what i'm reading: animal, vegetable, junk: a history of food, from sustainable to suicidal, by mark bittman

Mark Bittman's Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal is fascinating, readable, and wide-ranging nonfiction. With clear and simple language, Bittman unpacks the many threads that have determined, throughout history, how we humans feed ourselves. As an alternate subtitle, I might suggest "How Imperialism and Capitalism Ruined the Planet and Everything On It". Or perhaps, "Finally, A Book With Hope".

This is a great book for anyone curious about the nexus of economic and political systems, oppression, and food. Even if you don't think you're interested in the history of food, if you enjoy history, this is a terrific book.

Bittman looks at history through a consistently anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and social justice lens. I especially appreciate Bittman's consistent recognition that the problems caused by the industrial food system cannot be solved on an individual, consumer level. To use an example from our current cultural moment, first-world childhood obesity will not corrected by admonishing parents to get their kids more exercise. Individual choices impact individual health; that much is obvious. But people can only choose what is available to them and what they can afford. Individual change will never be, can never be, enough.

Throughout, Bittman gives special focus to how food systems impact Indigenous people, people of colour, and impoverished and low-income people -- and workers.
Since the first enslaved people grew and processed sugar on Madeira, Western food has relied on brutal labor practices. It still does. From industrial agriculture's perspective, labor is a necessary evil -- a nuisance.

Small and biodiverse farms are still labor-intensive. But large farms minimize labor in every way possible, relying instead on chemicals, seeds, and machines.

Yet food always comes back to labor. Without workers, none of us would eat. And just about every hand that helps bring food to our tables belongs to a person who may well be worried about putting food on their own. Eight of the ten worst-paying jobs in the United States involve food. Of the twenty million food system jobs that constitute the largest private labor force in our economy, almost all earn wages that hover around the poverty line. At least a third of farmwokers earn less than the official poverty wage, which is twenty thousand dollars per year per family. That's just about enough to pay for a minimally nutritious diet for a family of four, leaving approximately zero for every other expense other than an unrealistically low rent.

Many of these jobs are repetitive, demeaning, and dangerous. Workers are denied basic rights like regular bathroom breaks; a reliable schedule; freedom from abuse, harassment, and wage theft; and the right to organize and bargain collectively.

That's how the system was designed to work.

And from much later in the book:

Addressing mistreated workers in our food system will require a cascade of changes to the status quo, which makes it a good place to start. And awareness of food-chain labor has accelerated in recent years. It's no coincidence that the "Fight for $15" -- the movement to institute a minimum hourly wage of fifteen dollars in place of the current federal minimum of $7.25 -- began at KFC, McDonald's, and Burger King. 
Animal, Vegetable, Junk introduced me to a new idea: industrial farming is best thought of as an extraction industry, like mining, logging, and commercial fishing. Industrial farming is a health issue, a labour issue, an animal-welfare issue, and of course a climate change issue. The situation is dire, almost beyond comprehension.

The book's penultimate chapter is about the industrial farming of animals. This was very difficult to read, touching on my worst cognitive dissonance. Any thinking person would be disturbed by it. One can choose to be vegan, but that, in itself, will not end or even reduce industrial animal torture. I have taken steps to opt out of factory farming, but there are areas I have not addressed, especially dairy and eggs. Mostly I force myself to look, and feel sick.

Thankfully, in the final chapter, Bittman offers hope. And in this case -- unlike other books I've read where a paragraph of obligatory platitudes are tacked on at the end -- this hope is real. In "The Way Forward," Bittman profiles a diversity of alternative food and health systems and programs that exist and are working. Some are spearheaded by governments, others by self-organized cooperatives -- from Brazil, Chile, Mexico, India, France, Denmark, and some in the United States. 

These positive examples were amazing, and well worth the read. But to truly understand why the alternatives are needed, and what they represent, I hope you will read the full book.

Bittman's writing is simple and clear, and (mostly) refreshingly jargon-free. (The book is heavy on acronyms, but that may be unavoidable.) I first became aware of Bittman through "The Minimalist," his old column in the New York Times. In many ways, he taught me how to cook. Creating delicious, healthy food with a few simple ingredients is an art form. But it turns out Bittman knows a hell of a lot more than that.

See also

You may enjoy reading this excellent review of Animal, Vegetable, Junk in the New York Times. The reviewer, Ted Genoways, wrote a book called The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food. It has been on my list since its publication in 2014, but I haven't had the heart to read it.

