Book review – Berries

Berries by Victoria Dickenson. Reaktion Books, 2020, 208pp, 98 illustrations, 72 in colour; hardback, £16

Reaktion Books do like their series.  Berries by Victoria Dickenson is a new addition to their Botanical series, which already extends to more than twenty titles and aims to provide “a broader account of the cultural and social impact of trees, plants and flowers.”  However, the book arrives only two years after Heather Arndt Anderson’s Berries: A Global History in Reaktion’s Edible series, so how does this new title stack up?

Berries is a visual feast.  From the stunning front cover to the many colour illustrations the book is a joy to behold, but what about the text?  Victoria Dickenson is described as “a devoted amateur botanist (who) spends summers in the berry-covered island of Newfoundland”, so she is well qualified to tackle the subject.  In six chapters she covers the taxonomy of berries, their cultural significance, cultivation, harvesting, preserving, global production, and popular garden varieties.  There is also a fascinating timeline, which for example tells us that the first gooseberry club was founded in Lancashire in 1740 and that the loganberry was accidentally created by ‘Judge Logan’ (the American judge and horticulturist James Harvey Logan) by crossing a raspberry and a blackberry in his garden in 1881.  Another American, the naturalist, philosopher and advocate of vegetarianism Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is quoted throughout the book, and the author clearly shares his love for the natural world and enthusiasm for gathering wild fruits.  She echoes Thoreau’s desire for a simpler life in recognising that “our desire for [berries] has propelled a global industry with what appears to be a very heavy reliance on plasticulture, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation and chiefly female migrant labour”, warning that “we may be called upon to rethink our insatiable desires if we want to maintain our innocent relationship with the ephemeral and intoxicating soft fruits of the earth.”  To put it another way, there are no berries as delicious and satisfying as those that we grow or collect ourselves.  This attractive and informative book helps us to appreciate them all the more.

Paul Appleby

The nutty professors

The title Professor is the top academic rank in higher education across the world. Anyone who achieves this accolade is usually a respected expert in their field, and by definition must be rated of above average intelligence and capable of insightful and critical thinking. Paradoxically, in popular culture Professors are frequently portrayed as socially inept bumbling idiots. In the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) the incomparable Cary Grant is a Professor of palaeontology, and he is bamboozled by a beautiful and totally bonkers woman (Katharine Hepburn). The film concludes with Hepburn accidentally destroying the Professor’s painstakingly restored skeleton of a Brontosaurus, but this is Hollywood so despite this catastrophe the mismatched pair declare undying love for each other.

In The Nutty Professor (1963) Jerry Lewis plays the title character as a buck-toothed accident prone nerd, but he develops a serum that can temporarily transform him into the creepy and suave Buddy Love. The story is actually a parody of the gothic novella Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), and this established the idea of an individual with a dual good and evil personality. In the brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (1997-2003) the psychology lecturer Professor Walsh hides a dark secret. In a covert facility she has built a deadly half-human super robot. Unfortunately for the Professor, her creation skewers her to death within minutes of his awakening. With obvious echoes of Frankenstein, this isn’t the first time a mad Professor has had a violent confrontation with their very own slightly ungrateful monster. The original celluloid mad scientist (Rotwang) appeared in Fritz Lang’s celebrated silent sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927). Rotwang is a wild haired overtly dramatic character disturbingly like Boris Johnson, but his enduring influence is clearly seen in the erratic behaviour of the eponymous Dr Strangelove (1964) and the eccentric inventor Doc Brown in Back to the Future (1985). 

In real life I’m frequently gobsmacked at some of the idiotic comments that several Professors have made just prior to, and during the current pandemic. Back in February, Professors Hugh Pennington and John Oxford both dismissed the idea that the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, was anything to worry about. Both men have singled out bats as the primary source of the virus but, as far as I’m aware, neither has criticised the human interference which is the main cause of this zoonotic disease. John Oxford even boasted about eating a bat when he was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room (23/1/2020).

