Activist chef and author Ann Cooper has written a new book that she hopes, in her words, will do for food safety “what Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ did for the environment.”
This is some goal. Carson’s 1962 book about wanton use of pesticides led to the banning of DDT.
Cooper takes her role model so seriously that she even echoes the bleak poetry of the title of the Carson classic by calling her new book “Bitter Harvest” (Routledge, $29.95). It is, according to the dust jacket, “a chef’s perspective on the hidden dangers in the food we eat and what you can do about it.”
Actually, it is the perspective of two people--Cooper had a co-writer, Lisa M. Holmes, whom the back flap identifies as a food writer and proprietor of a gourmet chocolate shop in Hudson Valley, N.Y.
The anxiety of the two authors is so feverish that they require only 226 pages to expose soil erosion, dwindling biodiversity, pesticide residues, misguided crop subsidies, pathogens in our food supply, the excesses of factory farming, dangers of genetically modified foods, domination of supermarkets, special interest lobbies in government, depletion of the seas and food safety.
For light relief, we are offered brief glimpses of another, finer world populated by people variously described as “idols,” “special human beings” and “unique individuals.”
Tammy, a chef-forager from the celebrated Wisconsin restaurant L’Etoile, is one of the serene elect. We can tell because she puts “perfect ingredients” in “little wood-sided red wagons.”
Cloying, perhaps, but enjoy Tammy while she lasts. Soon the book is describing “a dead zone the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico” resulting, they say, from slurry spills from factory hog and poultry farms.
The idea, of course, is to scare us into eating the way Cooper and Holmes want us to.
Some admirers of Rachel Carson may find this work of her emulators a bit hard to swallow. Carson, who died in 1964, had just the opposite of this hit-and-run approach. She was a biologist whose decades writing about the environment--particularly American seashores--led her to become editor in chief of all publications of the U.S. Wildlife Services. When she wrote “Silent Spring,” her eye never wavered from the environmental impact of pesticides.
By contrast, Cooper, who is an executive chef at an expensive private school in New York’s East Hamptons, and her shopkeeper co-writer suffer a failure to concentrate. In their bombardment, they fail to make one convincing point about one subject. Rather, they serve us anxiety pie.
They are at their worst when mauling complex scientific arguments, picking and choosing evidence as selectively as Tammy fills her little red wagon. Cooper concludes that for food safety “we should buy as few processed and packaged foods as possible.”
There are all sorts of good reasons to do this, starting with flavor and nutrition, but pathogens are not among them. Cooper and Holmes don’t seem to realize that one of the E. Coli O157 outbreaks that they hand-wring about happened to involve one of the smallest, most quality-conscious fresh juice producers in the country. It does not suit their polemic to acknowledge that pathogens are not food snobs. Given the right environment, these bacteria can reach critical levels equally well in processed or fresh foods.
If the authors don’t let facts get in the way of a good doomsday scenario, they do offer hope for the future: themselves. “Fortunately, quite a few nascent movements are currently working to protect our soil, water and air,” they write. They then name organizations to which they have ties, including Chefs Collaborative 2000 and the Culinary Institute of America.
The book is the perfect example of the zealot’s paradox. It has less in common with the traditional food producers the authors triumph, and more with the global biotechnology firms they profess to despise. These companies, too, insist that only their methods can save the world.