I was pleased to see Bittman mention and praise the book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (my review is here) -- an important and under-recognized book. I photocopied the selected reading list Animal, Vegetable, Junk for future reference, and was pleased to see that I've read a handful of the titles.

Obviously Bittman is writing from a United States context. In some ways things are a bit better in Canada. But I hope Canadians who will read this book know that all the same problems plague Canadian society, too. As I always say, "better than the United States" is a very low bar.


rtod: nope, i ain't gonna kill nobody

 Revolutionary thought of the day:

I would like to see every single soldier on every single side, just take off your helmet, unbuckle your kit, lay down your rifle, and set down at the side of some shady lane, and say, nope, I ain't gonna kill nobody. Plenty of rich folks wants to fight. Give them the guns.

Woody Guthrie


dog agility, worm composting, and morning tea: three things going on with me

Does it make sense to create compost when you don't garden? I don't know, but I'm doing it.

Worms, but no garden

So, I'm not gardening. 

The Urban Worm Bag v2
Since moving to a cool, wet, temperate climate, I haven't done any successful gardening. My little mini gardens in southern Ontario were fun because they were incredibly easy. They also helped me enjoy being outdoors within the densely packed suburban landscape. 

Now, gardening is much more challenging, and I am able to enjoy the outdoors any time, whether that means sitting on our deck, talking long walks through the woods, or strolling on the beautiful empty beach. Working full-time, with limited time to myself, I really don't want to spend any of it gardening.

Last year, I tried to establish a small garden, and thought I would try vermicomposting -- composting with worms. The garden was a bust, but I've decided to continue my wriggling adventure. 

Why create composting if you're not gardening?

  • It reduces waste. We don't have organics recycling here, and it feels really wasteful. Most of what can go in the organics bin can be used as worm food.
  • The worm castings (compost created by worms) will improve the soil for all the plants already growing in our yard, including the raspberry bushes that Allan is trying to re-establish.*
  • Working with worms, creating this miniature ecosystem, just appeals to me. I want to try it. 

The worm adventure was supposed to start last year, but the worms I ordered never made it here. I had already set up my Urban Worm Bag, organics scrap bin, and so on. So this year, I tried again. 

The worms were shipped from Wormbox, a company in Montreal. They assured me they have successfully shipped live worms to every Canadian province and territory, including remote locations, and that the worms would arrive alive. They wait to ship until there are three consecutive days of temperatures above freezing in Montreal and the worms' destination. That finally happened in early May!

The clock was ticking. With a long weekend coming up, and no mail delivery on Saturdays, I was starting to worry. But hurrah, the little creatures arrived on Friday morning, well packed and wriggling. Now they are in their new home, and my project begins.

Canine agility

Now that I am not taking piano lessons (at least for now), I'm planning to do some agility with Kai, and possibly with Cookie, too. 

I've been thinking about this since we bought our home in 2019. It's great physical exercise and mental stimulation for dogs, and having watched agility competitions on video, and once in person, I've always wanted to try it.

Will Kai ever do this? Time will tell!
Decent equipment is quite expensive. And while building a DIY agility course is A Thing, you may recall that I am not a DIY person. I have zero interest in building or macgyvering this equipment. I've decided to start with one piece of equipment -- one event, so to speak -- and gradually add on, as I can and want to spend more. Agility World has periodic specials where one obstacle is deeply discounted, so I'll track that as I go. (There is also the much less expensive Aosom, but I've read the equipment is quite flimsy and falls apart easily.)

This is decidedly not for competition. Just as my piano lessons were not intended for performance, my interest in canine agility will not leave my backyard. I find the human capacity to fashion nearly every activity into a competition simply baffling. I'm just hoping my dogs and I enjoy this and benefit from it.

A momentous life change

I am not drinking coffee in the morning. I am drinking tea! While not quite on the level of moving to Canada or becoming a librarian, I believe this qualifies for Big Change status.

I love coffee, and I'm completely addicted to caffeine. Although I've cut back by mixing regular and decaf, I've given up trying to eliminate it from my diet. I've gone caffeine-free for months at a time for various reasons, but I have no wish to do that permanently. I figure if caffeine is my worst vice, I'm doing pretty good. Caffeine may even have some health benefits -- although that's not why I love coffee.