The rapid spread of Covid-19 within meat processing plants has been widely reported. The BBC World Service series The Food Chain broadcast on this issue on 13 August, including an interview with Professor James MacDonald at the University of Maryland (USA). He clearly explained why these vast factories are such a problem: “They are breeding grounds for a lot of respiratory illnesses because the buildings and atmosphere are full of microbes coming off the animals. (The plants are) heavily air conditioned which moves microbes around, and in this case coronavirus isn’t coming off the animals but if it’s introduced by an infected worker then they (the workers) are very close together. It’s extremely noisy so it requires loud talking which generates spray between people. Also, the workers mix together during breaks and frequently come to the plant in groups via the bus or a shared car.” The USA has some of the largest meat packing plants in the world, and Professor MacDonald described these as “unique for the number of workers standing in close proximity in cold conditions, and this creates risks”. However, he was then asked a pertinent question, “What about just eating less meat?”, to which he responded: “It’s a big ask for consumers to think seriously or be informed enough about production processes. That is to understand what goes on in the plant, or with the workers.” To her credit the interviewer persisted with this line of questioning, asking how often the Professor ate meat, to which he replied “four to five times a week”. He was then asked: “Do these outbreaks make you think differently about the meat you’re consuming?” (Don’t forget that Professor MacDonald is an expert in his field and knows from first-hand experience precisely what is happening at every stage of meat production. Therefore, his final comments were especially depressing.) “No, I wouldn’t say it has. I don’t really base my own personal consumption decisions on what I think may be happening further up the supply chain.” In other words, this highly intelligent Professor regards any moral issue with eating meat as irrelevant to him and everyone else.

Paul Freestone

Coal tit and berries

OxVeg media rep Paul Freestone snapped this coal tit through his kitchen window on 10 October 2020.

Flu vaccinations 2020

Readers concerned about accepting non-veg*n flu vaccination are referred to this page of the Vegetarian Society website.  In short, none of the four different types of flu vaccine being used in the UK in 2020 are considered suitable for vegans and only one (QIVe, which is grown in eggs but does not contain any other animal ingredients) is suitable for vegetarians.  QIVc, which is grown in cells originally taken from a dog’s kidney in 1958 but which has had no new cells added in the 60-plus years since then (known as a “continuous cell line”), is arguably the most veg*n-friendly option and is recommended for most adults.  The other two vaccines, aTIV and LAIV, the latter given as a nasal spray, contain a fish-derived ingredient (squalene) and pork gelatine, respectively.

Paul Appleby

Book review – Why Waste Food?

Why Waste Food? by Andrew F. Smith. Reaktion Books, 2020, 192 pp; paperback, £9-99

About one-third of all food grown for human consumption is lost or discarded every year. Together, this food waste accounts for about 8 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In this fact-filled account, Andrew F. Smith surveys the food system from farm to fork, describing the many ways in which food is wasted, even though wasting food is in no one’s interest, while finding reasons for hope through the many community and corporate initiatives to reduce waste. With the United Nations having set a Sustainable Development Goal of halving global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030 its publication cannot come a moment too soon.

The book contains some jaw-dropping statistics.  Here are just a few of them:

  • According to the German documentary film-maker and author Valentin Thurn, European households throw away 100 billion Euros worth of food every year, an amount that is “enough to feed all the hungry people in the world two times over”;
  • A 2008 report by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) revealed that 6.7 million tonnes of food are thrown away each year in the UK, of which 4.1 million tonnes is avoidable waste, concluding that UK consumers spent £10.2 billion on wasted food each year, equivalent to £420 of annual avoidable waste per household;
  • A 2018 report estimated that up to 40% of all fruit and vegetables grown in the UK are rejected before reaching the market.

Set against this are a myriad of schemes from around the world to reduce food waste, including the ‘freegan’ (a combination of the words ‘free’ and ‘vegan’) and ‘dumpster diving’ movements which aim to retrieve edible food waste discarded by supermarkets and other food retailers. So many of these initiatives are described that you begin to wonder how and why so much food is still wasted, and the author might have examined some of the schemes in greater detail, including where they failed to achieve their aims, rather than seemingly wanting to list them all.

