mind. Books on climate change do not rate highly on my go to list generally but I am glad to have been drawn to this one as we are continually fed the diet of disaster and doom from our media channels about just how guilty we all are to the plight we find ourselves in and how the farming community are bearing the brunt of the finger pointing. Here is part of the review from Amazon…
When it comes to climate change, the media, politicians, and other prominent voices have declared that “the science is settled.” In reality, the long game of telephone from research to reports to the popular media is corrupted by misunderstanding and misinformation. Core questions ― about the way the climate is responding to our influence, and what the impacts will be ― remain largely unanswered. The climate is changing, but the why and how aren’t as clear as you’ve probably been led to believe.
Fascinating, clear-headed, and full of surprises, this book gives readers the tools to both understand the climate issue and be savvier consumers of science media in general. Koonin takes readers behind the headlines to the more nuanced science itself, showing us where it comes from and guiding us through the implications of the evidence. He dispels popular myths and unveils little-known truths: despite a dramatic rise in greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures decreased from 1940 to 1970. What’s more, the models we use to predict the future can’t accurately describe the climate of the past, suggesting they are deeply flawed.
Unsettled is a reality check buoyed by hope, offering the truth about climate science that you aren’t getting elsewhere―what we know, what we don’t, and what it all means for our future.
This book is not for the faint hearted and to be honest there were parts that I just glazed over. However, it was a satisfying read and as a savvier consumer of science media this can only improve your mental health!
The Social Instinct
Co-operation does suggest images of cheerful teamwork but there are reminders throughout the book that while it has been our superpower to co-operate as a species, all is not a level playing field. Our social networks extend far beyond our kin and we have learned to co-operate in newer ways every day especially with technology. Free loaders, cheats, bribery, nepotism all feature as also forms of co-operation and I can only acknowledge that this is a reality that many people are familiar with. Trust plays an enormous role in successful co-operation and there are many ongoing examples to remind us that it is a rare reality to have full trust in place. How many times have we been asked to trust the experts yet find out later there is a cover up?
She suggests our aim in society is to achieve “material security”. Our main concerns are threats, sustenance and disease. If we can avoid being harmed, we can get the food we need and stay healthy, how bad! My social instinct tells me that how we co-operate in the future will be based on hard earned trust.
There is much to digest in this book and ponder on and I did enjoy it. Not quite the book I expected though and often those are the best!
own thoughts on food, on eating, on our relationship with it in the years since, I now see, in re-reading her work with fresh eyes, that many of my own now firm-held beliefs and feelings around food were being explored and centred by Grigson decades before I was even born. The word ‘pioneer’ is thrown around a lot - but she really was. In her way of thinking and writing about food, its value, its connections and implications, she was, that other cliché, ahead of her time.
This is a sentiment shared by fellow British food writer, Elizabeth David, from whom Grigson took inspiration, and with whom she developed a close friendship, frequently enjoying “long Sunday morning telephone conversations” together (a true sign of times gone by - can you imagine the reaction if you rang someone up first thing on a Sunday morning for a long chat nowadays? Your number would be deleted from their phone forever more). David remembers the effect of Grigson on the world of food writing when she first appeared on the scene in the 1960s. Describing what a breath of fresh air she found her, and her writing, to be, she reminds us how rare food writing such as Grigson’s was at the time, highlighting “the clarity of writing, and the confident knowledge of subject and history”.
Grigson was, indeed, tireless in her endeavour to do more in the world of food writing than just be a lister of ingredients and recipes. All of her books read almost like wonderfully accessible culinary textbooks, leading us through in-depth explorations of the history of food, of the provenance of ingredients and recipes, never forgetting to address the ways in which this is relevant today. Through Grigson’s writing, she paints a picture of the background to our relationship with food. Through thoroughly researched and expertly-explained accounts, she teaches us about culinary heritages and their influences, as well as offering eerily accurate musings on future food concerns, predictions that have turned out to be extremely prescient.
