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Book Review – Consider the Fork

considerConsider the Fork — Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork is a history about cooking and eating and everything else food-related. It describes not only how a refrigerator works but also every failure and minor success along the way, as well as how refrigeration changed cooking, and why it took the French so much longer to adopt  than it did Americans. Bee Wilson doesn’t restrict her book to the realm of large appliances, however. In fact she explains how some simple devices, like the wooden spoon, have remained basically unchanged for centuries, while others, such as the vegetable peeler, weren’t perfected until very recently. And most interesting, for any homer baker, is the story of why Americans are just about the only people on earth dumb enough to measure flour by volume instead of weight. For anyone who loves to cook, loves to eat, and loves history about cooking and eating, Consider the Fork will have you considering forks, stoves, and everything in-between.

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Book Review – Going Clear

going clearGoing Clear — Lawrence Wright

All religions, to the non-believer, sound far-fetched. And that’s the best case scenario. More likely, the customs, beliefs, deities, and miracles sound like superstition or bad science fiction. What sets Scientology apart from most world religions is that it sounds like bad science fiction primarily because it was founded by a science fiction writer. There are plenty of reasons to question the validity of the Gospels in the New Testament. One can look at the discrepancies among the stories or point to the fact that the authors were not Jesus’ contemporaries.  But one would never need to question Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because their previous best sellers include Battlefield Earth. But such is the curious case of L. Ron Hubbard and the system of beliefs he founded. The former Hubbard’s eccentricities  don’t help outsiders take the religion seriously. Neither does the amount of money required for devoted Scientologists to climb their religion’s ranks. And once they do reach the level of Operating Thetan 3, they are treated to “the truth,” which, among many other colorful plot points, involved Xenu, dictator of the Galactic Federacy, who killed billions of humans trillions of years ago. Is this story crazier than one about a jealous God flooding the entire world and killing everyone except for one man’s family, whom He had commanded to build a giant ark which was large enough to hold two of every species of animal that existed? That’s not a question I can answer. But it does partially explain why people can devote themselves to Scientology, despite the seemingly wacky backstory, as long as it provides them with some measure of self-worth, peace, happiness, and/or all of the above.

Between Going Clear and Inside Scientology, which was published in 2011, I have learned more than enough information about the religion. Both are excellent, but Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear focuses a bit more on Hubbard’s biography and on the celebrity connection. After all, Scientology’s ties to its most famous adherents are a major reason why so many skeptics are so darned skeptical. Paul Haggis is a former member of the church, so his firsthand information is quite revealing. The stories surrounding Tom Cruise are even more interesting, but as they come from second-hand sources, and both Cruise and the church deny their accuracy, there’s an uncertainly that mars them. But with the church and its founder both having documented problems when it comes to telling the truth, the crazier the stories and the more vehemently the church denies them, the more I wanted to believe. So many excellent anecdotes are included in this book that it’s all but impossible for me to choose one as a representative example. But if I had to choose, I’d pick the incident during which–at the behest of the church’s leader–a group of seventy or so adults plays a game of musical chairs to the death  (okay, not really to the physical death, but to the spiritual and social death certainly). Perhaps this is why people have trouble taking Scientology seriously.

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Book Review – Salt, Sugar, Fat

salt sugar fat

Salt, Sugar, Fat — Michael Moss

I try my best to avoid processed foods. At first, this was because purchasing the components of meals is much more cost effective than selecting a ready-made version housed in the freezer aisle. But now it is equally important for me to avoid ingesting the additives and chemicals that are included only to prolong the foodstuffs’ shelf lives. I’m not going to claim definitively that eating yellow #5, carrageenan, and high fructose corn syrup cause disease and illness, but they certainly can’t be helping. What scientists and doctors can say for certain is that the high levels of salt, sugar, and fat in processed foods are detrimental to our health. This is no big surprise. Neither is the revelation that we humans crave these foods. What Salt, Sugar, Fat elucidates is the amount of research and development that goes into creating processed foods. Why are sodas sugary? Because we want them that way. Why are canned soups salty? Because we want them that way (and also to mask chemical additives). Governments are attempting to decide/mandate just how unhealthy these unhealthy foods can be, and the food manufacturers are able to claim, quite honestly (and with mountains of data to back them up), that they are providing what we are asking for. It’s quite a pickle (and just like Vlasic’s dill variety, it is idly bobbing in a vat of calcium chloride, sodium benzoate, polysorbate 80, and natural flavors).
Michael Moss’ book is an investigative expose as much as it is a history of food companies and products. And boy how I love food-based history lessons. It’s easy to forget that Kraft Foods was founded by a Mr. Kraft who discovered a method of prolonging the life of cheese. Also illuminating is the story of the birth of the spell-checking nightmare that is Cheez Whiz. Equally riveting is the positively existential journey that created Lunchables, as is the food industry’s push to get us to eat more cheese by converting it from a treat into an ingredient secreted into a whole host of gratins, quiches, and casseroles. And did you know that Cheetos are the most desirable food ever created? They’re cheesy, they’re salty, they’re fatty, and they melt in your mouth. If the orange flavor powder didn’t cling to one’s fingers, one might never be compelled to eat anything else. The most telling fact in the book is that without fail, every food industry executive interviewed by the author avoids eating the foods that his company produces. So should the government regulate prepared foods? Is it an individual’s right–protected by our forefathers–to drink 40 oz. sodas, eat entire bags of potato chips in one sitting, and devour jars of yellowish/orange “cheez” that is constructed almost entirely of things that aren’t cheese? Moss does not have the answers. What he has instead are a few obvious conclusions, a handful of insider anecdotes, some remarkable glimpses at the ghosts of food past, and the ability to cause me to crave an ice-cold Coca-Cola, regardless of how many teaspoons of sugar would immediately infect my bloodstream. While we currently do not have the book in our collection, both the eBook and audiobook are available through ListenAlaska.