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Change Comes to Dinner

Beans. It starts with beans. I was raised in the south with dried beans on the menu several times a week so I love them, but for many people the simple use of the word invokes visions of boredom and blandness (at best) and off-color jokes (at worst). Heirloom. That’s some dust-catcher your grandmother gave you, right? Beans + Heirloom = Heirloom beans called Good Mother Stallard from a company called Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food, delivered by mail order. That is the improbable start of a book that examines the way we eat in America. For most of us however, comfort food means something other than Good Mother Stallard beans. That’s bad news.

There is bad news almost everywhere we look these days — and that includes the shelves of our local grocery store. Ingredient lists with words we can’t pronounce, let alone explain the meaning of, are commonplace. Entire industries exist that analyze taste-bud tissue reaction to artificial ingredients (never mind that some of them use cells from aborted fetuses to culture that tissue). Sure, it might taste like cheese on those chips, but it’s all a chemical illusion. More frightening still is the fact that those ingredients may be simultaneously making us sick and making us addicts — addicted to the very chemical that is threatening our health.

Along comes a writer, Katherine Gustafson, who sets out to see what alternatives there are to the highly-processed, chemical concoctions most of us call “food”…alternatives to food coming from half a planet away…alternatives to having to use a detective to find out the source of what’s on our plate. As a “foodie”, I was interested in what Change Comes to Dinner was all about. As a skeptic of activists, I was apprehensive about reading Change. Sure, all that fake stuff is bad for us…but let’s be realistic here. We live fast paced lives, where a “home cooked meal” likely comes from a bag in the freezer that is usually just heat-and-serve. Was this book going to be one more exercise in guilt and frustration for those of us who don’t grow our own organic produce, wear only organic natural fibers and ride our bikes everywhere?

I’m happy to say that it was anything but an exercise in frustration and guilt. Change Comes to Dinner is well written and captures the depth and breadth of alternatives to the industrial food complex in a readable and entertaining way. Ms. Gustafson writes of rooftop greenhouses, inner city farms, a hospital that uses local produce and serves gourmet meals, student programs, small farm co-ops and everything in between.

If you’ve ever paid a high price for a store-bought tomato that was completely tasteless, you’ve been party to what has come to be known as commercial agribusiness. Rather than simply lamenting the “efficient” but often nutritionally void food we often find at our mega-marts, Katherine Gustafson shows that there are myriad choices for healthy, tasty, locally grown foods and that those non-mega-producers are actually good for the local economy and for the community as a whole. “There is value in diversity…[and] people deserve more than the tasteless schlock their corporate overlords deign to provide,” she writes. She searched for “…people who dared to strike out on their own to build a new vision of an alternative food universe….In Virginia, an entrepreneur sells the products of local farms to city dwellers in an old school bus cum roving produce market. In Iowa, an extension agent helps retiring farmers pass their farms down to younger ones. In Missouri, an organization doubles the value of food stamps used at farmers’ markets. In Arizona, a company develops a high-yield, low-risk method of growing food in shipping containers. In Washington State, a cooperative uses a mobile slaughterhouse to give small farmers access to needed facilities.” There are alternatives out there!

Whether you are concerned about the environment, troubled about your health vis a vis the food you eat, or simply someone who wants to eat food that tastes good, Change Comes to Dinner is worth reading. It will change the way you look at food. The book was so good, I may go back for seconds!

Change Comes to Dinner is published by St. Martin’s Press and will be released on May 8, 2012.

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Filed under Non-Fiction