Photo by FotoosVanRobin/Flickr CC
In the august house chamber of the beautifully restored Texas state capitol building yesterday, two committed vegetarians took on two committed meat-eaters as part of the great Texas Book Festival. The festival is a fairly miraculous gathering that endures in an age of authorial angst and defunded everything, and turns the already great town of Austin into the weekend-long literary capital of America every fall. I've been lucky enough to be there two years running, and each time Halloween fell during the festival--and the Halloween parade down Sixth Street is worth a trip in itself, though given the year-round music scene and college-town vibe, now with glitzy LA-film-world overtones, you never need an excuse to go.
About that vibe: after I led a discussion with Lidia Bastianich in the same "cooking tent" where the Food Channel itself began to take shape--last year I met Carol Ann Sayle in a discussion I moderated, and knew from her tangy, unmistakable voice that she had to be a founding part of it--a man from East Texas introduced himself and told me that I had to visit and get to know the thriving farming scene, something others have told me and I intend to do. "The only thing we don't grow there," he said in reference to my public praise of Austin, "is liberal Democrats."
If many of his compatriots were in the house chamber, they didn't have much of a chance to be heard, because the panelists were themselves pretty diverse (even if I doubt he'd think so). All the writers want to make you think about where the food you eat comes from and what choices you're making when you buy and eat food, mostly the hidden ones.
I was fascinated by it all, and so was the audience--and I am now by the ongoing discussion between Nicolette Hahn Niman, Helene York, and our many commenters on their posts.
They come at it in different ways. Jason Sheehan, a hardscrabble, profane, deliberately naughty chef, is following in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain with his Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen, like Bourdain funny, entertaining, and provocative--but he also gives you an idea of just what life is like for the people who make that BBQ in the roadside joint, or the corned-beef sandwiches in the famous Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day. He's full of bravado, and you're sure he'll have sleeve tattoos, though as it happens he doesn't.
I'm late to discovering Novella Carpenter's wonderfully funny Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer, though friends have for months been ending conversations and emails telling me I had to read it. They were right, of course. Hers is a voice as unmistakable and entrancing as Carol Ann's, with grit and erudition and constant resilience--as she needs to turn 4,500 rubbish-heaped square feet of a vacant lot next to her mean-streets Oakland apartment into a productive paradise. There's nothing self-conscious or self-satisfied about her stories of raising not just heirloom watermelons and tomatoes but heirloom birds for meat and then pigs: just spunk and humor, and plenty of suspense as practically about every vine and animal is threatened by urban predators. She's great company.
Sheehan's and Carpenter's books are mostly about voice; the other two authors focus mainly on ideas, though they're remarkably clear and passionate writers too. Jonathan Safran Foer brings his famous blend of adventurous exploration and attuned observation of worlds both without and within to his new Eating Animals, which has ample amounts of his famous storytelling (as the excerpt in the New York Times Magazine displayed), but also straight-out reporting and advocacy against eating meat for any reason, including environmental responsibility.