Elevate Difference

Cook Food: A Manualfesto for Easy, Healthy, Local Eating

I’ve long enjoyed Lisa Jervis’ critical analysis, a woman best known in feminist circles as the co-founder of Bitch magazine. Growing into my own love of all things kitchen this past year, I fully expected to be won over by Cook Food; sadly, I was not.

It seems like a complicated time to write this book. Educated liberals finally care about “food studies” now that Michael Pollan is writing books about his omnivorous dilemma. At the same time, many progressives have long known about the risks associated with genetically modified foods and hydrogenated oils, the benefits of plant-based (or at least plant-heavy) diets, and the importance of eating slowly and locally. Many are also aware of how hard it is to find affordable, fresh produce in many areas of the country.

It’s hard to know to whom this book is marketed. Anyone who has read any of Michael Pollan’s books or articles in the New York Times Magazine is likely familiar with the concepts that influence Jervis’ writing. Yet because this short book mostly lacks larger systemic analysis about how gender, race, and speciesism plays into your dietary options and choices, it’s hard to know Jervis’ point of departure—and thus it’s difficult to gauge what ours should be.

Because the book is seemingly geared towards socially-conscious people without much experience in the kitchen, many recipes use basic vegan ingredients. This is both a strength and a weakness. While soy mayonnaise is never called for—which is great in terms of keeping the recipes as universal as possible—a meal based on tempeh and kale also isn’t often wildly appealing to people unfamiliar with vegetarian or vegan cooking. Jervis also admits that being from the Bay Area, her surroundings—plentiful farmers markets—influence her attitudes and writing. Unfortunately, that specific context doesn’t necessarily lend itself to using this book’s recipes across varying regions and availabilities.

A number of the recipes—five of the twenty—in Cook Food are modified from the originals found in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. While I appreciate Jervis’ honesty, none of the recipes are all that unique, which is noticeable even without reading her necessary disclosure. It seems a little tricky to call one’s book a "manualfesto" while borrowing so heavily from others' work.

Jervis states repeatedly that we should all do the best we can, but in the end, I’m not left very convinced that she believes you can manage your own kitchen without a plethora of local green grocers, markets that stock tofu, a pepper grinder, and quality cookware. That this book doesn’t win over a frugal vegan like myself cannot be considered a generalized condemnation of good work; a reviewer’s ego needs to be reigned in when personal essentializing overshadows objective judgment. Still, if I’m looking for a cozy vegan-ish book to gift to a friend, I’m afraid this won’t be the one.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, October 17th 2009