One thing I want you to understand about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation is that it is a book rooted in pleasure: the pleasure of cooking, the pleasure of eating, the pleasure Americans have taken over the last 50-60 years in their discovery that food can be so much more than mere sustenance. (And that it can be so much better than canned Dinty Moore beef stew.) It’s not a “food issues” book like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though I loved those books and recommend them as complements to mine; I’m relating the good news, Schlosser the bad, and Pollan is the guy trying to sort out where we go from here.
What I especially admire about Schlosser’s and Pollan’s books is their tone. They’re telling you what’s wrong with the way Americans eat, but they’re not hectoring you or guilt-tripping you; they’re not saying “Bad fat Americans! Stupid little tools of corporate interests!” They’re sincere in their desire to enlighten, which is refreshing in a heated climate where, too often, food activists reflexively take adversarial, I’m-smart-you’re-stupid stances. (To see an example of what I mean, look at the thread of sour-spirited reader comments that followed my interview with Salon–some of which had little or nothing to do with the interview itself.)
Which brings me to another great food activist, one of my favorite people I got to meet in the course of writing and researching my book: a young woman named Nina Planck. Nina is the author of the books Real Food: What to Eat and Why and The Farmers’ Market Cookbook. She’s the daughter of Virginia farmers, and I like her not only because she’s a nice person, but because of the jolliness of her activism, her prescriptiveness and fundamental upbeatness. In her fine Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times about the E. coli spinach scare, she points out that the strain of E. coli bacteria that’s getting people sick is often a byproduct of feeding cattle grain, which stresses the digestive systems of the animals (who, as ruminants, aren’t supposed to be eating grain). “It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighborhing farms,” Nina writes. She then points out the “good news” that cattle switched to a grass-fed diet for even a few days experience a sharp downturn in the amount of this especially nasty strain of E. coli (O157:H7) in their systems.
Nina sheds light on the problem and points the way toward a solution, while acknowledging that implementing this solution will take time and effort. (And she is brave enough not to pile scorn on Earthbound Farm, the “corporate organic” outfit whose massive recalls and current troubles have prompted some bouts of schadenfreudal cackling from other food activists, even though Pollan, in his book, finds them to be the good guys among the big outfits.)
One other thing: There was a little party in New York City last week to celebrate the launch of my book. Nina brought along her mom, Susan, who was fresh from the farm in Virginny. Susan got off the night’s best line: “I bet I’m the only person in this room who actually planted arugula yesterday.”