[19 May 2013]
“I’ve always thought there was something vaguely pathetic about people who were obsessed with food. It was like they didn’t have enough to do.”
Bill Heavey, author of It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try To Eat It: Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter-Gather, is nothing if not honest. Other points of candor in the book’s introduction: Heavey doesn’t enjoy cooking, isn’t a picky eater, is cheap, and doesn’t like most food books. “I had actually tried to read some of these books. But I always hit a wall. The author would go on for ten pages about how an unexpected encounter with rhubarb changed his life…This was when I would drop the book and fantasize about tying these people to telephone poles and force-feeding them Cheetos.”
Still, Heavey sets out not only to write a book about food but a book that documents his changing attitude toward food—“The book began when I set out to see how much of my own food I could get directly, with no middleman. In other words, by hunting, fishing, foraging, and growing a garden.”
Some of the book is actually about food: Heavey’s first experience with watercress eaten directly from the ground, frying and smoking freshly caught herring, stealing sour cherries from an unnamed government facility. But through it all, he’s wary about turning into one “those people”. When he’s admiring the purloined sour cherries, he thinks “you’re turning into one of the very people whose preciousness you detest. Keep this up and pretty soon you’ll turn into one of those whack jobs who can’t stop talking about the time they tasted hand-harvested, unfiltered olive oil in Italy that had been pressed by eunuchs between two pieces of marble stolen from the Coliseum in the fifth century.”
At times, though, the book seems to be less about food and more about people — Heavey’s new romantic interest, his daughter Emma, who is less than enthusiastic about eating herring and dandelion greens, his friend Paula, who guides, loves, and insults him (frequently all in the same sentence) — and various hunters, fishers, and chefs he meets along the way.
Heavey is witty—he even manages to inject humor into recipes (one ends each chapter). At the end of the Cattail Pancake recipe he notes “Take a small bite, then toss in garbage pail. You have just proved that, should the grid go down, you could survive on foods like this. Go eat at your favorite restaurant and pray that this doesn’t happen soon”.
But it’s not all fun and games. Certain sections are a little gruesome and make Heavy seem almost unlikeable—such as when he tries to kill a squirrel (by shooting it with an arrow) for ruining the tomatoes in his garden. He merely wounds the squirrel, so then takes after it with a garden hoe in an attempt to finish the job. The squirrel does not die a pleasant death. Other sections are simply thoughtful and reveal another side to Heavey (and help make up for the squirrel murder):
“I had blood on my hands. And boots, one pants leg… It was October and I was up to my wrists in the body of a doe I’d shot minutes earlier as she nosed for acorns twenty-five yards from my stand. She had run for forty yards, white flag of tail tracing those leaping arcs through the air only whitetails seem capable of. On the fourth or fifth, she landed unsteadily, taken a wobbly step, and collapsed… She’d died as almost all deer do, eyes wide open. I remember hoping that my own death would be as swift and tidy.”
The back of book jacket proclaims “You will read bits of it aloud to anyone in earshot. But you will also think differently every time you sit down to eat.” The first part is definitely true. Most of the book is well told, and it is primarily a witty, quick read with some thoughtful moments that add to the realism.
The second part—is more of a definite maybe. Heavey does have some interesting thoughts on the way Americans consume. There is a section on baby carrots (which evidently are just big carrots cut into little pieces). And then more serious issues—Heavey connects food with power, and he clearly feels empowered because he’s removed the government and the middleman from his food. Another insightful comment:
“One of the hallmark phrases of the anti-industrial food movement is ‘food with a story.’ Knowing how and where the animals and plants on our plate were raised was essential to the experience of eating them. The more you knew, the richer the story. By contrast, industrial food would most definitely prefer anonymity about those particulars.”
All good points, but combined with the hunting, gathering, and growing, the travel writing, recipes, romance, parenting, and humor… the book just has a lot going on, and with Heavey’s beautifully snarky humor, the larger messages sometimes get a little lost.
How much does this matter? It’s a book with many layers, it’s refreshingly untrendy, and it’s narrated with great humor and honesty. Sometimes that’s enough to make for a good read.