An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Monday, February 13, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Last Chance to Eat by Gina Mallet

It was the pomegranate on the cover that drew me in. I’d recently tried these slightly sour, jewelled fruits for the first time, and the title Last chance to eat – the fate of taste in a fast food world suggested that there would be more of these treasures within the covers. I wasn’t disappointed. Before reaching the end I’d encountered devilled kidneys, clotted cream and Thames Mud (chocolate mousse) – thankfully, not all in the same dish.

It’s difficult to describe what genre Last Chance to Eat falls into. It’s about as far removed from the glossy cookbook food-porn as the dishes it describes are from trendy molecular gastronomy. While it does contain recipes, they are provided more as an illustration of the author’s nostalgia than anything else. Gina Mallet was blessed with a childhood rich in food experiences and an interestingly eccentric family, and the book weaves tales of both around a broader narrative of the role of food in our society. The book is certainly entertaining and easy to read, written in an almost journalistic style with plenty of headings and subheadings.

Yet despite the fact that I enjoyed the book, I felt somewhat ambivalent upon turning the final page. For me, one key element was missing , and that was any discussion of potential solutions to the problems that Mallet describes. The entire book centers around the problem  that food has become industrialised, that we have lost our eye for quality produce, that we have taxed the earth until it no longer produces the bounty that it once did. Clearly, this is a problem and Mallet is correct to call it out. However, I don’t know what she thinks we should do about it. It seems odd that having spent so much time thinking about and researching this book, her few comments on the way forward seem to be throwaway lines, not properly thought through.

In the end, I think I’d categorise this book in “Nostalgia.” It’s not that Mallet doesn’t have scientific backing for her claims. In fact, she’s done an admirable job of summarising all the evidence and translating it into a readable form. Still, it feels to me like only half a book. I admit that it’s a big problem and I truly don’t expect someone to come up with all the answers – but Mallet’s failure to try means that the book only looks backwards, never forwards. Unfortunately, the constant refrain of “things were better then,” leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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