Book Review: The Town That Food Saved by Ben Hewitt

 

About a month ago I was perusing one of my favorite used book stores, Open Books in Chicago, and saw this powerful little book tucked away on a low shelf. The title caught my eye and without looking into it much for checking reviews online I bought it and boy am I glad I did.
 
I fell like I’m laying foundation for about 5 different long term food and health related projects / careers and this book served as a major inspiration, not just for my own endeavors, but as a testament to the power of community based business.
 
The book focuses on Hardwick Vermont, a small town with an agricultural background with a population well under 4,000. Even with this small population and long, harsh winters this town was able to cultivate a spectrum of agriculture and food businesses ranging from compost and organic seeds, to a restaurant that’s fueled by produce from within a 30 mile radius.
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“Hardwick became frist a deviation from the norm and then a collective identity. It’s not just the food the defines this identity; it’s a sort of rural pride and aptitude for surviving and even thriving in the often harsh landscape of back-road America.”

 
The author of the book, Ben Hewitt, lives just outside Hardwick and even has a small farm of his own that he and his wife operate in their spare time. So he was close enough to the muse that he understood the local dynamic but not so ingrained that any bias seemed to impact the direction of the book. First he wrote an article about Hardwick for Gourmet magazine but knew there was more to the story than the magazine article could contain. This book probably could have been twice as long and I still would have loved every page. It’s 223 pages with big font and wide spacing making it an easy one to knock out but even though it’s short, it’s absolutely packed with fascinating perspectives from the people growing the local food economy.
 
The whole time I was reading I couldn’t help but compare Hardwick to Peoria. I care so much about my hometown and feel like we’re capable of a similar revolution. Our winter isn’t as long or harsh, we have so many great farms around us and our population is roughly 100 times that of Hardwick. Peoria is overflowing with potential and I think as more people follow their passions, collaborations are explored and education is shared, we too can invest in and grow our local food economy.
 
I’ve been very focused on impacting the community around Peoria this past year and The Town That Food Saved has taken that drive to another level. This book isn’t about plant based foods or any polarizing subjects, it’s about enriching local communities, something we can all get behind.
 
Sometimes I think people may need to dream bigger. One of us could change Peoria in a major way if we think about our passions playing out on a scale that large. I don’t think it’s self centered to think about our potential in this way. Someone saying they want to change Peoria, or even the world, doesn’t come off as egocentric to me, it’s just pure ambition and if their actions align with their words that’s half the battle. I don’t exactly know the imprint I want to be making on Peoria over the next few decades but I feel like it must be community based. We’re so strong when we work together and Peoria is ripe with talented, intelligent people. I want to change things and after reading this book, the vision of what that change may look like has come into focus a bit more. I feel blessed to live in a small enough community where I can really make an impact. I’ll never stop sharing my passion and doing what I feel is true to me. I was elated to learn that this mentality is what fueled so many of the people who shaped Hardwick’s food landscape. Maybe a agricultural revolution isn’t so far off for Peoria, IL…

“It almost always begins with one or two people possessing the necessary degree of insanity to fuel an unrelenting passion that can inspire and pull others into the groundswell of the movement.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

When I saw the news this morning of Anthony Bourdain’s death I was shellshocked. I went about my morning knowing the day wouldn’t be a normal one. I hadn’t taken much time to read the details and later on in the afternoon I learned it was a suicide, which changes everything. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and felt that stifling these thoughts, or just pushing through the day, would be an utter disservice to my own mental health, and the man I respected more than I can ever express. I wish I had answers to share, but I don’t. I’m just feeling a lot today, and thought this article could serve as an aqueduct, carrying the torrent of emotion engulfing me today outwards to whoever it may interest.

To so many of us, Anthony was a pinnacle of adventure. A rambunctious, Hemingway-esque globetrotter of the modern day coupled with a culinary mind highly revered on a global level. With years of television shows, tell-all books and a style of journalism that seemed to pull back the curtain on parts of our world, domestic and abroad, that are typically hidden in plain sight, why then, is this suicide so startling?

We were so familiar with him, or at least the persona we were able to glimpse, that over the years, he truly felt like a comrade. It felt like if we met him in person, we’d get right into the good stuff, no awkward beginning, just candid friendship right off the bat. With most celebrities there’s not much we’re able to attach to, but Anthony was different. He blended the exuberant with the attainable. The gourmet with the gritty. He wasn’t just scouting out the Michelin star rated spots for the uber wealthy, he hit the dive bars and street food with as much or more passion as those at the culinary forefront.

