FULL DISCLOSURE: Although I do eat, I am not a foodie. Most of my best friends are foodies and they would laugh if they knew I was reviewing a food book. I do not eat animals and I really hate reading about animals as products to be slaughtered and consumed. That's about it . . . except for one more thing: although I sometimes portray myself as a curmudgeon, I really do like people — not to eat, but to know about. I especially like to know about their deepest stories.
Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks, and Food Activists by Katherine Leiner, with lush photography by Andrew Lipton, is an absolute tour-de-force encyclopedic collection of stories (along with recipes and websites) about the new generation of sustainable food activists. I know Katherine from Central Park, a place where people with dogs become friends. I liked her on first sight, but I didn’t want to eat her. I wanted to know her story, so when she told me she had written a book, I couldn’t wait to read it.
Katherine started writing Growing Roots when her daughter left home and she felt bereft with nobody to cook for. Over the course of three years, she crisscrossed the country in a kind of “walkabout.” She writes in present tense: “One of the many things I begin to notice as I make my way west is how many more restaurants serve local foods. There are more farmers markets and all in all, more and more folks under forty involved in the new sustainable movement. Every small town seems to have an Edible magazine or some way of broadcasting the local organic fare.”
Through 54 chapters, Katherine profiles 66 people with a passion for good sustainable food, and she has managed to produce (pun intended) something to support a world of different kinds of eaters: anyone who has ever had the fantasy of growing their own food or making their passion into a career; people who are curious about where their food comes from and who's providing it; people who are depressed about the state of the world’s food system.
I am none of these things. I'm a vegetarian with a lamb-eating dog, who is glad somebody is willing to slaughter those lambs, but I wish they didn't have to. I'm a person who doesn't understand staring lovingly into the eyes of a gentle animal and never deviating from the belief that its purpose on Earth is to become meat. But despite all this, Growing Roots is for me too — it has forced me to test my beliefs and question my questions.
The people in Growing Roots are sustainable farmers; experts in green living; restaurateurs; educators; manufacturers and suppliers of sustainable food products; political activists; distributors; and more. Entrepreneurs in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, they comprise a diverse group who have inherited their small farms or their food passion. They are from all ethnicities, educational and cultural backgrounds, and body types (not all are slim and fit). What they have in common is smarts, drive, optimism, and the conviction that they can make a difference. And they are doing this.
“I don’t believe that food that’s good for us, that connects us to land through shared work, should be a privilege for the elite,” says sustainable food activist Josh Viertel. “It should be a universal right.” Josh is the first president of Slow Foods USA, an organization that hopes to affect the politics of our food system.
“I grew up with organic farming,” says Nicholas Zimmer (Otter Creek Farm). “Friends who have conventional farms always talk about their yields. . . .They think that with organic farming you get less. We actually do the same or a bit more than they do most of the time.”
“One day, I was talking to a café owner,” says Carolyn Swanson (PassionPurveyors.com), “and she showed me a spoon that she said was made from corn and potato starch. ‘It will break down and go back into the earth,’ she said. I thought to myself: Cutlery made from renewable sources, and disappears without a trace! My lightbulb moment. That one spoon opened the door to a world of restaurant service I had never imagined.”
And then there are the philosopher poets:
“When I’m working with bees I feel meditative, it feels calming,” says Andrew Coté (Bees Without Borders). “I don’t see how you can look at one of these honey frames and see what bees do and not be at peace. Can the world be random? Perhaps. But I have a hard time looking at a beehive and thinking there’s not some order or some plan.”
“There’s a smell that’s really important to me as a farmer,” says Matthew Moore (Urban Plough). “The smell of the ground being turned over is like a new chance.”
Katherine Leiner’s “walkabout” was an American journey directed by a hunger for good food and boundless curiosity about the next generation who is producing it. Katherine is a journalist, observing and reporting without judgment. Her quest to fill the void left by her daughter’s departure, to reconnect with good food (a love passed to her by her own mother), to maybe grow her own roots deeper turned into a pilgrimage, directing her to do what all good elders do: she showcases the youngsters — spotlighting their accomplishments, knowledge, and ever-growing resources — to help launch them into a world that badly needs them.
We live in a world of paradox. Katherine and the people she presents are dedicated to connecting to their food — be it plant or animal. They love their food and their animals, but: “This fall, we killed 130 chickens,” says Makenna Leiner Goodman, Katherine’s daughter, a farmer/writer/editor who lives in Vermont. “We did it in one day. Chicken killing is gruesome, but I pulled through. Then two local men killed the cows. I know they were very gentle and quick. Soon after that it was time for the pigs to go. Several weeks later, Sam killed the lambs. We butchered them together. That was a lot harder, for both of us. Lambs are so gentle to each other and so sweet . . .”
Then there are Alden and Melissa Anne Smith of The Mountain School who “harvested” roosters they’d named and then labeled each frozen package of meat accordingly. “We really know our food,” says Missy. “It’s a curious thing to love an animal, then take its life,” says Alden.
To which I respond, “Yeah. And I don’t get it.”
I read Katherine’s personal prelude to a chapter about a lobsterer. It begins with her childhood horror at boiling live animals: “I’d hold my breath. I couldn’t bear their high-pitched screams as my father put them in the roiling water.” And it ends with her joy at doing the same thing after returning home with a box of lobsters: “My daughter’s in the kitchen. I can hear her singing. She’s invited her brother, his wife, and my stepmother over for dinner. The dining room table is set. My mother’s lobster pot is on the stove and the water is boiling. My kitchen is full again, at least for the moment.”
“How come?” I asked Katherine. “How do you go from horror to disconnect?”
Here is her answer:
“I have to say first off that I was a vegetarian (no meat whatsoever) for about 12 years. I loved the idea of not eating meat, of not eating the friends I had made in the fields . . . but I was always a little weak, always a little anemic. At around 21 my doctor said I MUST eat a little. And that’s all I eat now, just a little. And since I am eating meat (maybe a tiny bit of lamb or fish. Sometimes a chicken thigh), I want it to be meat that for the most part, I have known. And by that I mean, I have known the farmer, and sometimes (in the case of my daughter’s meat), a lamb, a chicken (her hen’s eggs are the best ever) even, raw milk from a cow I have known. I try to keep my life small. I want to know my farmer.”
And I want to know the stories. I will not eat the writers, but I want to know them as well as I can. This book is a good bunch of stories by what I'm sure would be a very tasty writer.