March 15, 2012


The Little Gardener. By Jan Gerardi. Random House. $6.99.

Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food: 125 Simple and Satisfying Recipes, from “Mac and Cheese” to Chocolate Cupcakes. By Susan O’Brien. Da Capo. $18.

Let Them Eat Vegan! 200 Deliciously Satisfying Plant-Powered Recipes for the Whole Family. By Dreena Burton. Da Capo. $20.

The Organic Nanny’s Guide to Raising Healthy Kids. By Barbara Rodriguez with Eve Adamson. Da Capo. $16.

     Things are so much simpler when you are young. Adults may struggle with dietary preferences, health issues related to food, how much meat to consume (if any), and other matters, but for young children, all that is necessary is a sense of wonder and some basic information, and lo and behold, a delightful book. The Little Gardener is in the Random House “Teenie Greenies” series, which aims to make kids ecologically aware and involved in a more-sustainable life. Jan Gerardi’s simple, attractive board book uses easy rhymes and big flaps to show kids what is involved in planting a garden in which vegetables and flowers grow. For example, a left-hand page shows the little girl featured in the book with a watering can and a pail filled with an apple core, banana peel and similar items. The right-hand page has a flap with a big-eyed frog and big-eyed worm on top, and they appear in different poses when the flap is lifted. The text goes: “Compost. Water. Rain. Sun. Seeds sprout/ one by one.” The last part of this, starting with “Sun,” appears under the flap, along with a drawing of three just-sprouting plants. The whole short book is like this: simple, yes, but accurate in depicting how gardens grow and showing ways that kids can do a lot of the planting themselves. The eco-awareness even extends to insect control: the little girl has to get rid of slugs, so she simply uses salty water – no chemicals. The Little Gardener is a sweet little book that parents and children alike can enjoy.

     Adult life gets more complicated. Grownups have to decide not only what they want to eat but also what they can eat – there are both physical and psychological factors that come into play in an age in which food is not merely fuel but is often a statement of personal or political philosophy. Generally, people can decide whether or not to become vegetarians, but becoming a vegan is frequently a way of making a statement about one’s beliefs and attitudes. On the other hand, gluten sensitivity is a real physical problem (although there is some argument as to whether it is as widespread as it now seems to be or if it is being over-reported – or perhaps was under-reported in the past). Susan O’Brien’s new cookbook tries to cover a lot of bases all at once. Three bases, in fact. Gluten-Free Vegan Comfort Food is clearly not intended for a general audience: it is for people who have decided to pursue a vegan lifestyle and who must avoid gluten for health reasons – but who still identify certain forms of edibles as “comfort foods” and would like to consume something that approximates their taste and mouth feel. Whether O’Brien has, um, bitten off more than she can chew in this (+++) book will be a matter of opinion. People who are really determined to have food that is both vegan and gluten-free will applaud the recipes, but others may find this work is really for a very small niche of eaters. Readers will need to have ready access to such ingredients as chia seeds, vegan buttery spread, coconut palm sugar, sorghum flour and vegan chips – those are just some of the items that go into “Best Banana and Chocolate Chip Cookies.” The “Mac and Cheese” mentioned in the subtitle includes, among other things, arrowroot, coconut milk, Tofutti sour cream, Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet nacho cheese alternative, gluten-free pasta and vegan margarine or coconut oil. Some recipes here combine common ingredients pleasingly – spinach salad and fresh pea and asparagus risotto, for example. But are those really “comfort foods”? The recipes that most people will readily identify as comfort-food substitutes tend to be the ones requiring a lot of substitutions – using ingredients that some vegans may already have on hand but that others may find bothersome to assemble. For instance, “Fried ‘Chicken’ Nuggets” are made with gluten-free tempeh, vegan chicken broth powder, gluten-free cornflakes, sorghum flour, potato flour, and nutritional yeast, plus a few other things. Determined vegans who need gluten-free recipes will find the ones here useful only if their idea of “comfort foods” matches O’Brien’s. This is one cookbook worth thumbing through before buying to make sure that you are in sync with the author.

