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Relating to One's Food
on November 26, 2006
This book is a personal re-examination of food--what we eat, and why we eat it. In this book, Prentice examines food customs and traditions, searching for their physiological and environmental rationale. Her primary observation about food traditions is that they are strictly tied to the seasons, and thus the continual year-round availability of our foodstuffs has resulted in loss of much traditional knowledge about what is good for us and what isn't. In recognition of the essential seasonality of foods, Prentice organizes this book into the thirteen moons that make up the year, from the famine moon, to the sap moon, from the egg moon to the corn moon, from the blood moon to the wolf moon.
Each chapter describes the ecology that led to the association between a particular food item and a specific time of the year. In the chapters, Prentice discusses the nutritional contributions of the featured food items, and how her relationship with that food has changed over the years. For example, she explains how she used to avoid milk and other dairy products, but now relishes them as a gift of love from Mother Earth. Each chapter also includes recipes of the season, ranging from exotic dishes of non-Western food cultures, like Cardamom and Jaggery pudding, to simple directions for lost arts, such as rendering pork, or making homemade yogurt and sauerkraut.
Prentice was once a strict vegan, who for health reasons, eventually found herself drawn to a diet which includes animal products, but not the products of industrial agriculture. There is much that vegetarians and vegans would not like in Prentice's essays, since she explains how her 10 years of vegetarianism were not healthy for her. Having had the same experience myself after being a vegetarian for 20 years, I can appreciate the wisdom in what she writes. While vegetarian diets work well for some, they are not appropriate for everybody. But at the same time, diets that include the consumption of industrially produced and processed animal products do nobody any good. We need to be willing to recognize our relation and responsibilities to the animals that we consume.
I first heard of this book when I attended a Vermont Localvore potluck at which Prentice was the invited guest chef. I was deeply offended then at her attitude, when she announced she was going to make a salad using a recipe from her book, but lamented the lack of local artichokes or olive oil. `How could such a person be associated with local cooking,' I wondered, `if she doesn't even have the sense to find out what the best local ingredients are and celebrate them, instead of parading the products of another region in front of us?' I figured that a seasonal local cookbook written by a national author would be a worthless concept. Fortunately, that's not what this book attempts--instead the book is much more about rediscovering our connection to food than about specific local recipes.
Although she has become famous for leading the concept of eating foods only from one's local region, what she urges here is really an appreciation for the products of small farms. Thus, instead of simply cheering on local food, Prentice argues in this book that our industrial agriculture system has torn us away from one of the most essential of human traits, our relationship to the food that nourishes us. Instead of following diets of avoidance, Prentice advocates recognizing the meaning that each item of food brings to our lives, and using food to re-establish our connection to the land. Indeed, the only foods that Prentice avoids are those heavily processed products of industrial agriculture: refined sugar, white flour, and pre-packaged extruded junk. Although the book contains a few recipes, it is not a cookbook, but rather a wake-up call: "Our poor diet is at least partly a physical manifestation of a spiritual decay," together with some suggestions of how we can begin the journey back to healthy eating.