In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet and eventually sold over 3 million copies. She argued that food scarcity is related to grain-fed meat farming and that eating low on the food chain can be as nutritious as eating steak. The book got a generation of people interested in vegetarianism through its simple—even simplistic—equation of plant foods with positive social change.
Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, which Frances Lappé wrote with her daughter Anna, doesn’t outline an approach to eating so much as it expands the philosophy of sustainable agriculture hinted at in the first book. Now that the viability of plant-based diets is a given, the Lappés want to explain the global consequences of industrial farming and search out innovative and inspirational solutions to the problems of hunger and resource conservation.
To that end, they go on a mother-daughter worldwide culinary adventure. In each chapter, they visit someplace new, scout ways people are “healing the planet,” and offer a fun recipe. In Delhi, for example, they learn about the problem of dwindling rice diversity, discover how some groups are combating the infusion of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and pick up a recipe for coconut-ginger curry.
Hope’s Edge is so well intentioned and important in its attempt to inspire mindful, sustainable, nontoxic uses of the earth’s resources that I’d like to just praise it. Being in the rather contradictory position of eating a largely vegan diet and having shelves lined with books by thrillingly verbose carnivores like M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, and Jeffrey Steingarten, I had high expectations for this fusion of activism and food adventure. I am the choir! Preach to me! But I was alternately bored by lackluster prose and overwhelmed by the enormity of the project.
The Lappés are not sensualists—nor are they writers in the sense of building characters, creating a sense of place, or describing a meal to make the imagination soar. Frances, in whose voice the majority of the book is written, claims to have had a sensual awakening to whole foods (as opposed to processed ones) in the late 1960s—but her food writing is painfully limp. “I reveled in the amazing flavors,” she writes. “Then to discover that what was so tasty was also best for the earth and for my own health—what a happy convergence!”
When Reichl bakes a chocolate cake, or when Steingarten fries a potato, simple tastes become infused with mystery and personality. When Fisher eats three tins of caviar in France, or when Trillin invades a crawfish festival, the armchair traveler becomes immersed in the flavors and rituals of another world. But when the Lappés go to Nairobi, they get excited about debt relief and tree planting, and offer not an African recipe but a soup from Moosewood Cookbook author Mollie Katzen—after a quick discussion of how root vegetables and peanuts are crops that provide maximum “food security” for traditional African farmers. Yes, debt relief and tree planting are key parts of the larger vision of sustainable agriculture, and I was glad to learn about them—but there’s not much “reveling in amazing flavors” here. Lost is the stated agenda of a “delicious revolution,” “awakening our senses, which can then awaken our power to choose.”
However, reading the book as a call to action is occasionally inspiring. The Lappés interview the creators of the “Edible Schoolyard” in Berkeley, a program that brings organic farming to the school system, and visit organic farmers who braved ridicule and poverty to create safer products. These examples create a sense of possibility, and left me wanting to do more than simply eat soybeans and vote with my consumer dollar.
However, as one interviewee remarks, “it’s impossible to look at just hunger . . . every aspect of life has to be included—health, gender, education, leadership, philosophy . . . ” And because Hope’s Edge covers deforestation, banking, taxation, patents, sexism, religion, and advertising, the book stops empowering me, the reader, to act locally. Instead, it veers toward large-scale solutions couched in business-school speak. For example, the “five liberating ideas” of the conclusion include “busting free from ‘isms’ ” (meaning, I think, not condemning capitalism or Communism but adopting a flexible approach to problem solving outside any particular dogma) and drawing boundaries for the application of technologies and market theories (meaning not letting GMOs run amok and using the market as a tool rather than as a rigid ideology).
Diet for a Small Planet helped make changes in the world because it offered a simple argument and a course of action that anybody could take. This new book does neither, and it’s not a very good read, either. More’s the pity, because the Lappés’ core message—that “we need to change the larger patterns that generate hunger and ill health out of plenty”—truly needs to be heard.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Joy Press on Palladio by Jonathan Dee
Mark Greif on Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas by Arthur Schnitzler