Posts in category: Book Review



Kitchen Literacy

Marissa     Book Review         0    

When I was born, we lived “in the country” (what is now right off the highway in NW Austin) with goats, chickens and a big vegetable garden. By the time I was a teenager, we had moved twice and lived in a house with no garden and a freezer full of convenience foods. That’s not to say we didn’t eat pretty healthy, but things had gone a long way from the early days.

I moved from home and starting to become aware of the food around me. I honestly don’t know how it happened, but by the time I was 25, I was ready to live on a farm and grow all my own food. Somehow from 18 to 25, I had discovered farmers markets, local foods, homemade bread and the horrors of factory farmed meat. That’s not to say that my parents didn’t teach me any of this (I can still taste the homemade English muffin bread my mom made), but I had to relearn it on my own for it to really mean something to me. I thought I was part of a cutting edge movement. When I started discussing all of this with my parents, they related their own epiphanies that happened in the 70s. Huh, you mean my generation wasn’t the first to be so enlightened? So I researched the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement and even earlier movements toward intentional or communal living. But I don’t think I ever really looked much farther back than about the 1940s. I figured this was all in reaction to industrial foods, which I thought were introduced in WWII. I only recently found out how wrong I was!

I recently read Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back by Ann Vileisis. It’s been a while since I’ve read any “foodie” type book that really presents something entirely new to me. But this book blew me away. I have so much to say about it, I’m having trouble collecting my thoughts.


The book travels through food history in America starting in the 18th century with a firsthand account of the gardening and cooking of a miller’s wife. Through the 19th century, more and more people moved to cities and our food knowledge began to change from growing, to choosing at the market. Soon city dwellers were “ignorant” of their food – something I know modern writers tend to complain about. But in the 1830s – that’s right, not a typo! – a survey showed that city schoolchildren were ignorant of the origins of food. I laughed when I read in Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder about the neighborhood children who marveled at her husband pulling carrots from their garden and offered that maybe spaghetti also grew underground. Ha – kids these days. Well, “these days” has been nearly 200 years!

I can recall a conversation once over dinner with my grandmother. We were discussing some current issue that involved organic produce. My grandmother chimed in that she didn’t know what all the hype was about – she had been eating regular vegetables her whole life and it hadn’t done her any harm. My father responded that in fact she had likely been eating organic vegetables for the majority of her life (she was born in 1919) as regular use of herbicides and pesticides was a new problem. I heartily agreed. Turns out we were wrong. I had always thought these chemicals really came into play after WWII but it turns out they have been a regular occurrence on farms for almost a hundred years before that! People died from acute pesticide poisoning. Wow. So the Michael Pollan saying of ‘eat what your grandmother would eat’ needs to be taken with a grain of salt!* We’ve been polluting food for far longer than I thought!

I could go on and on about the book. I’m sure tidbits will show up in other posts. And for the first time in a while, a “foodie” book has me changing my diet. I am striving to cut out as much processed food as possible. I eat very little as it is, but even the amount I do eat seems like too much. More on this later!

Get the book. Read it. Learn a lot and be inspired to change!

*I actually think this is mostly great advice. And of course, it depends on your generation and I should probably be looking at my great-grandmother.




The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains

Marissa     Book Review         0    

What in the world am I doing talking about a technology book on a farming blog?  Well, several reasons.  First, this is a blog.  It is the internet.  So a book about the internet is potentially pertinent.  Second, there were some interesting parts of the book that talked about how humans relate to nature – and farming is a whole lotta nature.

Nicholas Carr has been a technology writer for many years and has (obviously) used the internet as a tool both for research and for publication.  In this book however, he takes a look at what it really does to the way we think to have the internet constantly at our fingertips.  The key points of how our behavior and brains are changing probably would have made a good magazine article.  But to bulk the discussion up for book form, Carr delves into many fascinating research topics that are related.  For instance, he spends a good bit of time on the history of various ‘technologies’, how they were received, and how the population (or more likely the elite) thought they were being changed for the worse.  So this is not a new subject – Socrates, in 370 BC, claimed that the written word was a useless invention for actual teaching!

