp, hypnotically readable prose.  Dublanica has peered deep in the human condition, seen unspeakable things and he is gifted enough to tell us about it.  Bad patrons beware: Waiter Rant leaves you with no excuses and little justification. (There’s a handy 40-point checklist at the back to tell you how to behave. And so-called “foodies” can be the worst.)

But what could have been just a book of anecdotes and trade secrets soon becomes something else, as Dublanica’s facade as a professional waiter cracks to reveal a man stuck in his set patterns, a developing writer afraid to take the next steps, a waiter taking refuge in the known certitudes of his once-temporary job.  The external pressures on his job, as tensions at the restaurant escalate to an untenable climax, merely confirm his inner struggle to do more with his life.  It’s during those moments that our smooth and cynical “Jedi Waiter” becomes a well-rounded character: It’s a tricky balance, especially at first, but it develops in a successful narrative structure that does a lot for the book.

Dublanica’s strengths as a writer are obvious: He has a sharp eye for details, doesn’t embarrass itself with useless details, and often ends chapters on ironic notes.  He’s able to stand in the middle of his anecdotes, yet tell them from a detached perspective, using specific incidents to illustrate larger points of etiquette, sociology or economic theory.  Some of his techniques feel a bit too on-the-nose (such as a “dialogue” that passes off as a lecture on the merits of proper financial management), but they’re usually blips on an otherwise smooth narrative.

I picked Waiter Rant on not much more than a whim and ended up with one of my favourite reads of the year so far.  I may not like tipping because it’s so wide open to interpretation, social customs and the whim of the moment, but after reading the book, it feels as if I’ve been given the keys to understanding what tipping is about… and why it matters.  Until all of American society comes to realize the advantages of fully-salaried waiters, my 15% “and change” is likely to weigh a bit heavier on the “change” side from now on.  After all, as Dublanica writes, don’t eat out if you can’t afford the tip.

(One recommendation for savvy readers: pick up the paperback edition, which not only properly credits Dublanica on the cover, but includes an afterword discussing his success after the publication of the hardcover edition.  It makes for a truly satisfying epilogue.)

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

Penguin, 2008, 244 pages, C$26.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-59420-145-5

“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly Plants.”

There.  In seven words, that’s a summary of Michael Pollan’s wisdom.  Helpfully, the cover of the book even sports those words.  If you’re not yet satisfied, you can always read Pollan’s New York Times article “Unhappy Meals” in which he laid out most of his book’s central message.

Otherwise, well, what can I say?  It’s tough to review great books.  Once I have urged you to go and get the book, everything else is an anticlimax.

Oh, OK, a few more contextual details may be useful: For instance, you really should read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma before tackling In Defense of Food.  While both can be read independently, Polaln’s previous book provides a theoretical framework over which his latest book elaborates.  In fact, Pollan is up-front about the fact that reader reaction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma led him to write In Defense of Food: After spending four hundred pages explaining all about the unsustainable and unhealthy process through which our food comes from, Pollan found himself deluged with questions about what to do about it.  In Defense of Food is an answer: not a rigid system, but a set of ideas and guidelines meant to help us navigate through supermarkets booby-trapped with false nutritional claims and processed variants of mostly-corn.

The first few chapters of In Defense of Food tackle the industry of nutrition.  With brief historical overviews of how Americans have been seduced over and over again by dubious claims about what they should be eating, Pollan comes to the conclusion that trying to add explicitly-nutritive ingredients to synthetic food is a losing proposition.  Humans, he reasonably reminds us, have co-evolved with their natural food sources for thousands of years: The interaction between human nutritive systems and natural food means that it’s difficult to isolate the building blocks of what food does to the body.  A reductionist approach (add this much fat, that many carbohydrates, a little bit of protein…) is actually harming us: it’s better to stick as closely to naturally-grown whole food as possible.

That’s not exactly a new or revolutionary message, although Pollan’s catch-phrases are memorable: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” is one of the best.  But as a reminder of what we should strive to do in-between the convenience of food-court lunches, it’s an entertaining and convincing discourse.

