Eat Rutabagas, Not War

The year's best cookbooks allow you to live better in body and soul

Barbara Kafka, with Christopher Styler
Vegetable Love
Artisan, $35

Bill Niman and Janet Fletcher
The Niman Ranch Cookbook
Ten Speed Press, $35

Like most sentient Americans who eat food, I go through most of my life feeling like a complete failure. Also, an ingrate.

Non-vegetarian author and vegetable lover Barbara Kafka
Courtesy of Barbara Kafka
Non-vegetarian author and vegetable lover Barbara Kafka

For one thing, I don't eat enough vegetables. Probably I should be eating 10 to 60 servings of vegetables a day: leafy green ones, bright orange ones, and those that are brownish and look like sticks, or rubble, and can commonly be found in co-op deli cases covered with tamari and walnuts at $12 a pound. Wheat berries. Jerusalem artichokes. Yautia. Yes, of course I know that wheat berries aren't actually a vegetable, but they've got the general properties of a vegetable: They're good for you, and I don't eat enough of them.

Like most Americans, I read enough TV in airports to know that emerging studies indicate I am not eating to win. We're all supposed to be eating stuff that would replicate our days as foraging hunter-gatherers, and if broccoli has 400 little nano-micro compounds in it, then Jerusalem artichokes probably do too, and somewhere in there is the one little micro-whoosis my body needs to keep from getting some cancer, or virus, or macular degeneration. What's macular degeneration? It's when you go blind when you're old, and you're less likely to get it when you eat your vegetables. My vegetables. Your vegetables! No backsies.

But let's just be human beings here, as they said back in the 1970s, when vegetables were a platform for cheese, which was a protein and thus heart-healthy. If we're just being human beings then, I can tell you that I am a longtime food pro with enough words in print to strike fear in the hearts of even the most sophisticated sewage treatment facilities, and so many years in restaurant kitchens that the only chocolate mousse recipe I know starts with a two-and-a-half-kilo block of chocolate. But, because I am just being a human being, I can tell you that I am also just another American who has never cooked a Jerusalem artichoke. I have never purchased salsify, taro, callaloo, crosnes, or even that humble local star, the rutabaga.

I think a lot and I write a lot about the importance of eating what grows well and naturally in our northern lands, but when I find burdock growing in the yard, I attack it with the dandelion weeder; I don't nurture it for winter braising. Like most Americans, when it comes to vegetables, I find cupcakes quite soothing.

Meanwhile, of course, there are meats. The totally different problem of meats. Every time I eat out, which is about as often as you blink, every single time I wolf down a carnitas burrito, gobble a burger, or make brilliant yet unappreciated wisecracks about lackluster turkey club sandwiches, I am forced to acknowledge that I am probably, at that very instant, ruining everything.

You know, by eating meat that comes from American industrial agriculture, which does about a hundred million bad things, including, but not limited to: 1) Putting animals in hellhole-like confinement operations where they require antibiotic-saturated feed, thus threatening the effectiveness of popular antibiotics for human use; 2) creating minimum-wage jobs in these hellhole places, jobs that only exploited immigrants will take; 3) driving family farmers who can't compete price-wise out of business, thus decimating our rural economies; 4) encouraging the petrochemical agriculture that kills our soil, allowing it to wash into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to both the endangerment of countless species of birds, bugs, fish, and so forth, and no doubt led, in a roundabout manner, to 5) the destruction of New Orleans. Contemporary American meats: an ethical problem that overwhelms the capacity of the human mind, and irresistibly delicious.

Failure. Guilt. Vegetables. Meat. What's a hopeless, yet hungry, average American to do? You could buy some cookbooks, actually. Because what you just read is in fact the gooniest possible way of introducing what I truly believe were the two best cookbooks of 2005, one which kicks down the barriers to the use of every vegetable you've ever heard of or could ever find (and many more), and another that accomplishes something I never even dreamed possible: allowing you to feel hopeful and inspired about the potential future of Midwestern animal husbandry. Honestly!



Barbara Kafka is one of the grandes dames of American cookery. She was telling people how to roast ducks since before there were ducks, if you know what I mean. She has just come out with a serious encyclopedia called Vegetable Love. Nearly 800 pages long, the book covers every vegetable you've ever heard of, plus many I assume she didn't just make up. (Puntarelle, anyone? Malokhie? Those are a chicory and something okralike, I read.)

The book is intelligently organized: recipes in the front; plain old definitions, a buying guide, and general buying, cooking, and storage guidelines in the back. This way, if you decide you want to add, say, okra to your cooking repertoire, you can learn right off the bat how to buy the pods; you'll be looking for ones around two inches long, firm, and consistent in color without dark spots, says Kafka, going on to explain when to use them whole (when okra-slime is not wanted) and when to cut into the pod (when you want them to thicken sauces or stews like gumbo).

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