Most Tucsonans are accustomed to dry rivers and dusty landscapes, dotted with bountiful cacti but very few green trees. But there was a time, not so very long ago, when the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers ran with water, and that water nourished lush cottonwood forests on the rivers’ banks. Of the environmental degradation that has resulted from the overutilization of surface water and decades of environmentally insensitive resource management, the climate scientist Gregg Garfin writes, “These facts are in plain sight in the public record, and yet are obscure to many Arizonans.”
Ground|Water is a multidiscipline study published by University of Arizona’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry that seeks to illuminate this phenomenon. At times mournful and other times hopeful, the book weaves together poetry, visual arts, scientific, literary, and intellectual criticism with the unifying focus on water, or the lack thereof.
Central to the book is the Rillito River Project—a group of artists, musicians, writers, and scholars who began in 2007 to try to raise awareness about the detrimental effects of climate change in the Southwest. The group puts on events such as Bat Night, which draws city residents to the dry riverbank to witness the migratory habits of Mexican free-tailed bats. It also hosts installations, like that of Jessica Gerlach, a visual artist who has put on ephemeral environmental installations illustrating key species that once thrived in the riparian habitat and are now endangered, such as the Fremont cottonwood, the western yellow-billed cuckoo, and the Gila topminnow.
Among the many provocative pieces in the collection, a highlight is Allison Dushane’s essay exploring the Romantic era’s forward-thinking musings on the relationship between humans and nature. She describes the development of ecocriticism, or literature’s inclination toward seeking a connection to the natural world, as being foreshadowed by writings of Erasmus Darwin (physician, writer, and grandfather to Charles). Although he warned that humans could have no control or even real understanding of the awesome powers of nature, he also wrote of a responsibility for “harnessing that power toward its continual improvement.”
The many images in this book strike the reader forcefully with the notion of how much our human presence has been destructive. The message might well be seen as a desperate rallying cry. “The problem that faces us today is not one to be ‘solved’ by ‘saving’ something,” Dushane writes. “Rather, it is necessary to marshal all of the resources at our disposal, scientific, and humanistic, towards rethinking, reimagining, and reinventing a world that recognizes the inseparability of human and non-human concerns.”
Vegetarian food has become about saying no to meat rather than saying yes to vegetables. It focuses on what it’s not rather than what it is. At Dirt Candy I obsess about what I can serve, not about what I can’t.”
This pretty much sums up Amanda Cohen’s fearless mission with her popular NYC restaurant Dirt Candy and her eponymous cookbook. Cohen is all about creating surprising, whimsical, indulgent dishes starring vegetables as the main event.
For the home cook, some of the recipes in this book are a little over the top. For example, her famous carrot buns with carrot, cucumber, and ginger salad are an all-day project, as is her olive fettuccine with pickled eggplant and eggplant jam. But even if you aren’t up for a marathon kitchen session, certain elements of her complex dishes are more approachable. The chickpea dressing on her smoked sweet potato niçoise salad can be whipped up quickly and used as a dressing for any number of green salads and simply roasted vegetables. Or you might make her lively butternut squash soup and skip the squash dumplings and coconut cream for a weeknight meal. She refreshingly recommends making the pasta sauces with boxed pasta if you don’t have the energy to roll out the pasta maker.
But the most charming thing about this book is its entertainment value. Most cookbooks simply contain recipes and food porn photography. Cohen, on the other hand, has created a raucous documentation of her experiences in the restaurant industry through comic book-style storytelling. She gives hilarious, often self-deprecating, accounts of appearing on “Iron Chef” (and losing), serving Martha Stewart (who remained stone-faced throughout dinner), and leasing and building out a restaurant in a run-down NYC building. She even broaches the subject of immigration policy through the story of her undocumented immigrant dishwasher.
Cohen also seems bent on breaking down the popular myths about successful chefs—that they return home and cook lavish meals for their waiting families, that they always get along famously with their co-workers, and that they prepare every dish with ease and grace. Instead, she portrays a messy, stressful, and lonely lifestyle—albeit one punctuated with moments of glory and the satisfaction that comes with hard work turning into deserving accolades. It’s evident that Cohen and her team put as much painstaking work and creative energy into this book as they do into each intricate dish, and the result is a rare treat among cookbooks.