The author does not mention what many see as the greatest food waste of all – the 36% of calories from the world’s grain harvest that is fed to animals – but that is another story.  As regards food waste, whilst admitting that “initiatives reducing waste won’t solve all the problems of the global food system”, he finds cause for “cautious optimism for the future”, noting that food waste is an issue “that each of us can understand and to which each of us can make positive contributions.”

Paul Appleby

The British Hen Welfare Trust

A recent article on the Vegetarian Society website by Jane Howarth of The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), encourages “those who eat eggs to buy eggs laid by hens that have lived a more natural lifestyle” and promotes the rearing of hens in back gardens for those with sufficient room and resources, whilst warning that you “need commitment before you even think about welcoming them into your family”. 

According to the BHWT website, the organization has already rehomed more than 772,000 hens since they were founded in 2005.  Every year they rehome at least 50,000 commercially reared hens that would otherwise be sent for slaughter, mainly in back gardens where a few hens at a time are effectively treated as family pets while providing their new owners with home-produced ‘free-range’ eggs.  I have no problem with this; indeed, saving animals from slaughter is one of the main reasons for becoming a veg*n.  But does ‘rescuing’ end-of-lay hens help perpetuate the egg industry?  Despite the 2012 European Union ban on battery cages for laying hens, 45% of UK hens are still reared in so called ‘enriched cages’, and cage-free rearing systems have welfare issues of their own.  Whatever the system, “modern commercial hens produce a very high yield of around 300 eggs a year. Chickens will naturally live for 6 or more years but after 12 months of laying, the hen’s productivity will start to decline. This is when most commercial laying hens are slaughtered and replaced” (https://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/chickens/egg-laying-hens).  As well as taking on the costs and responsibility of caring for several companion animals, does taking in a few backyard hens simply allow commercial farmers working with the BHWT to claim that their hens always go to ‘good homes’?  The BHWT cannot possibly guarantee the welfare of rehomed hens, although their website does provide valuable advice, as well as providing a free ‘Hen Helpline’ for owners.  It is also worth remembering that saving laying hens does nothing to help the millions of commercially useless male chicks of egg-laying strains that “are killed almost immediately after hatching …  thrown into an industrial grinder (‘macerator’) while still alive or gassed to death, the preferred method in the UK” (https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/why-go-vegan/egg-industry).

However, are veg*ns who could rehome end-of-lay hens but choose not to do so turning their back on the problem?  Vegans might reasonably complain that they do not eat eggs and therefore bear no responsibility for the welfare of laying hens, although by rehoming hens and giving away the eggs to omnivorous friends and neighbours they would not only be saving animals from slaughter but could help reduce demand for commercially produced eggs, including those from caged hens.  A simpler alternative is to encourage non-vegans to give up eggs, or at least to buy eggs produced under higher welfare systems, perhaps from a nearby household that keeps a few hens.

Paul Appleby

Book review – Beans: A Global History

Beans: A Global History by Natalie Rachel Morris. Reaktion Books, 2020, 128 pp, 52 illustrations, 47 in colour; hardback, £10-99

It is indicative of the low esteem in which beans are held that there have been around 80 previous titles in Reaktion’s Edible series before they were given a book of their own.  Natalie Rachel Morris puts the record straight with this very brief introduction to an “unsung staple of diets worldwide”.

The Fabaceae or Leguminosae family is one of the most common in the plant world with about 19,000 known species, including forage crops such as alfalfa and clover, popular garden plants such as lupin and laburnum, and the familiar grain legumes such as beans, lentils, peas and peanuts.  Seeds of the latter (also known as pulses) and their culinary uses form the basis of this book.