Along the way, though, we learn a bit more about government intervention in the mechanics of the food pyramid (both the one that hangs on walls, and the real one that favours certain industries over others in bringing you sustenance) and reflect on the meaning of a healthy food culture.  Passing nutrition manias such as the “Atkins Diet” (which seems to have disappeared from the mainstream as quickly as it entered it) are symptoms of a bigger problem, which is to say the appalling lack of knowledge that most (North-)Americans have about how and what to eat.

If nothing else, In Defense of Food will make you feel a lot better about how much you know about food.  In the last section of the book, Pollan suggests ways to best shop at the supermarket: Avoid food with unpronounceable ingredients, avoid food that make health claims, go to a farmer’s market whenever possible, cook, eat slowly, plant a garden… the trouble with a lot of those recommendations are that they’re very familiar: It’s what your mom told you, and most of it can be deduced from “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly Plants.”  Culinary wisdom is simple:  it’s sticking to it despite inconvenience that’s hard.
There’s also the suspicion that In Defense of Food will mostly be read like people who intend well and already do most of what it recommends: At a time where market forces are what really changes supermarkets (and in turn, what’s easily available to us), the real issue here will be to get people who aren’t concerned about their diet to start paying attention.

So: “Read Pollan.  Eat better food.  Discuss issues.”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Penguin, 2006 (2007 reprint), 450 pages, C$19.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0

I should preface this review by saying that I worked several summers on my uncle’s farm, and that I’m no stranger to that end of the food production chain. Several of the experiences described in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma aren’t so strange to me: I have moved cattle from one field to another, shoveled excrement, held on to carcasses being gutted and everything in-between the life of a farm hand from dusk to dawn. When I eat steak, I can tell you where it came from, how it was processed and why cows deserve to be eaten.

But few North-Americans can say the same about what they eat, and the nature of the modern food-processing industry is such that no one can vouch for the provenance of the stuff they eat. It’s that realization that led Pollan to embark on a major documentary project: Trace the origins of what we eat, and do so using the excuse of four different meals.

The first meal in an all-American McDonald’s lunch, and it’s the most hard-hitting part of the book. While many people (myself included) still harbor quaint notions of family farms, feeding North America requires an industry that is more about chemicals and overproduction than free-range cattle. In a few eye-opening chapters, Pollan describes entire agricultural landscapes taken over by the monoculture of corn, floating on virtual oceans of oil given how non-renewable substances are essential in pushing corn growing well beyond self-sustainability. In a few cogent passages, Pollan directly links government policies and subsidies to the corn-saturated diet of all Americans, a diet whose deleterious impacts are still being discovered. Corn has come to invade nearly every single aspect of food production, even in food that seemingly has nothing to do with corn: the modern chemical industry has found hundreds of derivative corn-based products, and a similarly robust effort to re-create artificial smells and flavors can seem to transform corn into just about anything. That’s the first of the many revelations in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the shocks keep piling up as Pollan tries to learn more about how beef is grown and raised on the gigantic meat factories of the Midwest. (There’s a limit to what he can find out when the biggest meat-producers forbid him from getting inside their factories.) Pollan’s first meal tastes of chemicals and oil in more than metaphorical ways as we’re left to contemplate a system engineered for cheap food, not necessarily for good or healthy or sustainable living.

But is there an alternative? Pollan’s second meal is assembled from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods supermarkets, but his research into “Big Green” suggests that the Organic movement is little more than a feel-good label on environmentally unsound practices. Better than McDonald’s, sure, but still nowhere near self-sustainability: on the way from the hippies to Whole Foods, the process was co-opted and corrupted by the very same corporations that Organic food was supposed to run against.

Pollan’s third meal is a little more encouraging. Wearing overalls for a week, Pollan finds himself on Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm, working for his food in a highly optimized ecosystem where few things are ever wasted. As luck had it, I ended up reading this section on the family farm, and my descriptions of the various ways in which Polyface recycles and reuses its ecosystematic components caused a number of favorable comments from family members better equipped to evaluate the process. Pollan finds some peace and contentment in putting together his third meal from the environmentally-sustainable Polyface products, but he’s more than ready to admit that the process doesn’t scale up: Trying to feed North America using a Polyface model would require a lot more land and farmers than we’ve got.

But the experience of cutting chicken necks on Polyface soon leads Pollan to his fourth meal, for which he intends to gather all the material himself from local sources, from killing a wild board to gathering salt from the ocean. His experiment doesn’t always go as planned (the salt from the San Francisco Bay seems too toxic to consume), but the digressions along the way include meditations on being a hunter, and the strange sub-culture of mushroom-gatherers.

But a bland recitation of Pollan’s four meals misses the point that this is a fantastic non-fiction exploration of food and how it’s tightly integrated with the environment, with economics, with society and with our own biology. This is investigative journalism at its finest, as Pollan not only finds the facts, but manages to present them vividly. The Omnivore’s Dilemma has a nearly perfect narrative drive (the only exception being Pollan’s chapter-long exploration of vegetarianism, which isn’t something in which I’m terribly interested) and plenty of jumping points for personal inquiry.

I found myself wondering, for instance, whether there was an appreciable difference between Canadian and American diets: given the role that US sugar subsidies have played in promoting the use of high-fructose corn syrup in just about every facet of American food; can there be other differences between Canadian and US food? Despite its climate, is Canada closer to food self-sustainability than the US?

But chances are that everyone will find themselves looking at food differently after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Going to the supermarket becomes a different experience once you can picture the oceans of corn that are distilled into making up a significant fraction of what’s on the shelves. Ingredient labels become fascinating. Processed food become less appealing. Heck, even a locally-grown stalk of broccoli is somehow ennobled by Pollan’s book.

It helps that Pollan isn’t quite as strident as other food writers (such as Susan Powter, for instance) in convincing us to change our rotten ways. Most of his argumentative power comes from implication. Environmentalism may be an unarguable conceptual virtue, but it’s more sobering to consider that the end of cheap oil will have a profound impact on our food supply. Self-sustainability means planning for the long term, and our food supply chain in its current form definitely isn’t built to last.

Good non-fiction is always a pleasure to read, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma goes beyond that to become a mesmerizing experience, filled with revelations and questions. It will spur you to learn more (Pollan’s own follow-up In Defense of Food was written partly to answer some of the most nagging questions left by this book) and maybe even nudge you gently toward more responsible lifestyle choices. Even, especially, if you’ve never worked on a farm.

Ratatouille (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) After a temporary half-eclipse with Cars, the Pixar team returns in full force with an unbelievably slick film about a gourmet rat and the pleasures of gastronomy. An unlikely mixture, but one that works well: through a mis-matched pair of protagonist who each need something from the other, we’re able to explore the inner workings of a French restaurant. But as usual for Pixar’s best offerings, there’s a lot more under the surface here: Terrific comedy, strong details, sweet romance, superb action scenes, heartfelt moments (including a number of epiphanies, a rare-enough emotion in movies) and exceptional characterization. None of it would be possible without a solid script that allows itself third-act curveballs (it’s not over until it’s really over) and some of the best computer animation ever seen so far. Pixar takes pain to make it appear as easy as they can, but there’s a lot of sophistication under the surface. Witness, for instance, the cleverness in which the photo-perfect food and backgrounds are integrated with the more stylized human and rodent characters: It allows identification and sympathy for the cartoons, while immediately exploiting all we know about food and the physical world. There’s a neat bit of synesthesia at play during some of the sequences, and very clever use of imaginary characters as an expository device. But the mechanics are there for a good reason, and the result is nothing short of a movie-long delight. Funny, thrilling and effortlessly accessible, Ratatouille, like director Brad Bird’s previous The Incredibles, immediately vaults to the top of this year’s list of films.

(Second viewing, In theatres, July 2007) Worth seeing a second time? Certainly! Freed from the constraints of the story, I’m left to enjoy the flawless slapstick animation, the details of the photo-realistic backgrounds, the way the filmmakers set up the shots and the reaction of the crowd around me. A few flaws appear (I’m not too thrilled at who says the line “That’s bad juju”, or the dumb line “I hate to be rude –but we’re French”. After all, you seldom hear “I hate to be the immature product of a delusional capitalistic imperialist society –but we’re American”), but they’re really minor things: The film holds up in every aspect, sign of the meticulous care in which it was fashioned. Ratatouille confirms its place in the yearly Top-10 list, and makes a serious contender for best-of-the-year honours.

