Nutrition and historical food books

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These books about all things gastronomical offer plenty of food for thought

What to Eat?

Hattie Ellis, Portobello Books, £14.99

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This paperback addresses some of the common, but seldom so well- examined dilemmas of the ethical and engaged eater. Chapter headings such as ‘What Is Sustainable Fish?’, or ‘Is Eating Local Parochial?’ are used as starting points to challenge many of our often ill-informed assumptions.

As with her previous books, particularly ‘Planet Chicken’ (about battery farming and the alternatives), the author draws her conclusions after copious amounts of field research, as well as by reading the most up-to-date published information on the subjects. A ‘miracle diet’ book this is not.

Parallels with Michael Pollan’s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ are clear when addressing questions such as ‘Should I Eat Like a Caveman?’. The important difference is that Ellis is based in south east England, not the US, and so the stories have a lot more local resonance. Her interviewees are London cooks, farmers who sell meat at Borough Market, nutritionists, lots of food producers, and experts in every field, usually interviewed in situ.

It’s rare to see a book about food politics so well researched, so current, spanning so many issues and so clearly well informed.  The problem is that the book raises as many questions as it aims to solve. Each chapter summarises its findings at the end, some easy to implement, others less so. The chapter on fish sustainabilty, for example, urges us to ‘look for the MSC’s blue sticker on seafood and when eating out’ – yet these stickers are scarcer than a bluefin tuna in Japanese waters.

Despite the limitations of striving to find easy answers to complex questions, this is an excellent book by one of the country’s leading food thinkers and writers. If you’ve still

not read Tristram Stuart’s ‘Waste’, Charles Clover’s ‘End of the Line’, or Richard Wrangham’s ‘Catching Fire’, this thoughtful overview neatly summarises their key findings, and also adds a few of its own.

Guy Dimond, Time Out London Issue 2176: May 3-9 2012

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