Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Kind Diet: A Book Review

As I mentioned in my last book review, I have a whole pile of vegan lifestyle books waiting for me to tackle, so after Thanking the Monkey I moved right on to Alicia Silverstone's book, The Kind Diet. I had seen this book online before when someone had posted her recipe for Mochi Waffles (pictured below) so I had always wanted to get my hands on it and check it out for myself.

The checking out has been done - and Im even preparing to make one of the recipes from her book today - and I must say.....hmmmm. Yeah. Let me just say before I get into this that I did read the book the whole way through AND I checked out her blog/website AND I watched several videos on youtube of the making of the book, her food adventures in NYC and her little video welcome to the Kind Life.

Alright lemme break this book down for you. The book starts with a short preface written by Paul McCartney - who yes, is an animal lover and longtime vegetarian, but, does not actually display the characteristics Alicia Silverstone is trying to convince you will save your life and the planet. He's not vegan - but - he is a celebrity. Now this isn't me getting up on a high horse and saying "Hey, he's not good enough because he's a vegetarian," Im just pointing out that rather than choose perhaps a less famous vegan, Alicia decided to go for the star factor here and choose a way famous vegetarian. Lets keep this in mind as I go through the rest of the book.

Her first chapter is called Kind Versus Nasty. In this chapter she starts by telling us about how her own "journey" began as a child who one day connected her lamb chop dinner with its animal counterpart. Being only 8 years old, her conviction to go vegetarian was, while heartfelt, unsuccessful. It wasn't until her twenties when she decided to go vegan, after bringing home 11 dogs in one day, all of whom had been scheduled to be euthanized. She then describes how the decision to eat vegan changed her life. She talks about how in just two weeks people were commenting on how great she looked, how energetic and spunky she felt and how she felt her heart opening and felt more in touch with her "truest self and deepest beliefs." She then shifts gears and starts talking about how she and her husband went to see a macrobiotic counselor who pointed out that Alicia still had rampant acne and would benefit from a macrobiotic diet with better skin and more energy. She talks about how she overhauled her diet to include grains and whole foods rather than sweeteners, processed food and white flours and pastas. She even claimed that this helped her "feel things more acutely and sense [her] intuition." While most of this I was able to easily digest (despite the fact that it seemed a little contradictory that her friends all noticed she was looking so great on a vegan diet, yet still had the acne problem), the more talking she did about feeling at peace and calm in her body on this new diet, the more I started to question how much of this she could back up with any kind of research and how much of this was just new age enlightened spirit talk.

She then moves on to outlining the downfalls and hidden cruelty of the meat, fish and dairy industry. For those of us who know something about this already, Alicia wont give you any new information. In fact, she will give you skimpier versions of what you already know. For example she sites an Australian behavioral ecologist's experiments that prove that fish "have longer memories than we assumed, the capacity to learn, and they transmit knowledge to other members of the school." Cool. This is good to know - but why not tell us more specifics on the experiment? I can guarantee you that if I tell my dad that Dr. so and so did "experiments" to prove that fish have the capacity to learn things and remember the things they learn for longer than we thought, he wont get much out of that. Now if I can explain to him the actual experiments "hey Dad, this Dr. did a test where he passed a net through a tank with a small hole in it. After 5 times through the fish had figured out where the hole was and could successfully find the hole each time the net passed through. Then 11 months later the same test was done with the same fish, who hadn't seen the net in those 11 months, and they could still find the hole every time. Crazy right? That information, by the way, came from Thanking the Monkey. Both Dawn and Silverstone's message was the same: fish are in fact intelligent, but Dawn's was not only more convincing to me, but it also armed me with concrete material to share with others rather than just, "well i read in Alicia Silverstone's book that fish are actually able to learn and remember things."

But perhaps I am being too harsh on Alicia Silverstone. In reading her book you can definitely tell that her focus is more about the relationship between the body and the food, not the animal and the food. It's a diet book. Oh...and its also a diet book that seems to be specifically branded for young, twenty something, hip girls. Let's discuss the language Silverstone uses in the book. In the beginning of the book when she is welcoming us to her creation she ends her little preface by signing it: Peace out, Alicia. Ok, I think to myself, she's a fun loving, hippy. Not a big deal. But then she starts talking about food, and words like "naughty, magical, nasty, and sexy," start popping up left and right. In fact, based on the amount of times each of these words shows up, I'm lead to believe these are her absolute favorite words and are the sole words which comprise the scale of descriptions of quality. The words naughty and sexy especially irked me. She uses these words when talking about resisting temptation to eat animal products, and while I commend her for being honest about "nick[ing] a piece of sushi off a friend's plate right at the end of the meal," because this clearly reminds us that she is in fact human and prone to weakness and error, her vocabulary makes me simultaneously believe that she's a eccentric fairy princess writing to us from some utopian far off land. Its ironic because this type of vocabulary, while I'm sure it was meant to be fresh and youthful, was actually kinda alienating and almost a little insulting - and Im only 23 years old.