I do have sleep issues, though. Like many people, I sometimes struggle mightily with insomnia. And because of this, I've always had a strict cut-off. Coffee in the morning, and strong black tea in the afternoon, but never after 4:00.

Allan and I picked up the afternoon tea habit during our trip to Ireland in 2001. It was November, and every day we'd arrive at a bed-and-breakfast, chilly and windswept. And the host would say, I'll put the kettle on. It became an enjoyable habit.

When we got home, we found a New York source for Bewley's Irish Breakfast tea, and with both of us working at home most days, a tradition was born.

When we moved to the Toronto area, I found it too difficult to get Bewley's, and we switched to Red Rose, the Canadian equivalent of Lipton. Now that we can get anything from anywhere, we're back to Bewley's. 

(We do also have decaf black tea in various flavours, which Allan drinks all the time, and herbal teas in a range of flavours, which I drink both hot and iced. I find iced herbal tea a good way to stay hydrated: tastier than water, but with nothing added.)

Recently I realized I really shouldn't be having caffeine in the afternoon, at all. Cutoff or no, it could be impacting my sleep. So I'm trying -- quite painfully -- to give up my afternoon caffeine. 

I made this decision right after a box of Bewley's arrived in the mail, plus a shopping miscommunication landed a huge box of Red Rose in the house at the same time. I can't return either of them, I don't want them sitting around getting stale, and it's more than I want to give away.

So I had an idea. Maybe I could try drinking tea in the morning, and seeing if I can get enough of a caffeine fix to start the day. When we've travelled in places with bad (or no) coffee but good tea, I have had tea in the morning. Maybe it would be possible?

I bought a teapot, and the experiment has begun. I still miss coffee, so I don't know if this will be permanent. But so far, I appear to be surviving.

And by the way, since giving up afternoon caffeine two months ago, I have had only one night of insomnia -- far less than usual.

* There were amazing raspberries bushes when we moved in. Then we cut them down -- as I read you were supposed to -- and they never returned. Allan is starting over.


rebecca traister, 2019: "our fury over abortion was dismissed for decades as hysterical"

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York magazine in 2019:

Which is why I am almost as mad at many on the left, theoretically on the side of reproductive rights and justice, who have refused, somehow, to see this coming or act aggressively to forestall it. I have no small amount of rage stored for those in the Democratic Party who have relied on the engaged fury of voters committed to reproductive autonomy to elect them, at the same time that they have treated the efforts of activists trying to stave off this future as inconvenient irritants. 
This includes, of course, the Democrats (notably Joe Biden) who long supported the Hyde Amendment, the legislative rider that has barred the use of federal insurance programs from paying for abortion, making reproductive health care inaccessible to poor women since 1976. During health-care reform, Barack Obama referred to Hyde as a “tradition” and questions of abortion access as “a distraction.” I’ve spent my life listening to Democrats call abortion a niche issue — and worse, one that is somehow repellent to voters, even though support for Roe is in fact among the most broadly popular positions of the Democratic Party; seven in ten Americans want abortion to remain legal, even in conservative states.
You can try to tell these Democrats this — lots of people have been trying to tell them for a while now — but it won’t matter; they will only explain to you (a furious person) that they (calm, wise, knowledgeable about politics) understand that we need a big tent and can’t have a litmus test and please be reasonable: we shouldn’t shut anyone out because of a difference on one issue. (That one issue that we shouldn’t shut people out because of is always abortion). Every single time Democrats come up with a new strategy to win purple and red areas, it is the same strategy: hey, let’s jettison abortion! (If you object to this, you will be told you are standing in the way of the greater progressive project). . . .
Also about how, for years, I’ve listened to Democratic politicians distance themselves from abortion by calling it tragic and insisting it should be rare, instead of simply acknowledging it to be a crucial, legal cornerstone of comprehensive health care for women, people with uteruses, and their families. I have seethed as generations of Democrats have argued that if we could just get past abortion and focus instead on economic issues, we’d be better off. They never seem to get that abortion is an economic issue, and that what they think of as economic issues — from wages and health care to housing and education policy — are at the very heart of the reproductive justice movement, which understands access to abortion to be one (pivotal!) part of a far broader set of circumstances that determine if, when, under what circumstances, and with what resources human beings might have and raise children.
Read the whole thing here.


the end of roe and how we got here

With the unprecedented leak of the SCOTUS draft brief, and official confirmation of the politicization of the Court, we see the final nails pounded in the coffin of Roe v. Wade -- a turning point which somehow still shocks many people, despite the exceedingly clear regression to this point over the past 40 years.

