The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks. By Kathleen Flinn. Viking. $26.95.
American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). By Jonathan Bloom. Da Capo. $16.
Both these books deal with Americans’ penchant for wasting food, but they come at the subject from entirely different angles – one indirectly and one directly. Kathleen Flinn is well aware of Jonathan Bloom’s book, which was originally published last year and is now available in paperback. Flinn quotes Bloom approvingly in a chapter called “Waste Not, Want Not,” where she picks up on Bloom’s assertion that Americans waste more than $100 billion worth of food annually. “This jived [sic – she means jibed] with what I found in the interviews with the volunteers and the kitchen visits and what I observed in my own house and in the homes of friends.” The waste issue, Flinn believes, is directly connected to Americans’ unwillingness to cook – “as a country we collectively waste about 40 percent of the food produced for consumption” throughout the year, except perhaps at Thanksgiving. Flinn spins the waste issue into a discussion of how to prepare meals from leftovers – soups (cold or hot) from vegetables, for example. “The way to avoid a lot of leftovers in the first place is to plan meals,” Flinn writes, and this is what connects her discussion of waste with her general topic of cooking from scratch instead of buying prepared foods. The missing ingredient in people’s kitchen lives today, Flinn believes, is confidence, and The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is all about instilling that confidence in people, whether they are 22 years old or 61 (the age extremes of the “nine culinary novices” around whom the book is structured). This book is a followup and in some ways a supplement to Flinn’s previous effort, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, but it can be read independently – although it is more enjoyable and will carry more meaning for readers who know the earlier book. Flinn believes that a lot of supposed reasons for failure to cook are simply excuses, and not very good ones. For example, she says that only a few people are genuinely too pressed for time to prepare meals; most simply do not perceive cooking as sufficiently important to be worth the time investment that it requires. Furthermore, she believes that American society’s emphasis on speed (“20-minute meals” and such) downgrades the value of cooking. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School goes through a wide range of food-related issues while maintaining, at its core, a narrow focus on the volunteers who learned with and from Flinn (and with the help of some celebrity chefs). Some of Flinn’s suggestions are counterintuitive – shop more often for fewer items, for example, and buy spices in small amounts and more frequently instead of stocking up on them. But she defends her approach effectively, and the book also includes 23 recipes that readers who want to give home cooking a try can test for themselves.
As for American Wasteland, its author is one of those journalistic crusaders with a strong sense of the way things aren’t, but ought to be. Bloom points out, for example, that Americans frequently shop for their “aspirational lives” rather than their real ones – buying lots of fruits and vegetables because we ought to eat more of them, for example, but then not eating them and having them go to waste. Bloom does tend to hector, and is always ready with a compelling statistic (e.g., Americans are 5% of the world’s population but create 30% of the world’s trash, with each individual throwing away an average of 197 pounds of food a year). Okay, we are bad, evil people; we have heard this before – about energy consumption, greenhouse-gas production and many other issues. It would be quite understandable if readers simply decided that enough is enough: we are not bad people, certainly not individually, and are tired of being told all the things that are wrong with the way we live. But American Wasteland is not quite so easy to dismiss. For one thing, Bloom leavens his jeremiads with humor (something that the biblical Jeremiah never did); for another, his book is far more prescriptive than most exposés. He really has thought through what can be done, by individuals and society as a whole, to reduce food waste. Many of his recommendations for shoppers are actually easy to implement: eat before shopping, so you will be less tempted to buy things purely out of hunger; make a list and stick to it, no matter what else is put temptingly on display in the store; be careful at superstores that sell in large quantities – there is no reason to buy a three-pound tub of sour cream if you will only use a pint; calculate in advance how many nights you will eat at home in a week, and buy only enough food for those nights. This last idea gets into a more difficult realm: planning, which Americans do not do very well when it comes to meals (a point that Flinn makes as well). This is a key skill to develop, Bloom contends, and one that not only repays you by reducing waste but also repays you financially. That is a pretty good argument. But readers who want to get the most out of American Wasteland will have to be comfortable with Bloom’s tendency toward self-praise, as when he takes an entry-level grocery job to look into waste at the supermarket level: “I’d be lying if I said that throwing away so much food as my first act of employment wasn’t validating and somewhat satisfying. I’d researched food waste for more than a year at that point, and here I had found my white whale.” Readers also need to decide how they feel about Bloom’s ideas for remaking American society, which tend to rely on vast expansion of the power of the government. Among other things, he praises the actions in Britain of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; suggests creating “a federal caretaker to advocate for food recovery and against food waste” in the United States; would like to have the government ban the disposal of food in landfills; and more. These are not necessarily bad ideas, and are certainly well-meant, but with them, Bloom starts to sound like just another “grow the government and everything will get better” idealist. His suggestions for individual attention to food waste make him better than a kneejerk government expansionist, and those approaches are ones that readers can address on their own. But Bloom’s societal thoughts are better taken with, ahem, a grain of salt.