Saturday, January 23, 2016

Exploring finer foods a tasty treat

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon 

Chocolate got American environmental journalist Simran Sethi through a divorce.

Chocolate, coffee and the occasional cigarette got Sethi through every page of her intriguing first book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.

"Staples like rice, corn and wheat make up over two-thirds of the world's diet," she notes in the introduction. "But they aren't what get me out of bed in the morning or help me celebrate at night."

And so, after working as an environmental correspondent for NBC News and anchoring the PBS series Quest on science and sustainability, Sethi took three years to focus on five "intimate" foodstuffs: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer and bread.

In each of the book's sections, Sethi takes us to the places coffee, cacao, grapes, hops, yeast and wheat are grown, processed and packaged—from farmers' fields to bakeries, wineries, chocolatiers and coffee roasters.

Along the way, she asks why coffee, chocolate, wine, beer and bread taste the way they do, how they're commodified and what varieties are commonly and uncommonly grown. Which means that in addition to a cultural and personal history of each foodstuff, in each section she also writes about fair-trade practices, food distribution systems and genetic diversity.

This is a lot of ground to cover, both literally and figuratively.

Sethi's insistence that we slow down and really taste the food we're eating would be familiar to devotees of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Her focus on small farmers and fair-trade practices as well as the real cost of our industrialized approach to food evokes Bill McKibben's Oil and Honey. And her science-driven approach to how we perceive food brings to mind Alton Brown, host of Iron Chef America and a legion of other shows.

Unfortunately, this multi-pronged approach doesn't quite cohere. Bread, Wine, Chocolate doesn't really work as travel writing for foodies or food-security-focused environmental literature. It isn't a confessional memoir or a stylish cookbook.

In addition, there is a lot of sameness in book's first three sections on wine, chocolate and coffee. They're all premium products, many of which we import, and we think and talk about them in similar ways. Though the bread and beer sections provide some variety, they come nearly 200 pages into the book.

And so while Bread, Wine, Chocolate isn't as focused or as charming as one would hope, Sethi does provide us with new ways of thinking about food.

One such tidbit is this quote from conservationist Colin Khoury: "Eating anything that's not rice, wheat, corn, soy or palm oil is radical." Another is Sethi's discussions on how we perceive food, from smell to touch to taste.

Those readers interested in broadening their food vocabulary will especially appreciate the full-colour appendix of "flavour guides," including a coffee flavour wheel (and its dark twin, the coffee defect wheel) and the guides in each section on how to set up a proper wine tasting or a coffee cupping.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer who volunteers for Fruit Share.

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