I drew this distinction before in my writings on Anna Jones, and on Nigel Slater (a protégé of Grigson’s, in a way. In following in her footsteps as a food columnist for The Observer, Slater has often referred to the influence Grigson’s writing had on his own) - what makes someone a true food writer, what makes a book more than just a run of the mill cookbook, is the obvious passion of the writer, the thought and research put into the topic, and the awareness that this is their life, this is truly how the writer cooks and eats and thinks. In making it obvious to the reader that food, its meaning, its history, its centrality in our lives is a passion of theirs rather than just a way to make money, the writer draws us in and gains our trust. We trust them to teach us, not just to tell us, about food, and how it shapes our lives.
Grigson wrote primarily about the relationship the people of Britain have with food. The trope of British food as inedible irked her. What is British food, anyway? Britain’s local, raw ingredients, in fact, encompass an extraordinarily broad array of fresh, flavourful and nutritious produce. Its culinary history includes many seasonal recipes which showcase this. (While I’m speaking about Britain here, as this was the main focus of Grigson’s writing, this discussion is highly relevant to us on this island, too). That people might not be aware of this is not a failure of the land to provide the food, or of those who came before for not passing on their knowledge of “good food”. It comes from a commodification of food, and a subsequent loss of connection. Whether due to lack of time or habit of convenience or more pressing priorities, many of us have just lost, or never nurtured, connection with food, how to prepare it, how to appreciate it. As Grigson put it: “the weakness is [...] the lack in each of us of a solid grounding in skill and knowledge about food, where it comes from, how it should be prepared”.
She was fully aware of the reasons for this, the challenges facing the ways in which we produce and access food. While glad of the reassurance provided by “the background of an unfailing larder”, and understanding of the convenience of frozen, canned, pre-packaged ingredients, she worried about our increasing disconnect from food at its source, the waning interest in preparing meals from scratch using fresh ingredients, and the effect that this disconnect and convenience might have on future generations. She worried what blind acceptance of this new relationship with food would mean for food history, food culture, and our overall ability to truly enjoy the process of preparing meals with fresh, local, seasonal food. She was adamant in her belief that to lose this ability is to lose too much:
“The sad thing is that, unless we fight, and demand, and complain, and reject, and generally make ourselves thoroughly unpopular, these delights may be unknown to our great-grandchildren. Perhaps even to our grandchildren. It is certainly more convenient with growing populations, to freeze the asparagus and strawberries straight from the ground, to dye and wrap the kippers in plastic, to import hard, red frozen lamb from New Zealand, and to push the walnuts straight into drying kilns.” She described this way of thinking of food as “back to the primitive idea of eating to keep alive”. Seeing food as mere sustenance, a chore to get out of the way, rather than something to relish and take time over.
The term “food snob” is a common refrain launched at those who extol the virtues of “local”, “seasonal”, “organic”, at those who are accused of turning their noses up at frozen and canned supermarket foods. As noted above, there is, indeed, a role for this way of preserving, transporting, and storing food. It is important to acknowledge, though, that, for many, the focus on fresh and local isn’t based on some sort of puritanical idea of “good” food and “bad” food. The slow food and organic movements didn’t pop up just so the world’s snobs could all gather and have a good laugh at everyone else. It is based on an awareness of what is at stake when we eschew local farmers and producers and turn solely to supermarkets.
Grigson was utterly prescient on this, on her discussion of the nefarious role of big business and marketing in our food system, on the damage it has done to local farmers and producers, to our community connection, to our conception of in-season produce, to food diversity and to the pockets of but a few. In her words: “It is also true that a good many things in our marketing system now fight against simple and delicate food. Tomatoes have no taste. The finest flavoured potatoes are not available in shops. Vegetables and fruits are seldom fresh. Milk comes out of Friesians. Cheeses are subdivided and imprisoned in plastic wrapping. ‘Farm fresh’ means eggs which are no more than ten, fourteen or twenty days old. Words such as ‘fresh’ and ‘home-made’ have been borrowed by commerce to tell lies.”.
But we are not just losing flavour and freshness in relying on a handful of companies to provide our food to us. While the effect of our food systems on the environment and the climate has become painfully obvious to us in recent years, Grigson was already aware of the environmental effects of producing and supplying food in the way we have become accustomed to: “The encouragement of fine food is not greed or gourmandise; it can be seen as an aspect of the anti-pollution movement in that it indicates concern for the quality of environment. This is not the limited concern of a few cranks. Small and medium-sized firms, feeling unable to compete with the cheap products of the giants, turn to producing better food.”.