Beans follows the familiar format of books in the Edible series, with chapters covering their botany, origins, cultural significance, bean cuisines and future uses, plus a section of historical and modern recipes, including two contributed by the chef/owner of the amusingly named 24 Carrots, a vegan restaurant in Arizona.  The importance of beans in vegetarian/vegan cuisine is acknowledged, with references to Pythagoras (although he and his followers avoided them for reasons lost in the mists of time), American vegetarian pioneer William Alcott, the Nation of Islam, and (for no clear reason) the Vegan Society.  In addition to their nutritional benefits – beans are high in protein (forming a ‘complete’ protein when combined with grains), fibre, complex carbohydrates and folate – legumes are vital to agriculture through their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen using bacteria present in root nodules, making it available to other plants through the soil and reducing the need for chemical fertiliser.  Set against this, their unfortunate effect on some consumers, hilariously demonstrated in the campfire scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, are only a minor inconvenience.  Aquafaba is featured, the trendy and valuable liquid from cooked beans used as a substitute for egg white in baking and as the basis for a range of vegan ‘fabanaise’ in the US, but other popular bean products such as tofu (from soybeans) and hummus (from chickpeas) barely rate a mention, and the oils extracted from beans are not mentioned at all.  And surely the lima (or butter) beans grown in Peru took their name from the country’s capital city Lima, rather than the other way around as the author claims.

Beans is a concise and colourful introduction to valuable foods that are too often taken for granted.  However, the book is way too short for a serious examination of such a wide variety of foods and too many of the illustrations serve as little more than space fillers.  Beans deserve better than this.

Paul Appleby

It’s batty, but we perceive them with fear instead of awe

After rodents the second largest order of mammals is bats, and with over 1,400 species they comprise about 20% of all global mammal species. Bats are the only mammal capable of true and sustained flight, and are more manoeuvrable than birds. They can fly at fantastic speeds, and display dazzling aerial acrobatics. Unlike birds, bats can move their wings independently and by folding one wing make rapid turns. Over 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci recommended (via his sketches and notebooks) that any potential flying machine should imitate the flexible super-light bones and elastic wings of bats. Brazilian free-tailed bats have been recorded completing up to 12 hours of non-stop flight. In fact, bats are quite extraordinary and their evolutionary success can be traced back over 50 million years. They range from tiny bumblebee sized insectivores that weigh just 2 grams (Kitti’s hog-nosed bat) to massive fruit eaters with a wingspan up to almost 180 cm (5 feet 6 inches) and weighing over a kilo (the golden crowned flying fox).  Both of these species are endangered, and the golden crowned flying fox is being hunted to extinction for its skin and meat.

Apart from flight, bats’ other ‘superpower’ is echolocation, a complex navigation system that baffled scientists for centuries until it was confirmed in 1938.  Several years later it was realised that echolocation has a dual function; for navigation and as a hunting tool, but not just for insects. Some bats use it to identify the unique petal shapes of specific nectar bearing flowers. Fortunately the human ear can’t hear the sounds that bats make because they are incessantly “shouting their heads off”.

The comic book superhero Batman first appeared in 1939 as ‘The Bat-Man’, but he didn’t actually have any superpowers. In fact, he was a rich orphan (Bruce Wayne) who sought revenge after his parents were murdered. This seems slightly remiss of Batman’s creators because they had the opportunity to give him the power of flight, and amazing built-in echo location. Whereas Spiderman acquired his arachnid powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, Bruce Wayne decided to “become a bat” after one carelessly flew into his mansion one evening. The immediate appeal of Batman in the original comic strip was the striking graphic design of his costume: it was instantly recognisable, and endures to this day. This “creature of the night” would strike fear into “cowardly and superstitious criminals”. Unfortunately, Bruce Wayne was as ignorant about bats as most people. Batman did appear to fly when he jumped off buildings, but he was actually using his bat cape to glide (which most bats don’t do). Scientifically, owing to his weight Batman would have crash dived into the ground with an appropriate “ker-splatt”. However, the idea that humans are superstitious about bats is certainly correct.

In her excellent book Bat (Reaktion Books, 2018) Tessa Laird writes: “In almost all corners of the world, bats have inspired fear and revulsion. Long before tales of blood sucking bats were relayed from the tropical Americas back to Europe, bats were already disliked and feared, and at the least considered to be pests, vermin and agents of evil. Any association in European art & literature could only signify madness, melancholia and sympathy for the Devil.” Obviously, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has been hugely influential and the insatiable demand for new film and TV adaptations perpetuates popular myths and prejudices about bats.