But to the heart of the matter, Carr cites study after study that came to conclusions that are probably contradictory to what you and I would assume.  I often hear people say how nice it is to be able to ‘google’ anything they need to look up to help them understand something.  But studies would prove otherwise.  Yes, we have all this incredible information at our fingertips but it does not actually help us in comprehension.  People given the same material but in different formats – one in plain old written form, the other in electronic form full of hyperlinks – performed very differently on comprehension tests.  Those that were forced to read boring paper print understood the information more than those that were given free access to all the definitions and supporting information linked from within the article.  And now that I’ve read that I understand exactly why.  Concentration!  It is severely lacking in a lot of people and our activities are forcing us to spread it thinner and thinner.

Another interesting aspect of the book was discussing our relationship with nature.  It was a rather minor point but it stuck out in my mind as significant.  Given some kind of information, test subjects are quizzed on it after either spending 2 hours wandering about in a busy city or 2 hours wandering about in nature.  The nature subjects did far better on the tests.  The conclusion is that the relaxing atmosphere of the natural world allows us to think they way we evolved to.  Not in the short, snippet, fast paced world of the internet, but in the slow, rhythmic world of nature.  I used to sit outside under a tree during lunch when I worked in a big engineering firm.  I always thought I worked better in the afternoons simply because I was more awake and had a good meal.  Now I’m wondering if I simply didn’t allow my brain to ‘reset’ and relax so that I could deal better with our artificially information dense world.

If any of this babbling has sparked your interest, I suggest you read the book.  This really isn’t a proper review of it.  I have to admit that it took me a long time to read as I started and stopped several times and I also let my attention drift a bit too much.  It was fascinating in a lot of respects but I think I would need a second read before truly understanding all of it.  Anyway, it’s worth a look!





Year of the Goat

Marissa     Animal Husbandry, Book Review         2    

Year of the Goat:  40,000 miles and the quest for the perfect cheese

Honestly, I expected a bit more about cheese.  But despite the fact that the title did not match what I thought the contents of the book would be, it did prove to be interesting.  Margaret Hathaway and her boyfriend Karl Schatz journey across the country to learn all things goat.  They’ve lived in New York and love the city hubbub but get the feeling that they are missing out on the important things in life. It’s an interesting journey and something that not everyone would have the chance to do. They do eventually settle down and start a small farm.

This is the author’s first foray into writing. So I can’t be in enough awe of her actually getting the book written and published. I truly commend her. Unfortunately, I found myself critiquing the clumsy style and flow of the story. I don’t usually notice things like that – I’ve often had people say “oh, didn’t you hate the way the author wrote?!” and I could see no shortcomings. So this was unusual.

I was also a bit taken aback at some of the tidbits present as fact in the book. For instance, the author claims (she was probably told) that since goats have a gestation of 5 months, you can breed them 3 times in 2 years. WHOA! Maybe in commercial dairy settings but I’ve never heard of small farm folks doing that. I may be the one misinformed, but at least on homesteads, it’s more reasonable to breed them 2 times in 3 years so as to give them some time off. Her description of milking also had several things described which I’ve always been told are no-nos (pulling down on the teats for instance). So I was a little disappointed there. But obviously, this book isn’t meant to be a guide to goat raising (her second book is…!).

So…I guess I have mixed feelings. I simply love the subject matter but was not impressed by the book. But I admit that I’ll enjoy nearly anything about goats.




The Self-Sufficient Life

Marissa     Book Review         5    

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: the complete back-to-basics guide

This is a wonderful book by John Seymour. It was my first real taste of the homesteading lifestyle and probably guided many of the choices that have led to where I am today. My mom had an older book of his from the 70s about gardening that I used to read as a kid. When I was about 20, I purchased this book and I really do think it changed my life. It made me realize I wasn’t the only crazy one!

The book is full of information from the very general to the detailed. One of the most interesting parts to me are the layouts for various sized homesteads, from backyard garden to 5 acre farm. He covers the basics on producing food from the garden, animals, fields and the wild. I’m always inspired to poke around in the woods to see what edible tidbits I can find after perusing Seymour’s book. He also introduced me to another aspect of homesteading that I had previously overlooked.