Given this, it seems strange to me that I haven't blogged about abortion rights in more than two years.

Strange, because this is the issue I care most about, above all else. 

Strange, because I've spent a good portion of my life thinking, writing, organizing, and supporting abortion rights and abortion access.

Strange, because I am angry and hurting about this. But I suspect I am angry at different people than many readers may be.

Partly I stopped writing about Roe and US abortion rights because I feel I have nothing left to add to the discourse -- nothing to write that I haven't written again and again. Here in 2018, I re-ran my essay from 2005. No matter how many ways I find to say it, it comes down to two points.

One. Abortion rights are essential to human rights, to justice, and to basic equality for all people. Abortion rights are the sine qua non of women's freedom, and the bottom line of equality for any person who can become pregnant.

Two. Roe v Wade is meaningless for millions of American women, and has been for decades. Abortion rights have been steadily impeded, eroded, and erased for more than 40 years, a process that began with the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976, gathered momentum when Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, and has barrelling downhill ever since. This includes the 16 years of Democrat presidencies. 

And partly I stopped writing about Roe and US abortion rights because I have been so angry and frustrated that people were -- with extreme laws passed in Mississippi and Texas --  now finally paying attention. That sounds counter-intuitive and is not a good way to approach activism! But I just could. not. stand it.

1976 Hyde Amendment (only affects poor people, so who cares)
1984 Global Gag Rule (only affects poor people in other countries, so who cares)
1989 Webster; 1992 Casey -- both losses for reproductive freedom, but left Roe intact, so who cares
And on and on. (Start your timeline here, then here.) As long as Roe had not been overturned, most liberals and Democrats were willing to look away. 

For a majority of Democrat voters, the most important thing to know about abortion rights were: vote Democrat because of the Supreme Court, because we can't let them overturn Roe v Wade.

And while the majority obsessed over Roe, Roe became increasingly irrelevant. 

I'm not suggesting Roe actually is irrelevant.  But it's been hollowed out. It's a shadow. A shell.

The anti-abortion-rights movement had everything it needed to succeed. 

They were extremely organized, extremely well-funded, and very strategic. They got their people elected to state legislatures and began to work the system, passing every type of abortion-rights restrictions anyone could dream up, taunting the court challenges, knowing that eventually, with enough states becoming hostile to abortion, they would accomplish their only objectives: increasing numbers of low-income women and pregnant people would lose control of their reproduction, and the country would move one step closer to overturning Roe v Wade.

The anti movement has had other factors in its favour. In addition to money, organization, and strategy, they had the Democrats. Abortion became a dirty word, replaced by the euphemism "a woman's right to choose". Bill Clinton said let's make abortion "safe, legal, and rare" -- with little or no attention paid to the myriad laws, supports, and resources it would take to make such a thing possible.

They had the "muddled middle" -- to use Katha Pollitt's excellent expression -- whose discomfort with the idea and reality of abortion made it easy to look away. Shamed by stigma created by anti-abortion-rights zealots and the media who support them, most were happy to look away.

There are other reasons, too.

Roe v. Wade was never a strong ruling; it was always vulnerable to attack. The right to abortion is more secure in Canada -- although it is often under threat and must always be protected and defended! -- because the 1988 ruling in R v Morgentaler is a much broader decision. 

The US's obsession with states' rights, and the right wing's expert exploitation of it, have left millions vulnerable, not only on reproductive justice, but on so many fronts.

The US's lack of an organized healthcare system leaves millions vulnerable to assaults on reproductive freedom. If you lack basic healthcare, that's going to include a lack of access to reproductive needs.

The mainstream media's adoption of the disgusting lie "pro-life" -- the greatest PR coup of the modern world -- did untold damage. 

But be assured of one thing. Our side has been planning for this for decades, too, with abortion funds, underground networks, and direct action. It's a much more successful strategy than voting Democrat.

As always, the Guttmacher Institute is your best source for data on all aspects of reproductive justice. 

If you want to help, donate to abortion funds: National Abortion Federation, National Network of Abortion Funds. Canada has one, too.

If you live in a free state and have the resources, you can host a person traveling for abortion from a slave state. It's incredibly important and deeply gratifying work. NNAF can help you find a network.