Never-the-less I read through the rest of the book, looking forward to the recipes at the end. The next few chapters did hold some interesting information. While I felt her chapter on animal cruelty was a bit lackluster, she presents a pretty good chunk of writing dedicated to explaining food. Well...most of it. While she does go into some explanations of tempeh and seitan, which are very useful to people who don't know much about them, she pretty much leaves out information about other ingredients that many of us have no exposure to. For example she has mirin in several of her recipes - but never bothers to tell us what mirin is. Turns out (I googled it) its a rice wine similar to saki thats used for cooking. I work in a Japanese restaurant. I didn't know what this was. I also could have used some descriptions or pictures of hijiki, arame, wakame, and kombu. She also refers to shoyu several times in her book before she decides to define it. What is it...turns out she's talking about soy sauce. She tells us that in fact shoyu "is how most soy sauce is labeled in the health food worlds these days." The health food world or the LA world? I checked my health food store, and even the bottles we have in the restaurant and the bottles of private stuff the chef uses to cook his own meals. No mention of shoyu. Now I am all for recipes that make me try new things or have me exploring my local ethnic markets, but come on, it's not some random recipe I found online, you have a whole book to explain these ingredients! Not to mention - some of these things are expensive. I asked Kazu, the Japanese owner of the restaruant where I work if she could get me some black soybeans (part of a stew recipe in the Kind Diet) at the Asian market. First of all, Kazu didn't even know if they would have black soybeans because she had never used them before and wasn't even familiar with the idea of them, and secondly, when she did find them there, they came in a tiny, expensive package all in Japanese. Now how was I supposed to find that if even my Japanese boss had some trouble? This failure to fully explain the ingredients she was introducing (and she does acknowledge the fact that most of these things will be totally new for a lot of people) just added to the alienation I felt when reading this book.

Plus...doesn't she say we should be eating local foods? Part of the macrobiotic diet is to avoid foods that don't come from your area. For example eating a pineapple in the middie of winter makes no sense for me, according to this diet, because that food is designed to hydrate my body and cool it down, when thats not really what i need. Plus its shipped from far away which means lots and lots of energy and fossil fuels go into that pineapple getting to me. But skim through one of her recipe and you will see all kinds of Japanese ingredients that really don't qualify as local. Perhaps they feel more local to those living in LA who share an ocean with Japan - but even that is quite a stretch.

She says in the beginning of this book that this diet is for everyone. Not just celebrities. I don't feel like she does a great job of convincing the reader of this. From her obvious target audience (throughout the book she cites ways in which this diet will help with your menstrual cramps or ward off breast cancer, she even has a page of "cute vegan boys") to her expensive and complicated ingredients list, Im not completely sure this is a diet for everyone. But she does convince me of several things. I need more grains and veggies in my diet. I could do with less processed vegan substitutes. And, I could certainly switch to sweeteners that don't spike my blood sugar to such a crazy extent.

She also does something I totally love her for. She hired Victoria Pearson to photograph her food. The food looks amazing and delcious and healthy and Alicia and her husband look vibrant and young and happy. Im absolutely a sucker for beautiful photography and this book certainly packs some in.

And while I was a little peeved about Alicia not explaining all the food she suggests we adopt into our lifestyles, I am going to seek out some of them and try the recipes. In fact, I look a break from writing this and made her Fried Udon noodles with cabbage and onions and it was pretty darn good. In closing - Im willing to give these recipes a fair shot. Im even a little excited to find out what this "magical" umboshi vinegar tastes like. Would I recommend this book to others. Hmmm...it would have to be the right situation. If it was a guy - no. If it was my grandma - no. If it was my hippy minded peace loving friend - maybe. If it was someone I knew who already knew lots about animal cruelty and just wanted some recipes to try being healthier and vegan - yes.

All that being said I think her blog is actually a good resource and worth checking out! Also, I would like to add, that in giving this book a somewhat unfavorable review, I don't at all mean that to detract from Alicia Silverstone as a vegan or animal lover. I think its great that she felt so moved to write this book and that her celebrity status will perhaps get it into the hands of more readers. I do think more thought could have gone into certain aspects of the book, as I've already covered. In watching her youtube videos where she is running around NYC (with wild crazy untamed hair - which she comments on in the video) I DO realize that the way she talks in the book is pretty much the way she talks in real life. She does in fact say groovy. She's cute, she's vivacious, and she's thrilled to death by food. I still don't lover her book, but I actually do think I would like her as a person if we were to meet.

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