BK (as in Before Kingsolver)

“Coming Home to Eat”
Gary Paul Nabhan (W.W. Norton)

The idea of a “food diary” has lately been touted as the brightest innovation in literature since the illuminated text. But any reader looking for more meat than froth can find it in Gary Paul Nabhan’s deep, witty and very self-aware account of the year he devoted to food “grown, fished or gathered” within 200 miles of his Arizona kitchen.
The book resonated with me because I once spent a year trying to cook only what was in season in my part of the world and kept a daily journal of the struggle and the rewards (the latter outweighed the former). I think my agent spent two years trying to sell it. The concept was too alien in a world of Chilean blueberries and ever-present tomatoes.

Nabhan took the idea even further, restricting himself to the wild, the weird and the completely daunting (squashed venison off the highway). What he proves is that it ain’t easy, but cooking and eating what comes locally is so much better for the soul.

From the first page Nabhan makes it abundantly clear why he won a MacArthur grant. One of his missions is saving indigenous plants, particularly of the food-bearing variety, and he has a unique perspective on the American food supply. His idea of a feast includes prickly pear margaritas, pickled cholla buds and rattlesnake fritters. It only makes you think about how many other ingredients never make it to market, and about how truly strange it is that soy milk has taken hold.

In the course of cooking his way through the seasons, Nabhan gracefully tackles issues like diabetes, industrial agriculture, fast food, processed food, genetically altered food and other usual suspects. His observations are spiritual and lyrical, though, not the outraged cant of the food police. He travels and talks and tastes and thinks before he writes. As the jacket promises, he knows how to meld “politics and pleasures.”

What makes the point best is that he is so earnest that he raises his own turkeys, but he also steps off lightly by quoting Oscar Wilde: “Nature is a damp place over which large numbers of ducks fly, uncooked.”

“Coming Home to Eat” was overlooked by the food covens who at their yearly circle jerks tend to praise members’ halt “Pleasures of Slow Food” and lame “From Hardtack to Homefries” (the weakest, most disorganized book I slogged through in 2002). And that may be the ultimate validation.