January 13, 2011


We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. By Daniel Akst. Penguin. $26.95.

Appetite for Reduction: 125 Fast & Filling Low-Fat Vegan Recipes. By Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Da Capo. $19.95.

     Daniel Akst likes to make his points through unexpected juxtapositions: Sigmund Freud and Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and SpongeBob SquarePants. He is a clever writer, and one with a certain superficial historical perspective for his analyses: the contrast between Greek sophrosyne (a kind of subordination of appetite) and akrasia (lack of self-command), between the well-known writings of Thorstein Veblen and the less-known ones of his contemporary and fellow economist, Simon Patten. He analyzes Sigmund Freud’s fondness for cigars in the context of “the way in which [Freud’s] life and thought bring together so many of the issues involved in grappling with the problem of self-control in the modern world.” He talks about covenant marriage, evolutionary imperatives, an accident that drove an iron bar into the brain of a man named Phineas Gage, the relationship between women’s clothing and makeup and their menstrual cycles, the writings of physician/economist John Rae on the ways in which deferred gratification is by definition at war with the desire for immediate consumption. Indeed, Akst writes about so many things, in such a scattershot fashion, with such stylistic skill, that it may take a reader of We Have Met the Enemy a while to figure out that the book’s underlying premise is really quite simple, even simplistic, and that Akst has no particularly new ideas of his own about it. Akst’s topic, shorn of all the gimmicks through which he addresses it, is the consumerist society, particularly the American variety: overeating, overbuying, overdoing in every possible way, ignoring the future for the pleasures of the present. Dubious pleasures at that, or so Akst argues. His book’s title is taken from Walt Kelly’s famous line in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” which Kelly originally presented as, “We shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us” – recalling Oliver Hazard Perry’s remark after winning the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The metamorphosis of this statement – although not discussed by Akst – would work as a metaphor for the same things Akst does talk about: changes in tastes, economies, social mores, the notions of freedom and free choice, and more. There is nothing particularly new in the examples that Akst trots forth; his book is less a look behind the headlines than a compendium of them. Americans buy too much, eat too much, care too little about the future because they are so preoccupied with the present – nothing surprising here. Indeed, as Akst’s historical examples show, the fundamental dispute between today and tomorrow, between immediate gratification and postponement, is as old as any post-subsistence Western economy. So how do we stop “discounting the future” (that being the heading of one portion of a chapter here)? Akst says this is not easy (well, duh): “There are no patients [sic] rights organizations for the victims of excessive farsightedness, no fund-raising 5K runs or colored wristbands, or emotionally greedy magazine ads from which the cautious eyes of the excessively prudent stare out at us, pleading mutely for rescue.” Yes, yes, very well put, very entertainingly said, but what are we to do to break the hold of today’s pleasures over tomorrow’s more-prudent gratification? Akst’s answer is – well, he doesn’t really have an answer. He likes government supervision and believes we should “demand that government do more to protect us from ourselves” (a dubious proposition at best, given government’s own propensity for stuffing its maw in the present while ignoring the future). He likes what he calls “soft paternalism,” which means “present[ing] choices so that the indisputably better option is more likely to be selected” (and who decides what is indisputably better?). But ultimately, he says – correctly if not very helpfully – that self-control is an individual matter, citing one of his favorite characters to make the point: “It’s much better, like Odysseus, to row right past the cattle of the sun god than to count on controlling the hunger that could lead to a fatal barbecue.” Again, nicely put; but how to do it? Well, “the best way to uphold one’s desired desires is to form a habit,” so “our likelihood of following through on our intentions is a function of the extent to which we habitually do so.” We need to develop good habits that “lower the psychic cost of doing the right thing” – an admirable goal toward whose attainment Akst offers few useful instructions. To be fair, no one else has quite figured out how to reverse history and get Americans to become more frugal and less consumption-oriented, either – although, on the basis of savings rates in the last few years, the recent major recession has had more than a little effect. But economic and social shock therapy is more than Akst, or anyone else, is willing to recommend. We Have Met the Enemy sets forth a number of societal issues clearly and often entertainingly, but those seeking solutions are left at the end knowing only that they must look for and find them within.

     The American penchant for overeating is but one matter that Akst discusses, but it is one that has spawned a veritable flood of weight-reduction books, ideas, blogs, seminars and who know what else. Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Appetite for Reduction is a perfectly reasonable entry in the field: it will make no converts to vegetarianism, much less a vegan lifestyle, and does not pretend to advocacy. Instead, it simply presents the promised 125 recipes for people who already choose this type of diet, with various “tip” boxes giving nutritional and other supplementary information. This is Moskowitz’s sixth vegan-focused book, counting three co-written with Terry Hope Romero, and it moves along like a well-oiled machine, starting with salads and continuing with side dishes, beans (a mainstay of this type of cooking), tofu and tempeh, soups, stews and more. Moskowitz cultivates a chatty style: “Cashews and other nuts get a bad rap ‘cause of the fat content, but much of it is healthy [sic] monounsaturated fat.” And some of her tips are particularly useful, as when she explains that bulgur “is usually found in bulk bins or at a Mediterranean supermarket, but even though it is cracked wheat, it is always labeled ‘bulgur.’ If something is simply labeled ‘cracked wheat,’ that means it has not been parboiled and the cooking time will be much longer.” As for the recipes themselves, they are perfectly fine for vegan cooking: garlicky mushrooms & kale, orange-scented broccoli, polenta stuffing, tortilla soup, curried black-eyed peas with plantains, etc. The book contains only a few photographs of the dishes, but they certainly make the food look good. The chapter introductions are less useful: “Tofu is like that friend who always knows exactly what to say. So versatile and accommodating, tofu is there when you need her.” Still, readers may enjoy these asides while pulling together the ingredients of a recipe or waiting for something to finish cooking. Appetite for Reduction is not groundbreaking or even very surprising, but it contains solid information and a variety of recipes that vegans will find tasty.

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