Though cooking can be a team sport, the putting together of everyday meals is, for the most part, a solitary pursuit. In the hours preparing for a gathering of friends, or in the moments spent dashing about just getting dinner ready, much time is spent studying recipes, making small decisions about how much of this to add, and how much of that. And when. And at what heat.
Nigel Slater captures these private moments in his yearlong kitchen diary, Notes from the Larder. He documents every day, starting with New Year’s. “Empty glasses are scattered around the room, perched on shelves and window ledges,” he writes, “There is just enough Champagne left in the bottle in the fridge for me to celebrate, in secret, the first morning of the New Year.” And then he sets about cooking a cider loaf and a soup of bacon and celery root—something warming and hearty on a cold London day.
Throughout the course of the year, Slater celebrates each season with food that feels just right. In spring, a salad of lamb, lemon, and olives, or beet fritters with gravlax might fit the bill. In the winter, one might opt for the bacon chops with cabbage and apple, or one of several vegetable curries.
But this book is more than a collection of recipes. Slater’s ruminations on cooking are both thoughtful and useful. “Simple doesn’t have to mean quick,” he writes in a chapter titled “Slow,” which introduces an all-day, hands-off recipe for pork rib ragu. “Simple cooking can also be something that is left to cook for a long time over low heat, quietly puttering away, filling the kitchen with the scent of welcome.” Exactly.
Slater’s deep passion for being simply present in the kitchen is manifest in his carefully chosen, nearly poetic words. Introducing a recipe for chicken with hand-whipped tarragon mayonnaise, he writes adoringly of the whisk, “the most basic of kitchen equipment made perfect by careful design, presumably by someone who knows what a cook needs a whisk to do. Oh, and did I mention it is a thing of almost aching beauty too?”
According to David Cleveland, Santa Barbara County produces ten times more fruits and vegetables than it consumes. Almost all of it is exported, while over 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported. This one small example, based on David Cleveland’s research, shows the complexities and contradictions of the world’s “agrifood” system.
Balancing on a Planet is for those who want a better understanding of the big picture of global food production and distribution and how these elements of the food system can become sustainable.
Cleveland is a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in ecological anthropology, and lived and gardened in Armory Park for many years. His research is based on work he has done in Ghana, Mexico, Pakistan, Zuni, and Hopi lands, and in Santa Barbara.
The strength of Cleveland’s book is how he uses his experience, expertise, and widely collected data to scientifically analyze the world’s food and agriculture system. Balancing on a Planet isn’t a light read—Cleveland provides more than 1,000 references within the text. Yet, while citations, graphs, figures, and tables abound, the lay reader will get an understandable explanation of the complexities involved in creating an enduring and diverse worldwide agricultural system where socioeconomic, cultural, and ecological needs are met.
Cleveland repeatedly calls for the need to use critical thinking, which “will require a willingness to be explicit about our own values and empirically based assumptions and to assess them just as critically as the assumptions … different than our own.” In other words, every player (or producer, transporter, consumer) must be ready to look at real empirical evidence to contribute to developing an appropriate agrifood system. To achieve this, he writes that we will need “a combination of critical engagement and non-attached advocacy for our values.”
One trap that concerned activists risk falling into is mistaking indicators for goals. As an example, Cleveland brings up the worthy goal of getting malnourished children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. One tool for attaining that goal is to increase the number of stores selling produce in or near a low-income neighborhood. But merely having these stores (an indicator) does not necessarily mean that that food will get into the stomachs of the targeted audience. Factors such as food cost, buying habits, food preparation, and, lastly, whether the kids are actually eating the produce will strongly influence whether that new store (or community garden) will actually improve the nutrition of these low-income youth.
Cleveland maintains that we must act immediately and discontinue our business-as-usual approach to producing and consuming food because, as is, the system is not sustainable. He concludes that the world must combine the best elements of small-scale food production with select aspects of modern, scientific agriculture. Given the current economic forces and political conditions, it won’t be easy, but the alternative is a catastrophe down the road. ✜
Peter Bourque is the former director of the Hunger Action Center of Tucson and the author of Tarnished Ivory: Reflections on Peace Corps and Beyond. He has gardened in Tucson for 35 years.
Molly Kincaid is a Tucsonan who is obsessed with tinkering in the kitchen and reading cookbooks. Her favorite foods are, paradoxically, kale and pork belly.