“The personal is political” is originally from feminism, but applies to a variety of other issues, including the sustainable food movement. I don’t believe that “conscious consumerism” can fix the world. But I do believe that every action we take about our food that moves towards sustainability, whether it’s supporting a specific policy or choosing to raise our own vegetables, sends a signal that the current system is unacceptable. That’s why some of my favorite cookbooks have a political or social bent to them.
The most obvious, although not my most used one, is The Second Seasonal Political Palate by the Bloodroot Collective. In fact, it proclaims it’s “a feminist vegetarian cookbook” right on the cover. Originally published in 1984, a few of the recipes suffer from a 1970s outlook on food. However, the distinctly political perspective it takes by tying together vegetarianism, women’s rights and environmental justice is refreshing. While I don’t relate to or agree with all of the essays or poems it quotes, they certainly inspire deeper thought about my vegetarian casserole than I would have had otherwise. The diversity of voices it presents also provides context to traditional African-American or Asian recipes that they lack in other cookbooks. Rather than just thinking about whether the recipe itself is good or not, they help build a respect for an entire culture. While its organization by season prefigures much of the local food movement, it nicely connects the recipes to a respect for nature’s rhythms. (It’s also quite convenient for those of us who shop at farmers’ markets.)
While none of my other cookbooks are quite so upfront about it, they too address social issues. The Moosewood restaurant started during the same hippie era and is still going strong in Ithaca, NY. I experienced Moosewood’s food for years through my mom’s cookbook collection before I ever ate a meal there. It was through Moosewood that I first learned that co-ops could exist outside of grocery stores and collective ownership could result in a thriving business. What the cookbook taught me about this one restaurant shaped my entire perspective on how businesses function and what is possible outside of a traditional model. Plus, their food is amazing. While I’ve never been a big meat-eater, Moosewood helped me see that vegetarian food can be genuinely good without needing to pretend that it’s meat.
Even the most non-strident of my vegetarian cookbooks talk about the societal benefits of vegetarianism, including my most well-loved book: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. He starts his introduction by stating “our current rate of meat and fish consumption simply cannot be justified.” While he doesn’t go into a lot of depth about the ecological and social consequences of eating meat, just having that sentence in a book by a well-respected non-vegetarian author is a significant sign of change. It shows that eating meals not based around meat is deservedly becoming more common and accepted. In addition, his encouragement for people to eat more vegetarian meals even if they don’t adopt the lifestyle completely shows a path forward for a more sustainable society, even if we never totally give up meat.
But a cookbook doesn’t have to be vegetarian to be revolutionary. As someone trained at a French-style culinary school, my husband Chris is an inveterate cooker of meat. In fact, he has a whole set of meat-based books, including ones titled “Fat” and “Bones.” The most unusual of these books is the one that largely started the “nose to tail” eating movement: Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast. Unlike most cookbooks that feature meat, The Whole Beast doesn’t just focus on the muscles. It describes how to utilize every piece, from the ears to the spleen. In the process, it shows far more respect and care for the animal than seen in our modern agriculture and restaurant culture. As the author says in the introduction, “It would seem disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast.” In my opinion, if people are going to eat meat, The Whole Beast offers a good template for doing so – raising, slaughtering, and eating the animal with care.
Perhaps it’s just my eternal activist, but I enjoy a little politics and thought-provoking ideas with my cooking. It reminds me of how even if I’m just preparing it for myself, my dinner does have a ripple effect outside of my dining room table.
What are your favorite cookbooks? Do any of them offer perspectives outside of traditional cooking?
I don’t see cooking for me as political. It’s more tied to cultural identity and memory. Yes, I do prepare some dishes that don’t appear on any restaurant menu but are common home-cooked Chinese dishes. My favourite cookbooks have been those that blend in a bit about gastronomic history, lore and recipes.
I do have a cookbook that is specifically about Chinese restaurants in North America and the type of food they have served…which is different from what I eat at home or how I was raised food-wise. Other cookbooks on gourmet Chinese cooking techniques, which really do rank like French cooking, but on the Asian side.
Chinese cooking has influenced other neighbouring Asian countries over the centuries.
I’ve tried to get back in touch with my cultural identity and memory, but mine is a lot hazier than yours! I would love to learn some home-cooked dishes from other cultures but don’t have any good, authentic cookbooks. Are there any in particular you would recommend?
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I’ve been trying for some time to cut down on my meat intake. I like this idea of politically conscious cookbooks. When I cook for myself I tend to cook little or no meat, but I cook for myself not nearly as often as I should.
Cooking for yourself takes time, and anyone who claims otherwise either has years of practice that has helped them improve their speed or is lying. Cooking vegetarian can take more time than cooking meat, but fortunately it’s really easy to make large amounts of and/or freeze vegetarian dishes. Almost all of my lunches are leftovers or things I’ve pulled out of the freezer from past dinners.