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Book Reviews

Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish

by Dean Ornish

Rose Reisman’s Enlightened Kitchen smart Cooking

by Rose Reisman

More Choice Menus

by Marjorie Hollands and Margaret Howard

The Lactose-Free Family Cookbook

by Jan Main

The New Vegetarian Gourmet

by Byron Ayanoglu

Chez Panisse Vegetables

by Alice Waters

Healthy eating is not an obsession exclusive to the last years of the 20th century, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so, looking at the cookbooks our age produces.

Traditional Chinese chefs long used their recipes to improve vigour, virility, physical endurance, and emotional balance. To the ancient Romans, forever in fear that society was becoming decadent, the model diet was that of the poorest peasants: nuts, bitter greens, olives, and dried fruit. For the more eminent Victorians, good digestion was the key to a good life: they devoted a disproportionate part of their existence to the art of mastication and the movements of their bowels.

So we have company when it comes to seeing life as a disease for which food can be the cure. Compulsiveness about eating, despite the protests of the few hedonists left on this continent, is not particularly new: it flourishes in prosperous societies with time on their hands.

In those respects, at least, our age is ideally suited to worrying about its diet (and buying the cookbooks that further the worries while claiming to allay them). Food is relatively cheap and almost infinite in its variety. The middle-class population, always the greatest source of worriers, is comparatively large and possessed of a good deal of leisure time. More to the point, the middle-aged population is greater than it has ever been. Baby boomers are doing their best to slow the inevitable decline of the body, and healthy eating is easier to sell to people in their middle years than hard exercise.

So the generation that lived to eat has changed its course: now it eats to live. A mainstream chef like Rose Reisman, who has earned celebrity status as the resident cook on CTV’s Canada AM, might once have reached her audience through complex luxury dishes that reflected a good life people longed to attain. Now she offers the faithful something called “enlightened cooking” in Rose Reisman’s Enlightened Kitchen, featuring “delicious, rich-tasting yet healthy food.” This claim may seem odd when the first words of the soup section are tips on how to make stock from powder or cubes, but then healthy eating in this generation has largely focused on one crucial commandment: avoid fat. If you don’t have a non-stick skillet lubricated with something called cooking spray, you can’t expect to make food with any degree of enlightenment.

This shift to more abstemious eating, defined in terms a doctor would applaud, has led to a strange phenomenon in the Canadian cookbook industry: a large number of what might be called clinical cookbooks have found their way to a mass audience. The Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and the Canadian Diabetes Association have all lent their name to books that try to provide tasty and fashionable recipes while keeping disease and death at bay. In previous generations, people waited until their doctors pronounced them sick before they turned to a regimented diet that was part of the healing process. Now the idea is to pre-empt the doctor’s bad news altogether by eating well: healthy eating is touted as the best way to prevent sickness and premature death.

It’s no accident that Anne Lindsay’s cookbook for the Canadian Cancer Society, newly issued in a second, even-lower-fat edition, is called Smart Cooking. Eating solely for pleasure – an accepted idea among the leisured classes of the 19th century – is now seen as stupid, not to say offensive. Smart people take thought for the morrow and swear off foie gras or frites, instead finding a new form of self-indulgence – for quantity and quality of life are no longer mutually exclusive – in three colours of grilled peppers or high-fibre fruit salad flavoured with balsamic vinegar.

Such books have broad appeal – most people want to avoid disease – and to a large extent have appropriated the mainstream menu. Many of the recipes developed for More Choice Menus, published in co-operation with the Canadian Diabetes Association, sound exactly like what you would find among the daily specials at a fashionable downtown restaurant: ginger pumpkin soup, lentil bulgar salad, garlic potatoes, chicken with polenta, couscous with vegetables, lemon mousse. Obviously butter fat, red meat, and sugar have been reduced for the diabetic diet, but who hasn’t gone the same route? It’s hardly considered a sacrifice to substitute olive oil for butter.

You might think the large amount of medical advice that prefaces such cookbooks would deter the average reader, but strangely enough people find it comforting, a kind of stamp of assurance that the recipes will produce wellness along with goodness. Any publisher with a health-related cookbook now feels compelled to aim for the widest possible audience: “Great-tasting food with less fat” is one of the selling points of Jan Main’s Lactose-Free Family Cookbook; and no matter how few people really are lactose-intolerant, the book has many potential readers in a multicultural society that is busy casting aside residual European traditions.

Traditional dairy products earn a few brief and scornful mentions in Everyday Cooking with Dr. Dean Ornish, the low-fat cookbook from a fashionable fighter against heart disease. Whole milk, Ornish contends, tastes too greasy and too rich. Non-fat cheese is praised for its newfound ability to melt and brown nicely. Soggy, almost tasteless ricotta and cottage cheese are enshrined in his cheese pantheon. The complex flavours of real Parmesan or Gruyere are nowhere to be found.

No one except the most unbalanced health propagandist can pretend that something isn’t lost on the plate by making this switch. Yet health gurus like Ornish blithely contend that their medical menus, full of soupy vegetable entrees and gassy bean stews, are extraordinarily delicious as well as life-prolonging. Their anti-fat tirades lead them to ignore what is obvious both to scientists and the average un-neurotic diner: fat makes food taste better. It seems ironic that one of the dedicatees of this cultish book is Bill Clinton, a man celebrated for living off the fat of the land.

But while the silent majority of eaters go their own way, noshing on doughnuts and chicken fingers and ice cream, modern cookbooks tout the primacy of the vegetable. It is hard to believe the world needs any more recipes for baba gannoush or tabouleh or roasted peppers but they keep coming all the same. Byron Ayanoglu, in The New Vegetarian Gourmet, at least manages to make this well-worked subject more interesting by adding a dollop of his own oversized and old-fashioned Bohemian personality. Ayanoglu’s wordiness can be wearying at times – some simple recipes run on far too long – but at least he is an enthusiast for food rather than a smug fusspot, and he brings to his happy task a Greek perspective (avgolemono soup, tzatziki, hazelnut baklava) that is a refreshing change from the Cal-Ital approach of too many authors.

Ayanoglu’s exuberance is rare enough among modern cookbooks. Even rarer is the intelligence and depth that infuse Chez Panisse Vegetables by California chef Alice Waters. The happy hectoring common to so many Canadian cookbooks is absent here and the contributions of a good gardener are valued well above those of the overly nervous medical profession. This beautiful, thoughtful book, produced to a standard that should shame Canadian cookbook publishers, serves as an eloquent reminder that food can and should be a pleasure.