Books Reviews and Such

Eating Promiscuously – James McWilliams

You probably don’t expect an Anglican priest to write a blog post in favour of promiscuous behaviour, but that is precisely what I intend to do in this post. However, this post isn’t about promiscuity as it relates to our sexual behaviour, but rather the way in which we eat. Eating Promiscuously: Adventures in the Future of Food is an effort by James McWilliams, an historian living in Texas, to encourage people to rethink the way we eat.

Eating Promiscuously cover
The cover of Eating Promiscuously.


This is the first of three posts on our eating habits. The second is here, and the third is here.

Eating Promiscuously begins with the premise that we don’t need to reform agriculture, but rather we need to rethink it entirely.  After defining agriculture and industrial agriculture, he immediately asks an intriguing question: Given that we’ve been practicing agriculture for such a tiny portion of our existence, what makes us think we’ve gotten it right?” The rest of the book then becomes a thought exercise in thinking of the many other ways in which it is possible to feed ourselves and our planet.
Underlying these ideas is McWiliiams concern for the way in which we treat other people as well as other animals on the planet. Our current system is kin to neither and McWIlliam’s believes that needs to change. He thinks that we can learn from each other as well as other creatures, such as the Bonobo, one of the closest human analogues as far as diet is concerned (he doesn’t suggest that we revert to Bonobo behaviour, but rather we can learn a thing or two from them). The Bonobo eat a highly diverse diet that is mainly plant based but include a wide variety of lower order beings (grubs, etc).
In the first chapter, through the story of the Reed family, McWilliams lays out the dangers and distresses created by the typical North American diet. Their story of fighting the battle against obesity, through a switch to a vegan diet and a dedication to exercise is moving and inspiring. However, there is a hook at the end of this story that digs in. For all that the Reed family has achieved, McWIlliams reminds us that there is a big chance that something will happen along the way, and undo all the work  that the Reed’s have done.

Eating promiscuously and enjoying eunflower seeds
This bag of sunflower seeds is a good example of a nutrient dense reasonably priced, meat alternative.

Having told the Reed’s story, McWilliams goes on to look at individuals who are stepping outside the existing food system in various ways. We meet Arthur, leading what he calls a Neo-Indigenous life, and the scientist at Cibus who are injecting new genetic code into plants to help create hardier and more disease resistant varieties. Next we move onto the possibilities offered to us through the raising and harvesting of insects as a food sources(on a side note I went to try and buy some cricket powder at my local Superstore, the price was so high that I didn’t). I could get far more protein from buying stew beef, and even more from the sunflower seeds pictured above).
From there McWilliams goes on to visit with freegans, and does some dumpster diving. Then he looks at seaweed, shellfish, and even the idea of hunting and roadkill. One of the things I did find surprising, is that he pretty much dismisses the idea of clean, or in vitro, meat. This attitude doesn’t seem to be in keeping with his general thesis and approach to promiscuous eating(I’ll be writng about Paul Shapiro’s Clean Meatin a few days).

Eating Promiscuously Beyond Burger
The A and W Beyond Beef Burger may be one step to take on the road to Eating Promiscuously

He then concludes the book with a trip through a typical grocery store and a few suggestions about the ways in which we might work to change the nature of our grocery stores.
One of the strong points of the book in general, is that McWilliams doesn’t offer a lot of specifics. Rather, he notes many things he has noticed and then leaves it up to the reader to decide how they might make use of these ideas in their own lives, or as a basis for advocating for changes in our current food system.
One aspect of the book that holds the potential to stir up a great amount of controversy if you are discussing it with a group of friends is the idea that there are times when it may be more ethical for people to abandon a vegan diet and consider creature based sources of protein. This idea comes through at various points in the book.
First, the best science shows that insects aren’t sentient(there are dissenting opinions), the same hold true with certain shellfish. However, the main point that McWilliams makes in this regard is that we do know that growing plants to eat involves the deaths of many, many sentient creatures. You may not think that the sufferings of lower creatures should be a factor in how we produce our food. Yet, if that is a concern for you, the ideas laid out by McWilliams should give you pause for thought, at the very least.
Another strong suit of this book is that McWilliams keeps a very even keel throughout. It is clear where his sympathies lie, but he doesn’t see any benefit in alienating people of differing thought, belief, or opinion. The nature of the crisis in our food system is such that we need to have everyone on board, looking for innovative solutions, if we hope to rethink the way we eat.
In keeping with the above, McWilliams takes the time to look at both the strengths and weaknesses fo the various ideas that he puts forward in the book. As just one example, when writing about freeganism, he asks whether or not a movement based on using the waste of the system doesn’t encourage the system to continue to be wasteful? He doesn’t expect the reader to answer the questions in the affirmative, but rather to use those questions as a springboard to other questions, and perhaps other answers.
While reading this book I found myself reflecting on things such as how does what McWilliams is saying correlate with things such as Slow Food, for example. I also found that while he critiques Wendell Berry’s approach to agriculture, that they are both seeking ways to keep ourselves more in touch with the food we eat, and the world in which we produce it.
For myself, the most challenging part of the book is the suggestion by McWilliams that we should avoid restaurants as much as we can. Although, I agree with a fair bit of what he says on the subject throughout the book.
McWilliams begins the book with a quote from Waker Percy:

Your discovery, as best as I can determine, is that there is an alternative which no one has hit upon. The Moviegoer

More than anything else, Eating Promiscuously, is an invitation for us to enter into that voyage of discovery for ourselves, and in doing so maybe change the world of food.
At the time I wrote this, I also gave the A & W Beyond Burger a try. This comes pretty close to a regular hamburger, but more like the really cheap frozen hamburgers you find in a grocery store.

By Donald McKenzie

Anglican priest, and food blogger. This blog is focused on Food. It will feature reviews of places to eat books, and the odd recipe. I also write about what it means to gather together around food.