Super Size Me (2004)

(In theaters, September 2004) So McDonald’s says that its products are perfectly healthy and those obese people suing them are just not making the right choices. Well, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decided to take the fast-food chain to its word and, for thirty days, live on a diet exclusively composed of products bought at McDonalds. Three square meals a day, eating just what’s on the menu at Mickey-Ds. Naturally, he had to film the experience and measure his progress. Two days later, he’s throwing up; by the middle of the month, doctors are aghast at his blood tests and demanding that he stops. Yes, Super Size Me is a stunt, but it’s also more than the chronicles of a mad experiment: it’s a journey through the seedy intestines of fast-food culture circa 2004. Packed with fun segments and shocking facts, this is a compulsively watchable documentary. Despite the muddy video and the uneven sound, Spurlock’s film is a little gem of advocacy backed up by a sympathetic star/test subject. I wasn’t fond of the home-grown rock-and-roll snippets, but otherwise the film is a solid documentary. Rent the DVD, call some friends and have a vegan party.

The Edible Man, Anne Kingston

MacFarlane Walter & Ross, 1994, 365 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 0-921912-72-2

My fascination with all things related to Loblaws grocery stores will be difficult to understand by non-Canadians (or even, I suspect, non-Ontarians). Suffice to say that Loblaws is the provincial champ when it comes to food retailing. It provides a lot of good food at good prices, and that’s nothing to dismiss even if you’re one of those who swears by farmer’s markets, health co-ops and ethnic groceries. For nerds like me for whom the food-gathering experience is torture, Loblaws has simplified the process (through wide aisles, bulk packaging and tons of frozen dinners) to such an extent that shopping anywhere else is a trip back in hell.

But that’s just me. Ask anyone else in Ontario, though, and they’re likely to mention the “Insider’s Report” ads and the distinctive “President’s Choice” products that are produced exclusively for Loblaws. In a world dominated by brands like Coca Cola, Heinz, Kraft, Christie’s or Nestlé, Loblaws has managed to build an in-store brand that offers products equal or superior to those sold everywhere else. The only way to get those “President’s Choice” products, naturally, is to go to Loblaws or one of their affiliates. Slick.

This state of affairs is familiar to Ontarians, but it wasn’t always so, nor is it still a phenomenon outside the province. The Edible Man (subtitled “Dave Nichol, President’s Choice and the Making of a Popular Taste”) explains why, as it tracks not just the life of Dave Nichol (the putative “President” of the brand), but also the history of Loblaws, and tangential issues such as the rise and fall of consumer environmentalism, the education of taste, the war between national brands and in-house brands, the mechanics of cookies, the challenges in producing Italian food for dogs (no, really) and the introduction of low-cost beer in Canada.

The rise of Loblaws as a major food empire in Ontario (along with Nichol’s role in this renewal) is a fascinating story and writer Anne Kingston does her best to extract all facets of it. While you may expect, from the title, a simple biography of Nichol, the real story is in food retailing. Fascinating anecdotes about the mechanics of food mass-production pepper the narrative, exposing readers to vitally important issues they may never have considered. (How much time do you spend thinking about what you eat? How much time should you spend thinking about what you eat?)

In this, Dave Nichol emerges as a visionary with a truckload of faults. Contrary to the impression suggested by the chatty “Insider’s Reports” and the personality-centred “President’s Choice” promotional material (complete with his dogs and personal opinions about the nation), Nichol doesn’t have much affection for the “Unwashed Masses”. Gradually trained in fine cuisine from decidedly non-aristocratic origins, Nichol made himself an elitist arbiter of good taste in all facets of his life. Good news for customers, bad news for his employees: Tales of Nichol’s temper are also sprinkled throughout the book, reinforcing the impression of a tyrant who got results. For an authorized biography (Nichol figures prominently in the acknowledgements), this is an unusually honest one, even though one suspects that elitists do, in fact, like to be recognized as such. (Nichol’s lack of enthusiasm for ethnic food, however, is an interesting commentary on his so-called fine taste.)

