Like most people who are passionate about food and cooking I have a myriad of cookbooks adorning shelves in my kitchen. I tend to read them as I would a novel and then take inspiration from favourite dishes. However the last two books that I have bought have been more food books than cookbooks. No recipes to follow, more guidance on what, how and why. The first was Niki Segnit’s wonderful The Flavour Thesaurus and this one, What to Eat by Joanna Blythman.
Rarely does a book have such a profound effect on me. I like to think I eat well, have a balanced diet, ethically source my food and utilise local produce where possible. It was after all the reason for starting to write this blog. However after reading the introduction to this book you, like me, will probably quickly realise the pre-conceived ideas and perceptions that you have are not necessarily correct. I should point out that as with any other book I don’t take it that every single thing in this book isn’t open to challenge by some. I’m sure it is, there’s many things that will prove controversial to a lot of people. But that’s half the fun, it provokes thought and debate and leads you to challenge the ideas and values that you have, some which may be deep-rooted.
The introduction should be made available as a 20 page pamphlet for everybody who buys and eats food. With two headings: The 20 principles of eating, made simple and 10 ways to save money on food without compromising your principles this chapter deals with our ever-growing reliance on processed foods, factory farmed meat and supermarkets among other things. Lifting the lid on a lot of the ‘mistakes’ we make in our daily lives. If you read this I can virtually guarantee that it will help save you money, improve your health and that of your family and give you an understanding of what animal welfare really means.
The chapters then on in are titled as a ‘traditional’ cookbook would be. Vegetables, Meat, Dairy, Fish, Fruit and Larder. It is here that the research and attention to detail is evident. Every ingredient imaginable is dealt with. ‘Things to do with green and runner beans’, ‘Are potatoes good for me?’, ‘How is yogurt produced?’, ‘Is lamb a green choice?’, ‘How is oily fish caught?’ and ‘Where and when should I buy strawberries and will they break the bank?’. These questions and more are answered in a ‘these are the facts make your own mind up’ type fashion. Food and what we eat it for, nutrition and enjoyment, is at the heart of each individual section with ideas on how to get the most from your ingredients. I’d never have thought of adding blue cheese to cheddar cheese sauce to make Brussels Sprouts more palatable or that venison works really well done in a North African style with dried fruits and aromatic spices or even that saffron is a wonderful partner flavour to white fish. Every time I open it up I find something new that I want to try, I really should make a note of them so that I don’t forget!
The last chapter is possibly the most controversial. Simply titled Lists it is broken into Green, the good guys, Amber, approach with caution and vigilance and Red, major food issues you can’t (or shouldn’t) ignore. Based on several characteristics such as environmental concerns, health concerns and animal welfare concerns. I say controversial as many of us will find things on the red list that surprise or even shock us and that we will find hard to accept. Whether you do and make that change is up to yourself.
The reason I recommend this book so much is that I think it is thought-provoking and lifestyle changing. One section from the introduction, Practise vegetable-centric eating really challenged my mindset on the way I shop and feed myself and my family. Thinking about the effect of meat production on the scale required in the western world and the huge strain it puts on the planet and on animal welfare, not to mention the health implications. But meat was central to most meals I would eat, protein and carbs with vegetables when I could be bothered. Now my mindset has changed, vegetables are the flavoursome health giving centre piece of most meals, supplemented with lentils, sustainable oily fish or occasionally ethically reared meat. It sounds like a huge step but it’s not really.
If you believe that the food you eat and feed your children should be ethically sourced from workers with rights, animals with high welfare standards, environmentally friendly embracing seasonality and local producers then you should read this book for a lot of great tips, ideas and suggestions. If you don’t then you should read it for a reality check. Ethical and affordable is not a food oxymoron, it’s a must for the 21st century.