The Wikipedia entry for bats tells us that: “Bats provide humans with some direct benefits, at the cost of some disadvantages. Bat dung is mined as guano and used as fertiliser. Bats consume insect pests, reducing the need for pesticides and other insect management measures. They are sometimes numerous and close enough to human settlements to serve as tourist attractions, and they are used as food across Asia and the Pacific Rim. On the disadvantages side, fruit bats are frequently considered a pest by fruit growers. Due to their physiology, bats are one type of animal that acts as a natural reservoir of many pathogens, such as rabies; and since they are highly mobile, social, and long-lived, they can readily spread disease among themselves. If humans interact with bats, these traits become potentially dangerous to humans.”

Viewed in this way, bats serve only to provide humans with “direct benefits”, including amusing tourists and being eaten. Their essential role as pollinators is ignored, and fruit bats are a “pest”. Moreover, bats fly around too much and live too long.  Finally, they carry pathogens dangerous to humans and this links to the current pandemic. It has been widely reported that coronavirus jumped from bat to human via an intermediate host (the persecuted pangolin is usually cited) but this remains unproven. Bats have developed specialised immune systems, and when flying they have a peak temperature that mimics a fever. Bat pathogens have evolved to withstand these peaks, but if transferred to humans a high temperature fever probably won’t kill it. Sixty-one per cent of all human diseases are zoonotic (spread from animal to human) as are 75% of all new diseases discovered in the last decade. Crucially, humans are the main cause: the mass destruction of forests and natural habitats, increased human to wildlife contact, hunting and trafficking are the drivers of zoonoses. Instead of looking at our own appalling behaviour it is typically human to blame a family of animals that are actually vital to our survival. Bats pollinate over 500 species of plants, disperse seeds in flight over a wide area and devour millions of insects that would otherwise decimate crops and spread disease. There are bats that eat fish, fruit, frogs, and flowers but most are insectivores and some species can catch over 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. A tiny pipistrelle (the most common British bat) can eat up to 3,000 insects in a night. Globally, bat populations are in decline and the last thing these maligned and misunderstood creatures need is more vilification and persecution.

Paul Freestone

The Punter goes vegetarian

The Punter public house, 7 South Street, Oxford, OX2 0BE, now has a totally vegetarian/vegan menu.  When I ate there recently the food was pretty good and a visit is definitely recommended.  The pictures below show a starter and stir fry at the restaurant.

Paul Freestone

The_Punter_starter_August_2020_PF

The_Punter_stir_fry_August_2020_PF

Poland’s vegetarian Nobel laureate

I hadn’t heard of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk until I came across an article publicising the English translation of her novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.  Intrigued to learn that Tokarczuk is a vegetarian and the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, I ordered a copy.

The novel is unlike any that I have ever read.  The protagonist, Janina Duszejko, is an eccentric older woman who lives alone and scrapes a living caretaking the holiday homes of city dwellers and teaching English part-time in a rural area of south-western Poland near the border with the Czech Republic.  Reclusive and unconventional, a believer in astrology and admirer of the poetry of William Blake (the book’s title is taken from Blake’s poem Proverbs of Hell), Janina recounts the loss of her ‘Little Girls’ (two dogs) and the mysterious, violent deaths of several prominent members of the local hunting fraternity, whom she despises.  Called in for questioning by the local police, Janina vents her anger:

“Killing (of animals) has become exempt from punishment. And as it goes unpunished, nobody notices it any more. And as nobody notices it, it doesn’t exist. … Crime has come to be regarded as a normal, everyday activity. Everyone commits it. That’s just how the world would look if concentration camps became the norm. Nobody would see anything wrong with them.

In fact Man has a great responsibility towards wild Animals – to help them to live their lives, and it’s his duty towards domesticated Animals to return their love and affection, for they give us far more than they receive from us.

You’ll say it’s just one Boar … but what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like never-ending, apocalyptic rain? The rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing so much pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison full of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others.”

Are these the ravings of a mad woman, or a heartfelt plea for justice from someone who has been marginalised and deeply wronged?  You will have to read the novel, which explores various themes including society’s outcasts and the hypocrisy of organised religion, as well as animal rights, to find out.  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, priced £8-99.

Paul Appleby

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