About 10 years ago my sister became inthralled with Bourdain as she was becoming a chef herself, gravitating towards the lifestyle articulated in “Kitchen Confidential”, a book I’d pick up several years later on my journey. His content has been a staple in my life for years, long before I even learned how to cook. Through many evenings watching his wildly entertaining, profoundly insightful international adventures and reading his best selling book, my image of him took form and from the early days to the recent work, there was an undeniable darkness in him.

Maybe it would come to light in the form of a cynical joke or a crass generalization, and often times it’d get shrugged off, but I see those as tells. Sometimes he would tip his emotional hand a bit too far, and if you watched closely, you could see an underlying turmoil. Beyond the disgruntled teenage angst most of us go through, there was something more going on. When this darkness is left unchecked, it can grow right alongside the bright parts, often times eclipsed by the aspects we prefer to look at.

Just 2 days ago I was watching an episode of “Parts Unknown”, his most recent and longest running series. The episode took place in Armenia alongside Serj Tankian from System Of A Down and encapsulated more culture and genuine perspective in 45 minutes than any full length documentary could dream of. This wasn’t a stand out episode, it was par for the course for Bourdain. He never phoned it in. Every episode was a riveting piece of journalism and something those native to the land could be proud of.

The reason I bring this episode up is because, as he so often did, he took the opportunity to heckle his vegetarian guest and that exemplifies what I love about Anthony. He could sit at a table with someone of conflicting view without letting it derail the shared experience, and better yet, he could joke about monumentally important elements of life without doing so in a way that insights anger. When I read his rants about veganism in “Kitchen Confidential” I was laughing along with him. I could laugh because I have such a deep respect for him and I knew he wasn’t coming from a place of hate.

The timing is what caught me so off guard today, the circumstance however, sadly, did not. Even in moments when he was on top of the world (at times, literally) he still couldn’t let go of that cynicism. Some would say that’s just personality but I disagree.

The question that’s being asked countless times today is “Why does this keep happening?”. Earlier in the week, designer Kate Spade fell victim to the same path and soon another surly will too. We can post the number to the suicide hotline (which is fantastic), we can talk about these issues more openly (as we should), but these are still reactions. Once a problem is to the point of calling the hotline, it’s deeply embedded. I want to find preemptive approaches to reducing our escalating suicide rate.

Midway through high school, when my drinking had moved well beyond my control, a friend reached out to me. He could see that something was wrong. The problem was apparent even though I took steps to mask it. He knew me too well and saw through the facade. When you’re a 17 year old guy, asking one of your male friends if he’s ok, and expressing true worry for him is not something that comes natural. In fact, it’s rare in life when that ever is comfortable. I swiftly denied that I was in over my head, “I’ve got a handle on it” I assured him, knowing I was lying through my teeth.

When someone has a darkness in them, they’re familiar with it and they often know how to hide it, but if they drop their defense for a moment and you see something unsettling, say something. I was never going to ask for help, mainly because I just thought the problem was a part of me, and that’s a common mentality. Friends and family know the person, and when there’s something else going on, something foreign and draining, once it’s glimpsed, don’t let it go unchecked.

Obviously I never met Anthony Bourdain, I just saw something in him that I felt in myself, something I keep an eye out for in those around me. I’ve read many articles today summing up his biography, his a career and the details of his death, those aren’t things I wanted to cover here because I did not have a personal relationship with him. All I have is a supreme admiration and a gut-wrenching feeling that his story didn’t have to end this way. Anthony connected us to culture. He was a conduit of inspiration for us to get out into the world. To meet people different than ourselves. To try things we’re uncomfortable with. That spirit will never be forgotten. He’s branded a desire for exploration within us that we’ll carry for the rest of our days and pass down to those who follow us. His life has taught us lessons beyond that of a chef, or a tv show host, he was just a damn fascinating person, the type of man I wish to be, someone who could be called one of the coolest men on Earth without much objection. I know the lessons from his life will radiate through our world forever, I just hope the more difficult lessons to be learned from his death aren’t soon forgotten either.

