Monday, October 13, 2008

Book Review: "Last Chance to Eat"

Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World (2004) by Gina Mallet is an incredibly snarky British depiction of how good old fashioned British food used to be (even during the war!) and how all modern food is terrible and is only getting worse.

While Mallet, who grew up in Britain but now resides in Toronto, is extremely critical of the United States food system, for plausible reasons, that is not the what raised my hackles. The biggest problem with this book is how it whines without offering any solutions to the problems to the current food system.

The problems that Mallet covers are vast. Here is a breakdown, by chapter of the nearly extinct quality foods Mallet covers: "the imperiled egg," "the last Brie," "the ox is gored," "the lost kitchen garden," and "a good fish is hard to find." It is clear that Mallet takes an apocalyptical doom and gloom tone in her message. Yet, at the same time, she buffers this doom and gloom with nostalgic musings of taste memories.

Exalting the quality of food products before they were mass produced is laudable, but this information is inchoate without context. For instance, if anyone has had a egg from a chicken allowed to eat grass and insects, you KNOW how superior it is in taste, nutrients, and humane practice to an egg laid by a beakless, stressed out hen in a CAFO, who spends her entire life in a cage so small she can't stretch her wings. What Mallet does is sing the praises of the natural egg without so much as mentioning the recent revival in small, community-based farms sprouting up all over North America where one can buy such eggs!

What kept me reading Mallet, though was the way her nostalgic longing for foods from her childhood was relatable. The memoir-esqe portions of the book flowed with vivid memories, antidotes, and humor. Also, Mallet was able to trace how these epicuric delights were demonized, rejected, and nearly made extinct by government regulations and industry. The food history portions of the book are well researched and enjoyable to read, which is not an easy feat when one is explaining how the USDA confirmed the dangers of consuming more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day, while an egg contains 278 milligrams of cholesterol.

While overall, I was frustrated by the books utter lack of hope for epicures to ever find delicious, quality food again, it has made me aware of how bureaucratically ridiculous many food regulations are, and how most of the USDA and FDA's regulations are in place to support the factory farmer and big agribusiness. The most enlightening chapter of Mallet's book was "the last Brie." In this chapter Mallet exposes why raw milk and young, raw milk cheeses have been banned in the United States resulting in the lose of centuries old artisanal cheese making practices and the proliferation of pasteurized milk without the flavor or nutritional virtue.

All in all, this book only tells half the story of these lost foods. I want to search out the other half of the story, the story of how to get this food back. Mallet has made a convincing case of the virtues of these "lost" foods, but ultimately she has left me hungry, with no way to fulfill this hunger for the foods she writes of, and this is a grave oversight.


Diane said...

Yeah, I think you get a little more of that in the Kingsolver book (what to do about it). No sense complaining about bad food if you can't help offer a solution. Unless it really is all like Soylent Green out there. Ugh. Now I'm REALLY scared to eat fast food.

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

What a well written review! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.