HARVEST FOR HOPE
A Guide to Mindful Eating
By Jane Goodall with Gary McAvoy and Gail Hudson
Warner. 296 pp. $24.95
One of the later chapters in Jane Goodall's impassioned, muddled Harvest for Hope opens with a telling sentence: "There was a time, when my son Grub was small, that I used to love cooking." Leaving aside for the moment the motives of anyone who calls her son Grub, I react to this claim much as Goodall might to someone saying she "used to" have a thing for chimps. Anyone who values good eating is likely to take that sentence -- along with the cover photo of the birdlike author -- as confirmation that this guide on how to eat responsibly was written by someone who has no interest in eating at all.
Still, in this age of agribusiness and early onset diabetes, any guidance is appreciated. For taste-free vegans or soulless gourmands, perhaps the choice between ethics and enjoyment is a simple one, but those of us who care deeply about both food and other living creatures engage in a precarious juggling act, attempting to balance our consciences, our appetites and our wallets. The best that can be said about Harvest for Hope is that it acknowledges how difficult responsible eating can be. Goodall, herself a vegetarian, almost certainly wishes a deep-organic, meatless lifestyle upon everyone else, but she is not interested in alienating the inveterate carnivores among us. After all, as she herself discovered, even her beloved chimpanzees eat flesh from time to time. Instead, she satisfies herself with convincing her readers to support sustainable agriculture, buy free-range, organic meat and otherwise reach for meaningful change.
Goodall is continuously making small asides such as "I seldom remember the actual food we ate." Clearly she is no serious eater. Because she is not a gourmand, she hasn't the tools to make the case for an organic diet based on its culinary advantages, and for the most part she doesn't even try. Instead, for much of Harvest for Hope, she trots out a list of horror stories, in an attempt to heighten awareness about the havoc wreaked on the environment by factory farming, the health risks involved in eating its toxic products and, most of all, the systematic cruelty visited upon the pigs, cows and chickens that grace our tables. But these subjects have been covered more completely and convincingly elsewhere, all the way back to Peter Singer's 1975 classic Animal Liberation, a book to which Goodall refers with reverence. Yet she is almost touchingly surprised by the old-news evils of industrial agriculture. Reading Harvest for Hope, I found myself picturing the author as pampered and picturesquely horrified, holding forth on some flavor-of-the-month social ill.
Zealous though she is, Goodall's case against the evils of modern agribusiness is not the strongest, for all her gruesome tale of baby chicks being ground up alive. The book, which has no bibliography, endlessly spouts uncredited statistics and study results. Goodall writes, for instance, that "before the advent of chemical farming, the main cause of unnatural death for United States farmers was farm accidents, but today it is at least five times more likely to be suicide." That's startling and horrifying if true, but her disinclination to back up the claim with a citation weakens her position that modern agriculture stresses farms and farmers. And her frequent anecdotes and whimsical suppositions, rather than boosting sympathy for abused livestock, instead undermine her credibility. Speaking of and for the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving meal, she writes, "The turkey spirits hovering there . . . will surely join in the Thanksgiving celebrations -- only they will be giving thanks for the death that ended their lives of torture." How do you engage seriously on the topic of sustainable agriculture with someone who bolsters her arguments with musings on the afterlives of poultry?
It feels churlish to quibble over missing footnotes and silly anthropomorphism with a woman of Goodall's evident passion. Her belief in a "global mandate" for a diet of sustainable, local foods is admirable, and the fiery indignation of Harvest for Hope may well persuade people to reexamine their shopping and eating habits -- itself a laudable achievement. But while her zealotry has its place, it also leads her to fuzzy thinking and ominous oversimplification. She has a habit of referring to all older people with dark skin, be they Native Americans or Africans, as "elders" and describes their traditions in mystical tones that smack of condescension. And although she rightly blames overpopulation for the advent of industrial farming and the resulting ravaging of the environment, she sniffs at the possibility that factory agriculture has also helped keep the victims of that overpopulation alive by providing a cheap supply of grain for famine relief: "While this may be of the utmost importance -- in many cases saving thousands of lives -- there can also be a downside in that local farmers in famine-stricken [areas] will be unable to sell their crops." There is real truth in this. But her blithe judgment of a complicated issue of humanitarian action and international politics suggests a disturbingly cavalier, let-them-eat-cake attitude -- surprising in one who for decades made her home among some of the world's poorest people.
If Goodall's naivete undercuts her arguments, so does her utter lack of interest in food. She proudly relates her son's wonder that someone who "ate so little" could maintain so much energy; the excruciating daily diet she ascribes to herself -- half a slice of toast with jam for breakfast, broccoli and a small boiled potato for lunch, scrambled eggs on toast for dinner -- is one of a woman who views food as fuel and nothing more. And perhaps it is the Anthony Bourdain in me, but how can a woman who has spent most of life in the African wilderness be so finicky about trying some milk with cow's blood mixed into it? (When in Masai country, after all. . . .)
How can advice from a person like this be of any help to an ardent, conscience-stricken cook? As much as I admire Goodall's work with apes, I do not want to be one. The enjoyment of great food separates us Homo sapiens from our nearest relatives. Harvest for Hope is written for people who eat to stay alive; those of us who eat to celebrate our humanity will have to wait for our own, thornier guide to mindful eating. *
Julie Powell is the author of "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen."