I recently read Betsy Block's wonderfully entertaining book The Dinner Diaries:Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World. Although I was initially drawn to the book because I had heard that it was a funny food memoir, I found it to be a much more useful book than I had imagined. Yes--it is charming and warm--but it also engages food politics on many levels and will make readers think more seriously about the ramifications of our decisions about eating.
Block writes the book as a memoir of her own personal quest to improve her family's diet. She lets us know her struggles and her families, and she allows us to celebrate with her. This narrative style allows the author to pass along a great deal of information without it ever seeming the least bit moralizing or preachy.
Block introduces her readers to all sorts of food issues. Should we cut down and/or elminate meat? Should we remove dairy from our diets? What should we do about sugar? How can we handle our own uncertainties about the answers in the face of social/community resistance to change?
My favorite section is her discussion of fish. While eating more fish is initially on her list of things to do to improve her family's diet, she then learns more about the mercury content of most fish as well as other pollution issues. She then discusses overfishing and endangered varietes. Block winds up with an effort to find sustainably-raised local fish. It is a tying together of many of the concerns raised throughout the book.
The book is not without its problems.
Block tells an absolutely wonderful story about Gandhi--one I had never heard before. When a mother brought her young sugar-obsessed son to the master in order to have Gadhi himself correct his eating habbits. Gandhi told the family to come back again in three weeks. When they did, he told the boy simply not to eat sugar. When the frustrated mother asked why he couldn't have just told her son those same words three weeks before, Gandhi responded: "Because three weeks ago, I was still eating sugar."
I love this story with its message that we need to live up to all we expect our children to be. But what Block says after this story is that while it is important that we be role models, her chosen way is to eat candy (fair-trade chocolate) with her husband after the children are in bed. Her reasoning? "We're the parents here" and "some things in life should be adult only." In other words, she chooses to be a good role model to her children's faces but not a good role model after dark. As she says, "We'd rather lie than argue." I'm not sure Gandhi would approve.
There are a few other places where I disagree with Block. For example, I do not believe that our vitamins should be coming from either pills or foods "fortified" with added chemicals. Real food grown in real soil seems like a better answer for our health as well as for our planet.
I was also a bit irked by the often-contrived efforts to make nutritional advice seem to be riddled with contradiction and conflict. She paints the nutritionists and the locavores are actively working at cross purposes. As she writes early on, the two groups are in opposite corners of a boxing ring and what the first group says are fighting words. For example, the locavores are "telling us to eat locally and in season,, which obviously rules out most of what the nutritionists advised"--which is to eat less meat and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The Ethical Eaters are in another corner altogether. While this portrayal of people at odds makes for a great story, it just doesn't work like that very often. Yes, sometimes you have to choose between a sprayed apple from down the road and an organic one from China. But that doesn't mean the basic ideas are not in harmony.
Despite these reservations, The Dinner Diaries is both an entertaining and informative read. Check it out!