Book Review: In Defense Of Food by Michael Pollan

 

       Michael Pollan may not be a world famous chef, but he’s one of the most well known personalities in the food industry because for years he’s been putting out relevant and thoughtful content about the current state of our food system. From his impressive bibliography to his beautifully done Netflix mini series “Cooked”, he’s continued to talk about a topic as vast as food without narrowing himself into any certain niches keeping his message meaningful to most everyone. His most popular work “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is cited as a source for so many books and articles I read that I knew it was a seminal piece but at a dense 450 pages I wanted to dig into some of his shorter works to make sure I enjoyed his writing style before going for the big one.

       As I write this I’m 26 years old and it’s been about 4 years since I shifted my dietary lifestyle and began examining more closely our food and where it comes from. This book provided me a great deal of what I was lacking, history. Our grocery stores haven’t always looked the way they do, a permitter consisting mostly of fresh foods circling the food like items or “foodstuff” as Pollan calls it. This foodstuff that fills out our stores are the products that can sit for quite awhile without rotting because so much of the nutrients have been stripped away making them less attractive to bacteria and more shelf stable. This is a win win for the producers and the consumers at a glance but only economically does the consumer experience any semblance of benefit.

 

       In his fifth book “In Defense of Food”, Pollan traces the changes that have steered to course of our food system in recent history from a more traditional and nutritious way of operating, to a convenience and calorically-dense alternative. As the benefits of various nutrients started to be understood, foods began to be viewed as a collection of nutrients, rather than a whole microcosm of overt and subtle minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, etc. With that, the advent of products like margarin and Wonder bread blossomed into in supermarkets coast to coast being touted as scientific advancements since they were able to be fortified with the most important nutrients of the times. Need more vitamin D? We’ll add it to the bread. Looking to lower your fat intake? We can modify margarine to fill that desire. As nutritionism broadened so did the industrialized products that provided the specific nutrients or calorie breakdown being hyped at the moment. So while consumers where getting exactly the nutrients they we’re hunting for coupled with the convenience of processed foods, science was seeming to make things better when really as the list of ingredients on packaged foods grew, so did the list of “Western diseases”.

       It’s no secret that in terms of health America’s not doing so hot. While there are many causes for this, Pollan focuses in on our detachment from the food chains we support, loss of food culture and highly processed foods as the key factors. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer are as American as apple pie. So much so the widely used term “Western diseases” encapsulates the host of aliments spawned from our current food system. We’ve had options all along the way but when foods are engineered to hit certain psychological triggers, (sugars, salts and fat) it’s no wonder people generally reached for the proceeded option. Now rather than passing down family recipes from generation to generation we’re setting up kids as the next round of consumers in a system that serves the medical industry more than the consumer. This section was one of many that stood out to me within Pollans extensively researched book,

“Is it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food and 5.2% of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9%, while spending on health care has climbed to 16% of national income.”

       By shifting our habits, as a group can take back our health and much of that 16% going to the medical industry. Invest in food. Real, whole and organic when possible, food. When the seasons allow and farmers markets are prevalent going direct to them is second only to growing your own. That food chain is crystal clear, your investing in a local business and getting some of the most fresh and ripe fuel for you and your families bodies. A funny thing happens when you buy lots of fresh foods, they begin to take up more space on the plate and in our stomachs than the proceed options.

       “In Defense of Food” isn’t about offering specific “eat this instead of that” type advice. Rather, it aims to provide practical understanding and general guidelines. The book focuses on 3 simple phrases: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. So basically eat whole foods rather than food like substances. Be mindful of going back for seconds before letting the first plate register which is made easy by eating slower. Third is the “Mostly Plants” suggestion, which I agree with though there’s a few points throughout it’s discussion where Pollen and I don’t see eye to eye. That being said nearly everything in this book is sound advice I agree with and laden with clearly articulated information and history without being a bore to read.

       Food is a current event. Our input informs the market and every dollar we spend is a vote cast. Processed foods have exploded in America and abroad because we’ve supported them. The power is in our hands so while we divest from the industries that don’t have our best interests at heart we’re able to invest instead toward the ones crafting the nutritious, fresh and diverse food system that will enable us to thrive in the way we’re meant to be. Food is a complex issue and getting a mix of perspectives is key, along with putting them into practice. With “In Defense of Food” Pollan brings to light the changes in our food system that have slowly be depleting our energy while simultaneously offering paths towards restored health. Both are equally important and a good book can’t have one without the other. Pollan strikes the balance perfectly making this a must read because the message of “In Defense of Food” relates to everyone, not just adults or vegans or Americans, everyone.