As a non-fiction book, this is a good one; issues are explained clearly, all the principal players seem to have been interviewed directly and if the structure is often erratic, the tangents are fascinating. All is brought together by a good index. Whether it’s used for reference or for pleasure reading, The Edible Man is one tasty non-fiction book.

As is often the case with books almost a decade old, an update would be sorely needed. Nichol’s departure, which closed the book, wasn’t exactly the end of the line as far as his involvement with Loblaws was concerned: His face, his “Insider’s Report” and, obviously, his “President’s Choice” products continue to be facets of circa-2003 Loblaws store. Cott is still going strong as a generic soft-drink company after a disastrous diversification in the mid-nineties: it only recovered after the death of its founder (something one could predict from reading The Edible Man). Deals with retailers in Quebec have allowed Loblaws to expand in this market. After the abrupt end of his Cott-sponsored new business endeavours in the mid-nineties, Dave’s biggest post-Loblaws success to date has been a line of beers, an ironic fate for a man who didn’t even like this very proletarian drink…

McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, John F. Love

Bantam, 1986, 470 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-05127-X

I didn’t pick this book; it picked me. Fell on me, actually. Slipped off the shelf at a used book sale and was caught in mid-air by a reflex action of mine. One can’t ignore those signs; I brought it home.

It’s hard to find a more iconic institution than McDonald’s. Given that the average North-American is almost always within good walking distance of one of their outlets, this restaurant chain has come to represent far more than just fast food. It has been associated with gastronomic imperialism, the culture of speed, the fattening up of America, the perils of globalization and a rigid sense of order. Step into any McDonald’s anywhere in the world and you will find commonalities with all the others.

From the outside, McDonald’s seems to exemplify rigidity, stability and hierarchy. But as John F. Love manages to show in Behind the Arches, this is an incomplete, carefully cultivated portrait. For the strength of McDonald’s has been not unthinking devotion to order, but reigned entrepreneurial spirit. McDonald’s has always encouraged innovations, both inside and outside their immediate purview.

Obviously, this is a “friendly” biography of McDonald’s. While the project wasn’t commissioned by the company, extensive collaboration was given to Love in order for him to complete the project. While the book does discuss the sometime-rocky corporate history of the firm with a critical eye, it seldom delves into the darker side of the company. You’ll have to read Fast-Food Nation for that.

But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. McDonald’s success story can be appreciated regardless of one’s feeling toward the food offered there. At times, it almost seems too good to be true; the story of two brothers with a good idea (speed and price; always speed and price!), a refined system and a convinced salesman who’d transform this kernel into the foundation of an empire. Behind the Arches is also the story of the people who made a success out of McDonald’s, and none of them as grandiose as Ray E. Kroc, the man those no-nonsense approach made an empire out of McDonald’s.

The early struggles of McDonald’s are told in a detailed, almost breathless style that requires very little effort to read. While the early heroics of the corporation latter transform into high-finance deals (including a disastrous flirtation with a more rigid style of management), the book remains interesting from the start to end. Seldom has there been a more compelling corporate biography.

It’s not as if it’s an ordinary story. The bare facts are astonishing: The way McDonald’s restructured whole industries in order to be best-served. The importance of the franchisees. The decentralized fashion by which advertising is used. The emphasis on real estate. The technological innovation that went into developing even the simplest food products. The difficult foreign expansion of the company. The battle for rumour control and favourable opinion. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s all worth reading. The origins of Ronald McDonald are almost charmingly quaint, whereas the process by which some of the most recognizable McDonald staples were created is a monument to food engineering.

The biggest problem of Behind the Arches, naturally, is the 1986 publication date. Fifteen years past, who knows what has changed since then? Is McDonald’s still so loyal with its suppliers? Does it still depend so much on the individualism of their franchisees? An update would be useful.