     Thumbing through Dreena Burton’s (+++) Let Them Eat Vegan! is a good idea, too. This is a more straightforward vegan cookbook, and can be a good introduction to vegan food preparation, thanks to introductory material on useful kitchen tools and a section explaining just what various ingredients are: chia seeds, agar powder, hemp seed nut butter, sorghum flour, xanthan gum and many more. The question here, though, is whether your family members will really find a number of these recipes appealing, as the book suggests they will. Smoky spiced tahini sauce? Pureed apple, celeriac, and sweet potato soup? Chickpea pumpkin seed burgers? Raw chai bars? Check out these and the many other recipes to be sure that the often-lengthy lists of ingredients are ones you are comfortable using and that the final result is likely to be one your family will enjoy. The photos here certainly make the recipes look appealing, but the question is whether the tastes will be ones your family will like. If you do decide to try these foods out, you will find Burton a very good guide to making them: her instructions are straightforward and clear, and she starts each recipe with some sort of comment on it, to help you get into the spirit of the food. The one for “Oat ‘n’ Applesauce Muffins,” for example, begins, “This just might typify the crunchy-granola kind of muffin one would imagine vegans eat – full of wholesome goodness, with oats, oat bran, oat flour, and even ground white chia.” And the recipe for “White Chili with Roasted Poblano Peppers” is introduced with the note, “Bulgur and beans give chewy, substantial texture to this tomato-less chili, and roasted poblano peppers elevate the flavors with a mildly spicy smokiness.” The printed-in-red comments on aspects of the different recipes are also helpful, especially the “If This Apron Could Talk” remarks based on Burton’s own experiences making the various foods.

     And how to arrange the transition from childhood nature-oriented simplicity to the more-complex adult issues in the same field? Barbara Rodriguez, who has been a nanny to the children of various celebrities and therefore presumably has the cachet to tell ordinary mortals a thing or two, has a suggestion or two – or, actually, many more than that. The Organic Nanny’s Guide to Raising Healthy Kids, a (+++) book written as a first-person guide from Rodriguez but presumably actually put together by Eve Adamson, since celebrities and their hangers-on are too busy for such mundane tasks as organizing written material and making it coherent, is subtitled “How to Create a Natural Diet and Lifestyle for Your Child.” Rodriguez calls herself “the Organic Nanny,” and promises that even non-famous, non-super-rich people can, by following her approach, remove processed food from the family diet, get rid of processed sweeteners, “embrace a life-affirming, passionate, cruelty-free lifestyle by phasing out industrial feed-lot and factory-farmed meat and toxic dairy products,” and (lest we forget) “make gratitude, respect, and reverence for life a way of life in your home.” Can this be done by harried everyday families with parents working two jobs or one parent out of work, with several children making constant demands of super-stressed adults who have to contend with kids’ homework, behavioral issues, dietary requirements and desires, illnesses and need for love and attention – without a support staff? Rodriguez says yes, although in light of her pride about spending two decades working for celebrity families, it is fair to ask how she would know. According to Rodriguez, eliminating “the bad stuff” in the family diet “softly, sweetly, gradually,” is “as easy as 1-2-3: 1. Use it up. 2. Upgrade it. 3. Phase it out.” For example, don’t deny your kids snack foods, but carry around specific ones from Annie’s Organic, Revolution Foods, Whole Foods and Earth’s Best – all much more expensive than other brands, of course. Drink water rather than soda at home and get rid of soda and other sugary drinks – this applies to everyone in the family, not just the kids, because a parent must be “a water-swigging role model” even if he or she feels entitled to something else after a super-long, super-difficult day. Buy nondairy milk, trying several different kinds to find one your kids like – never mind that many children have difficulty with any food change, much less with multiple changes in a short time. Want pizza? Buy non-dairy ones from Amy’s Kitchen or Tofurkey – higher-cost than others, of course. Eat local food – that’s a big celebrity fad right now. It may seem that “not every community has an abundance of local products,” but “maybe you just aren’t aware of the hidden jewels in or just outside your community.” Don’t forget to take your kids, including preteens, “to a park with a jungle gym and swings and big open spaces” so they can get the fresh air and sunshine they need in places that are readily available in upscale communities. And so on and so forth. The ideas that Rodriguez puts forth are in fact quite reasonable, even admirable, although her presentation of many of them comes with a feeling of superficiality and trendiness rather than deep commitment. In reality, families at any income level – to the extent that they can manage to do so – can benefit from eating more vegetables and more locally grown foods in general, from paying attention to environmental issues when cleaning house, and from learning “to listen from the heart,” as Rodriguez puts it in one her many New Age-y phrases. But Rodriguez, even as she proclaims that anybody can follow her prescriptions for a more-healthful life, seems blissfully unaware that many families are barely getting by both financially and in terms of time pressures and emotional wherewithal. Up in the rarefied spheres where Rodriguez works, her ideas are a lot easier to implement than they are in the world where most of her readers are likely to be living. After all, in Rodriguez’ world, there are nannies to handle many of the child-rearing, child-managing and health-improving chores. Someone needs to explain to her that there are some families that cannot afford nannies at all.

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