Self-sufficiency is not only for those who have five acres of their own country. A city-dweller who learns to mend her own shoes becomes, to some extent, self-sufficient. She saves money and increases her own satisfaction and self-respect, too. We were not meant to be a one-job animal. We do not thrive as parts of a machine. We are intended by nature to be diverse, to do diverse things, to have many skills. The city person who buys a sack of wheat from a farmer on a country visit and grinds his own flour to make his own bread cuts out the middleman and furthermore gets better bread. He gets good exercise turning the handle of the grinding machine, too. And any suburban gardener can dig up some of that useless lawn, put some of those dreary hardy perennials on the compost pile, and grow some cabbages. And urban garden or a community garden can provide a sound base for a would-be self-supporter, and a good-sized suburban garden can practically keep a family.

This sentiment took me from dreaming of owning a farm to becoming a homestead wherever I lived. I began gardening in containers at rent houses and learning new skills from this and other books. Seymour covers many of the kitchen skills we no longer use frequently – turning milk into yogurt and cheese, brewing, baking from scratch, preserving the harvest, making vinegar, etc. He also briefly covers a myriad of other skills that range from practically unknown (thatching a roof, making bricks) to still popular (pottery).

In another section, Seymour also delves into the interesting world of energy and power production. He discusses various ways to make your house more efficient as well as actually harnessing energy sources around us – the sun, rotting manure, wind, etc. My mind is always churning when I get to this chapter!

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in homesteading or farming. It is well written and well illustrated. Whenever I feel that my homesteading dreams are too vague or not coming to fruition, I curl up with this book to spark new ideas and to get re-motivated. It is probably the best read book on my shelf.

(background image of Maryland hay fields by Clearly Ambiguous)




Texas Vegetable Gardening Books

Marissa     Book Review, Gardening         0    

While we have a rather extensive collection of gardening books (hi, my name is Marissa and I’m addicted to books), I typically only refer to these two when actually applying the knowledge in the field.

The Vegetable Book:  A Texan’s guide to gardening

Too long out of print, this book has finally been brought back to the public’s attention with a new softcover copy.  I found my first copy at Fletcher’s Books and Antiques in Salado.  It was back in the day when Fletcher’s book section was a hazard to enter – stacks of dusty tomes rose from floor to ceiling, book cases groaned under the weight of the pages and the lighting left everything to be desired.  Today, Fletcher’s is a pristine well organized shop.  Sometimes I miss the old days but I usually appreciate being able to find things now!  I’m so glad I stumbled upon Sam Cotner’s book back then.  It proved to be full of invaluable information.  And I apparently got it at a steal for only $8.  The hardbacks go for ~$200 on some sites!

The book is organized into chapters for each vegetable in alphabetical order.  There are lengthy descriptions of various aspects of each plant – how to prepare the soil, how to plant, when the harvest, etc.  He delves into common problems as well.  There is also a section at the back of unusual vegetables – those unusual to us all and those that are unusual to see growing in a Texas garden (celery for example).  The back of the book also contains some important seed staring information.

Whether you are a first time gardener or one with plenty of experience, I think you will find something useful in this book.  And now that it is available again, I would suggest purchasing it before it goes out of print!  Surprisingly, Amazon does not appear to carry the reprint.  But if you live locally, you can pick up a copy at The Natural Gardener in Southwest Austin.



Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening: The Total Guide to Growing Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs, and Other Edible Plants the Natural Way

The “dirt doctor” Howard Garrett along with Malcolm Beck, have put together a wonderful reference book.  The beginning of the book contains information about the general aspects of organic gardening – how to improve your soil health, composting, pest control, etc.  There are tables and graphs to help you figure out what conditions you have where you garden.  The rest of the book deals with the particulars of each plant.

Food bearing plants are listed in alphabetical order.  Each page contains bulleted information for quick access – things like planting dates, depths, distances; best fertilizers; and recommended varieties.  There are also common problems and solutions.   The tables of information for troubleshooting problems have saved several crops over the years!

I seriously would not garden in Texas without both of these books by my side.  Especially when used in conjunction, you really can’t go wrong!