Book Review: Folks, This Ain’t Normal

by | Dec 19, 2011

Joel Salatin is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Self-described as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer,” you’re probably more familiar with him as the “beyond organic” owner of Polyface Farm featured in Michael Pollan’s landmark book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc. (note: if you haven’t read/watched those do so immediately).

I sat down with Joel recently to talk about his latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. On the outside, Joel does not appear abnormal in the least. He was well dressed, well spoken, extremely polite and fiercely intelligent—a gentleman in every way. But once you get him talking you quickly see that his ideas make him an anomaly in modern society, not because they are far-fetched, but because they come from so many different sides of the political and societal spectrums. People are rarely this thoughtful and well-rounded, and after finishing the book this is the point I keep coming back to.

You are almost certain to disagree with some of Joel’s ideas. Folks, This Ain’t Normal runs the gamut in controversial topics. He touches on politics, religion, the environment (including global warming), sustainable agriculture, big business, peak oil, taxes, protectionism, meat eating, government regulation, women’s role in farming (he told me to my face he’s “sexist”) and likely a few more subjects that will get your blood boiling. But this is not your usual liberal-conservative political banter.

Joel is a thinker, and just a few pages into the book it is clear that he has a more intimate understanding of these topics than most experts and advocates could even dream of. Folks, This Ain’t Normal is by far the best ecology lesson I’ve ever had, and I try to be a responsible person and keep up on sustainable food issues. While most people discuss this subject academically, Joel actually knows how an ecosystem works, because he works with one every day back at Polyface Farm. For example, despite the cries of some environmentalists to do away with cows and replace them with tofu (aka soy beans), Joel explains in detail why a tillage-based crop like soy depletes soil, while a grass-based system of herbivore feeding builds and protects soil, and is necessary for environmental sustainability.

Food politics is another topic where Joel’s position runs flatly against conventional wisdom. Most of us in the food movement agree that Monsanto is the devil, and Joel is no different. But while most foodists lean liberal and think more regulation is the answer, Joel explains why those very regulations are what protect the big companies and put small farms like his out of business (exactly what Monsanto wants). So contrary to what you might guess, his position on this topic is strictly laissez faire.

As mentioned above, there’s almost certainly something that Joel writes that will offend you. (Yes, he takes more than a few shots at urban farmers market goers with award winning poodles—Joel, in my defense I at least use my fancy kitchen and make my own sauerkraut). But I’ll argue that this is precisely why you should read the book. When crafted by a thoughtful, intelligent person, opposing viewpoints are among the most valuable thing in a thinking person’s arsenal. Even if he doesn’t convince you to change your opinion, at least it forces you to question your beliefs, think a little harder and refine your position. There are no worthwhile topics that don’t have valuable insights from both sides of the fence. Thinking is good for you, and it is something that is sadly laking in our current political environment.

In this spirit, the types of people who would certainly benefit from reading Folks, This Ain’t Normal include: vegetarians, carnivores, environmentalists, McDonald’s patrons, farmers market shoppers, Chipotle patrons, Tea Partiers, liberals, Christians, scientists, atheists, politicians, big farmers, small farmers, city folks, country folks, the 99% and the 1%. In short, everyone who eats.

What Joel wants us to understand is that it isn’t him who is historically abnormal. What’s not normal is having no idea where food and water come from, nor how to keep them healthy and safe. In other words, it is the rest of us who have lost the basic life skills necessary for survival. This, he argues, is what isn’t normal.

Grade: A

Note: The audio version of the book is particularly wonderful, since Joel reads it himself.

What’s your normal?


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For The Love Of Food

by | Sep 9, 2011

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week’s top 10 require careful reading and a little extra thinking, but it’s worth it. Learn why daily activity is more important than formal exercise, how habits can affect your food intake, some encouraging news from the USDA and more.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato) and the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Food, Inc. Shows How Your Food Choices Can Change the World

by | Jun 15, 2009

foodincIt is fair to say I’m a bit obsessed with food.

To me this is perfectly natural, because few things are as important or bring as much pleasure to my life. I eat at least three times a day, and each meal is an opportunity to revel in the bounty of nature and ensure my health for (5? 6? 7?) decades. What confuses me is why more people aren’t so obsessed with food.

I admit that my personal history with food is long and intimate, but at this stage in my life what makes me passionate about eating well is what I know about the impact of my daily meal choices on myself and the world.

Food is the cause of almost every modern disease, and is in the midst of creating some new ones.

Food is destroying the planet faster than anything in human history.

Food threatens our national security and the health of the global economy.

But food is not all doom and gloom, nor should it be. Real food is a celebration of life and brings people together. Real food is an art. Real food is health.

My personal favorite reason to eat the way I do is that real food tastes amazing, nothing like the processed junk most of us grew up eating.

When it comes down to it, real food makes my life better.

If you are like most people I talk to, this all sounds wonderful but is a little too abstract to move you to action. Sure we would all love to make it to the farmers market this weekend, but when Saturday rolls around there are 1,001 excuses not to go. Right?

In my world though, the earth has to be collapsing for me to miss my market trip and even then I’ll probably find another one. I don’t see it as a choice. For me my weekly trip to the farmers market determines how well I will eat for the entire week. I know it is possible to eat healthy without going but it won’t taste nearly as good, is less exciting and more expensive. These things make it harder to eat healthy at all, and that is not okay.

My resolve comes from the knowledge that there is no more important decision I can make each week than where I buy my food.

If you aren’t convinced yet, you should definitely see the new film Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. will help you see food as a priority, a solution to and not the cause of our problems. It is a journey through our modern food system, how it works and the tremendous impact it has on our lives.

One of my favorite quotes comes early in the film as Michael Pollan, one of the film’s narrators and hero of the “real food” movement, describes the disappearance of seasonal produce at the grocery store. His quintessential example is the perfectly red, perfectly round tomatoes that can be found year-round in American supermarkets.

“Although it looks like a tomato, it is a notional tomato. It’s the idea of a tomato.”

This is because, as you all know by now, real tomatoes only exist in the summer.

Food, Inc. gives you an intimate look at where these artificial foods come from and the how they affect our lives. It also explores the government policies that have encouraged and protected these practices at the expense of good food and health.

If you have read (and you should) Michael Pollan’s landmark book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you will find many similarities in this film. However, Food, Inc. preferentially emphasizes the results of our food system and the toll it takes on our health and economy.

Central to Food, Inc. are the stories of people who were the honest victims of our toxic system. These stories are heartbreaking and will make you think twice the next time you are tempted to order a Quarter Pounder.

Importantly, Food, Inc. offers more than just criticism, it also gives us a solution: vote with your fork.

The message of the movie is almost entirely aligned with the philosophy of this blog: shop at farmers markets, cook your own meals, pass on the processed foods.

These simple acts are enough to change the way the system works, because ultimately consumers decide what is produced. If you stop buying it, they will stop selling it and find another way to satisfy your needs. We are the ones with the real power.

It is completely possible to opt out of our current food system by reducing and even eliminating processed, industrial foods from your diet. Amazingly, once you start on this journey you learn that you don’t actually give anything up in the process, but in fact regain a world of lost flavors and the joys of eating real food.

If you like Food, Inc. and want to know more there are numerous resources:

Have you seen Food, Inc. yet? What did you think?

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For The Love of Food

by | Jun 5, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week learn the best ways to prevent cancer, why Michelle Obama should talk more about cooking and the reason heating oil is not dangerous. Also, catch Eric Schlosser of Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. on The Colbert Report.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form.

For The Love of Food

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