That the words she wrote throughout the 1960s and beyond still hold true today, if not more so, speaks to her deep understanding of and connection with food, its history and its value.
On my re-reads, David’s description of Grigson as “always entertaining as well as informative” repeatedly sprang to mind. Entertaining she was. While she admirably managed to walk the fine line between explaining her research and her thoughts, rather than preaching, she refused to pander. On occasion, when something really bothered her, she didn’t hold back. I found this sometimes loss of political correctness and sudden inability to mince her words to be highly entertaining. I delighted in her straightforward, unapologetic way of voicing her opinions on these occasions - it struck me that she most certainly existed in a world before social media, where many of us now are much more careful with our words, testing the water before committing to a stance, for fear of backlash.
An example: at the sheer mention of “organic” or “local”, the rebuttal proffered is often that of cost. Of course, certain food is cost-prohibitive for some, but what Grigson took issue with was the bandwagon crew who wave this opinion around as an excuse, rather than a genuine reason. In her book English Food, Grigson lampoons the “entirely populist point of view” that spending extra on quality food is unreasonable to expect of people. She writes: “In a country that spends the amount ours does on hard liquor, gambling, ice cream of a worthless kind, sweets, cakes, biscuits, this is nonsense. If people choose to spend it that way, fair enough. But let them not plead poverty as an excuse for bad food”.
At the core of it all, Grigson’s emphasis was on appreciating and making the best of what was available. Yes, she championed the importance of fresh, tasty, good quality, seasonal food, which, contrary to popular belief, existed in Britain in abundance, if only people were interested enough to open their eyes to it (again, this is, of course, relevant here in Ireland, too). Yes, her main advice, really, was to be conscious and aware, to care, to visit local markets, learn what is in season, stock your store cupboards, learn some basic cookery skills, take an interest. But she was also realistic and nuanced in her thinking and expectations. We will all rely on convenience. We will all make excuses. As long as we are confident within ourselves that we are trying our best as much of the time as is possible, that’s the best we can do.
A last note: Spending part of the year in France (it is said that her move to France is what really spurred her interest in the world of food writing: "because cooking is a central part of life, it should be as carefully written about as any other art form"), Grigson was endlessly aware of, and wrote thought-provokingly on, the shared nature of food cultures, reminding us that “no cookery belongs exclusively to its country, or its region”. Instead, “what each individual country does do is to give all the elements, borrowed or otherwise, something of a national character”.
Think of the beauty of this truth. Revel in the knowledge that all well-loved recipes and dishes are essentially tweaks, replications. If we think of cooking like this, then we achieve two things: we feel a sense of excitement and pride in these dishes that have been transplanted and layered on and passed down, and we discover that we are all capable of cooking. As she put it: “Anyone who likes to eat can soon learn to cook well”.
I’ll end with a quote that especially resonated with me. I feel it encapsulates Grigson’s attitude, and writing, very well.
“Somehow I can never quite suppress a naive optimism; an optimism that is buffeted every time I visit my local shops, but yet refuses quite to lie down even when confronted with perceived realities.”.
I feel a little bit of naive optimism might be just what is needed at the moment.
Jane Grigson books Quoted and Referenced
Good Things (1971)
English Food (1974)
Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (1978)
The Enjoyment of Food: The Best of Jane Grigson (1992)
Within the first few sentences of the introduction, it is clear that this invitation, this warmth is the thread weaving the whole book together. The meaning behind cooking for, and with, loved ones. Memories of a childhood spent sitting impatiently but safely, comfortably around laden tables, wandering winding streets, frequenting favourite market stalls. Family. Community. Sharing. Support. The expression of things unsaid, only able to be communicated through a bulging plate and a satisfied stomach. This is the power of food - sitting down to eat a meal with loved ones is never just about the food on the table. It is about the act of taking time together. Of serving with warmth, and of receiving with gratitude. Of building and maintaining ties that have lasted a lifetime. Of making memories. All through the conduit of food.