But in the end, I was so impressed (and, true, so curious), that I willingly stepped in another McDonald’s (meters away from my workplace, a location that was the sole victim of vandalism during the Ottawa anti-globalization protests of 2001) after years of absence. Despite the noon-time crowd, service took less than five minutes. Once back at my office, I offered brief congratulations to Ray E. Kroc, started eating and headed over to www.mcspotlight.com because I’m such a sucker for irony. The meal reminded me of why I hadn’t eaten McDonald’s in a while, but in a way, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the impressive display of ingenuity, determination and sheer cleverness that is the true basis of McDonald’s success. Even critics and pundits can’t help but being impressed, whatever their sentiments may be regarding what McDonald’s stands for.

So here’s to you, Ray A. Kroc, Fred Turner, and united franchisees. Good show.

Food, Susan Powter

Pocket, 1995, 542 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-56756-X

Food is a deceptively simple title for such a complex book. Everyone needs to eat. Whole industries have been created around one of humankind’s most basic desire. Heck, there’s even an industry with the goal of teaching people how to eat less.

Susan Powter’s follow-up to Stop the Insanity! remains primarily an unusually-detailed diet book, but that doesn’t stop it from providing the reader with a holistic look at food; what it is, how it comes to be in supermarkets, how it’s sold to us and how we use it as much more than simple fuel. Though it would be dangerous to suggest Food as an “ultimate” book on nutrition, it’s certainly provocative enough to strike fear, doubt and uncertainty in even the most convinced couch potatoes.

It’s not as if Powter doesn’t know what she’s talking about, couch-potato-wise: As she relates to us again, and again, and again, a series of emotional disasters made her bloat up to 260 pounds before she got a grip and made herself melt back down to her current 130-odd pounds. Susan Powter’s relationship to food is more complex than most of us but don’t worry; by the end of the book (heck, by the end of page 25) you’ll be told her whole story in excruciating detail. Over and over again.

We’ll come back to Powter’s particular manias in a short while, but let’s mention right away that Food is akin to the most unpleasant dietician you’ll ever meet. Organized in three part, Food gradually hammers down the usual American diet until nothing is left beyond tofu and organically-grown vegetables. “Stage One” is simple enough; spell “less fat” and you’ve mastered the essential of it. It’s not so simple, of course; Powter explains in tedious detail the “fat formula”, the wily ways of the fat industry and the insidious lure of fast food. There are recipes, calories tables and checklists: Food can be used as a reference book. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, which if course doesn’t mean you’ll be any more receptive to it.

Don’t worry yet; it gets worse. In “Stage Two”, Powter goes beyond the Fat paradigm and takes a chainsaw to the dairy industry, protein, sugar, chicken and everything else that makes eating good and just. If you’re not depressed by the end of that section, you haven’t been paying attention.

I’m not sure if it gets worse in “Stage Three”, where Powter turns her attention to chemicals, psychological issues related to food and other jolly topics. On one hand, the eat-well message gets more and more rigorous; on the other, Powter’s own tics and motifs become so intrusive as to trivialize what she’s saying.

Part of it is the Powter writing style; chatty, breathless as well as HEAVY ON CAPITAL LETTER AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!! It’s accessible, but best absorbed in small doses; otherwise, it’s like being stuck with a nagging shrew. What doesn’t help are the constant (and I mean constant) references to Powter’s life history, which eventually smacks of deeper problems than simply food addiction. (This isn’t as much of a catty comment as you might think; Powter herself acknowledges this, though it doesn’t make it any less annoying.)

It’s difficult to describe the ultimate impact of the book. On one level, yes, it’s hard to continue eating in the same way after reading the catalogue of potential horrors trotted out in Food. Most of her recommendations make a lot of sense. Heck, I even find myself somewhat sympathetic to casual vegetarians, which is something I never thought I’d write in a public forum.

On the other hand, I’m not seeing any behaviour modification in my own life after Food: You’ll only pry my red meat out of my cold dead mouth. (A potentially ironic statement, that!) Food is also, despite the breezy humorous tone, a deeply depressing book; post-Powter, food becomes not an obligation or a pleasure, but a chore and a highly complex chore at that.

Given the massive amounts of partisan disinformation in the food arena, it’s dangerous to suggest that there’s an ultimate source of information out there. Powter’s Food certainly isn’t, though it’s an exemplary piece of argumentation. If nothing else, that’s a good start.