As Anas Atassi notes, for Syrians, the importance of celebrating these ties has taken on a more potent meaning in recent years. The ongoing war in Syria has led to the largest refugee population in the world. Families separated and strewn across the globe, no longer able to wander into each other’s kitchens and inquire “what’s for dinner?!” before being batted away, to be called back when it’s ready. Denied the opportunity to gather, in typical Syrian tradition, at a grandmother’s exquisitely-prepared table on a Friday morning. To sit with loved ones and enjoy a meal, especially with frequency, is something that so many of us take for granted. Syrian families have had to weather this loss, adapt, rebuild families and communities in countries unfamiliar to them.
A relationship with food is so often key to maintaining a sense of hope, a sense of something to look forward to, while also keeping the past, a history, a unique culture close to one’s heart. This book confirms this for us. Retaining a connection with traditional food, and sharing these recipes and routines in their adopted homes, has been integral to resettling and starting to rebuild from scratch for many Syrians. A culture, a way of life, can never truly be stamped out if people keep it alive, if they transport it with them and refuse to let it be usurped, or to just peter out. While this book tells the story of the recipes of Anas and his family, there can be no doubt it is a story that has resonated with many. As Anas explains, “This is why I share the stories of my family in this cookbook. They are not only my stories. They are the stories of an entire people - stories that are tied to our collective hearts, and have become all the more important because of the recent turmoil”.
I am conscious to word what I say next very carefully. While reading this book, I am holding close to my chest this awareness of the reality of why Syrian recipes and stories have burst onto the Western scene over the past decade. I wish our unfettered access to other cultures and cuisines wouldn’t happen for the heart-wrenching reasons that it so often does. I am not saying that the price to pay for the opportunity to learn about the importance of Syrian tablecloths, about family traditions, feasts, celebrations, ‘women only soirées’, about dishes like jallab, kaak, ouzi, is death and involuntary displacement of millions, is cities, homes and nature razed to the ground. But, another part of me, in feeling gratitude that this book exists, wondered whether this access to the foods and recipes and stories and kitchens of Syria would ever have reached us in the ways that they have. The colour and flavour and beauty and diversity are such an incredibly welcome addition to Western food culture. In cataloguing his family’s recipes, Anas introduces us to, and unapologetically insists we stock up on (or learn to make!), essential ingredients such as aleppo pepper, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, sumac (of course). Often these ingredients are local to different regions of Syria, or the same ingredient is used in vastly different ways according to the region. To learn about such ingredients, the ways in which they are traditionally used, the variations from region to region, is an exciting privilege that many of us may have had to travel to experience in the past. To experience the food of a place on the land that it comes from is an experience that can never be copied or replaced. But, if the next best thing is access to these books and restaurants, we are lucky to have them.
One of the most exciting things I’ve learned about Syrian cuisine through reading this book is how adaptable it is, and always was. This tendency isn’t due to the most recent war. Syrian recipes and dishes have always been ever-evolving, based on the influence of other cultures, based on preferences within individual families. To me, these are the most exciting cuisines - learn the basics, but know there is always room to tweak and play! On this note, living on such a meat and dairy-centric island, it is refreshing to learn how well one can eat as a vegetarian diving into Syrian cuisine.
One last thought: this book introduced me to the Syrian concept of nafas. While nafas literally translates as ‘breath’, it can be better described in this context as that indefinable element that ties a meal, a moment, an experience together, bringing it just shy of that elusive beast: perfection. How glad I was to learn a word for that essential but intangible element in any recipe, in any mealtime, in any gathering, that elevates it to new heights. It is a word we don’t have an equivalent for in English. Maybe in French we would call it that je ne sais quoi. I don’t know why, but I prefer nafas.
Anas memorably explains that nafas is “found in the heart of the person at the stove and in the essence of a well-prepared dish”. He tells us that his mother has nafas. His grandmother has nafas. He hopes that we, too, can find our nafas as we step into the kitchen to try to recreate some of these ancient yet new, simple yet intricate, flavours. I hope so, too.
Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries
Recipes from Katie Verling & Jacques