Eat This Book

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Some pairings don’t seem like they would go together — melons and prosciutto, pineapple on pizza, dark chocolate and bourbon — but pleasantly surprise you when they do. So it is with Brad Edmonds’s recent book, There’s a Government in Your Soup: Why There’s Too Much Government in Your Kitchen, and What You Can Do About It, which combines food and politics to yield a mighty fun read.

This book will proudly grace your coffee table or make excellent bedtime reading (full disclosure: Edmonds and I are buds). Edmonds — whose work will be well known to LewRockwell.com readers — draws on his experience as a libertarian writer, scholar-musician (he has a doctorate in music), and cooking expertise to combine a mouthwatering yet intellectually stimulating gumbo of interwoven advice, recipes, related economic-political analysis, and fascinating vignettes.

This is in an age in which we are constantly harangued about our food habits and barraged with conflicting fad diets and nutritional advice. Body not perfect? Eat carbs? Processed food? Fat? Frozen food? Not enough kale? Like cheese in a can? Fried spam? The occasional taco? A nice bourbon … and chocolate? Be prepared to feel guilty; this is the age of guilt.

One of the nice things about Soup is that as you read it, you cannot help but regain your love of food, and at least temporarily quell some of your guilt. Moreover, Edmonds helps to explain how, as usual, government meddling makes food worse. This might sound trivial at first blush, but of course food is one of the most essential things in human life. As our author explains,

Everybody loves food. Everybody knows everybody loves food. What isn’t well known is how much more we might love it — how much safer, less expensive, and more varied it could be — in the absence of meddlesome government interventions. My purpose in writing this book is to show how government meddling works; how it hampers our enjoyment and liberties; and how we might lessen government’s intrusions into our kitchens and lives. [ix]

What if you eat too much? Observes our author,

Frankly, some people don’t mind being obese, at least not too much. Given the complete inevitability of losing weight whenever you expend more calories than you take in (it’s a law of physics, after all), those who are overweight are making choices on a daily basis. Occasionally fighting a spare tire myself, I understand the unpleasantness of those daily choices. It is natural that physical effort is aversive while eating and relaxing are enjoyable; otherwise, we could expect lions and tigers to chase after the strongest, fastest zebras in the herd, which of course they don’t do. [20]

Edmonds writes about food (and liberty) with verve, assuredness, and relish; he is totally, completely, unapologetically in favor of food (and liberty). A combination of P.J. O’Rourke, Henry Hazlitt, and Cliff Clavin-the-minutiae-expert from Cheers, he serves up recipes, advice, and fascinating food trivia. In fact, if there were a Jeopardy on food, Edmonds would surely win it.

Yes, there’s a dash of sound economic-political commentary sprinkled into the mix — just the right amount. Edmonds explains,

In this book, I use as examples everything from specific food ingredients to recipes to national cuisines to show how government intervention is always problematic, resulting in reduced variety, higher prices, and even reduced safety for consumers; and how economic freedom benefits all participants in a market — every producer and every consumer. [4] There’s no better way to illustrate the power of the market — the power of all of us, thinking for ourselves, seeking solutions, and exploiting opportunities — than to look at the food itself. [26] [T]he lessons to be learned from food are limitless. Almost any food you can name, if you study its history, has something to say about economics, politics, history, or culture. [29]

In illustrative vignettes, he shows how government intervention lowers food quality, diversity, and availability, and raises prices (or do I repeat myself). For example:

Without government inspections and government criteria, we wouldn’t have so many large producers (apparently) striving to meet only the government’s mandated minimum levels of purity, with occasional tragic results. I would like the option of choosing between beef producers who have their own standards of cleanliness. There is no doubt that some would be supremely reliable. Then, I wouldn’t have to eat dry, overcooked hamburgers every time. I’d pull out the classical beef tartar recipes. [12]

And consider this brief but humorously frank and to-the-point illustration of how supposedly "healthy," organic food can be inferior to regular food:

There are apple growers I’d call stupid, by the way — hippies who grow organically. Some of the commercial farmers are growing organically, and they’re having to apply "natural" pesticides and fertilizers constantly to approach the productivity of "inorganic" (?) farms. Some of the hippies are using cow manure. They pick the food off the ground. Thus, mainly "organic" apples are likely to be contaminated with E. coli bacteria, and once contaminated, some produce is impossible to sanitize. The apples being sprayed by chemicals known to be safe for wildlife and people, chemicals costing up to $700 per gallon, have never poisoned any customers. But they’re the apples the environmentalists want to ban in favor of organic apples that are more likely to be contaminated by cow poop laden with bacteria that can kill children. [9]

Edmonds’ political advice is also sound:

Moving to free markets in food (and health care, and energy, and so on) might shock a few producers at first. Some farmers would have to find other work, or work their farms as contractors for larger agribusinesses. Such is the march of progress, and it can be only good news that fewer and fewer people would have to labor to provide the market with basic necessities. The benefits for all of us, both immediate and long term, would be lower prices and more abundant supplies of everything edible. [14]

But Edmonds’s love for food shines through. As a native-born Louisianan, for example, I appreciated this passage:

Louisianans love "mud bugs," a.k.a. crawdads or crawfish; and they are indeed bugs, just as lobsters are kissing cousins of cockroaches. The people in Louisiana will boil crawfish in a giant pot with crabs, potatoes, leeks, onions, jalapenos, and whatever else is in the kitchen that might work (indeed, legend has it that "jambalaya" loosely translated means "what’s in the fridge?"), along with about a cup of ground spices and dried herbs. I’ve seen a vintage cooking show where the cook was struggling to get the lid on the pot against all the crawdads and crabs struggling to get out. This is proper — you want to know the seafood is fresh. Only in Louisiana is boiling a form of performance art. [93]

I also loved Edmonds’ celebration of economic/culinary progress (also displaying his Cliff Clavin-ness):

The round-headed cabbages we know are not a natural occurrence. Wild cabbage, which still grows along the shores of the Mediterranean, looks somewhat like celery, with big stalks and relatively few leaves. Endive or romaine lettuce, available at your local grocery, looks much like wild cabbage. The round-headed stuff wouldn’t have evolved on its own, I’m sure. It’s a ball of leaves, tightly wound on top of each other, the vast majority not contributing to the plant’s nutrition through photosynthesis. Round-headed cabbage isn’t even an evolutionary dead end; it’s more of an evolutionary "what?" No, we humans selectively bred the wild stuff until we developed the round-headed stuff. We did so because we wanted to. This unnatural selection began more than 2,000 years ago.

A robust, free-thinking man would say that’s exactly what vegetables are for. They’re here for us, not for themselves. People rule, and that includes ruling cabbage, if it suits us. Cabbage is highly nutritious when eaten raw, and various national and regional cuisines have made culinary art from it, from Prussian sauerkraut to the ubiquitous American coleslaw (yes, I know, the Dutch may be at the bottom of that, "kool sla" and whatnot, but they don’t make or eat it like we do, even though they put mayonnaise on french fries). Cabbage is a tribute to the victory of genetic engineering over vegetable nature, even if the engineering was done the slow, old-fashioned way, one cabbage generation at a time. [27—28]

What a great passage! Interesting and pro-liberty. In its exaltation of human achievement in manipulating nature to satisfy human wants and needs, it’s almost Randian, except that it has a sense of humor. To-wit (and more Cliff-ness):

Both the best and the worst of men’s tendencies are illustrated by poopoo coffee, as I call it, or Kopi Luwak (civet coffee), as it’s called in Indonesia. The civet is a mammal, apparently a variety of cat that resembles a cross between an opossum and a rhesus monkey. Where there are both civets and coffee, civets eat big red coffee berries. Civets can’t digest the beans, so the beans can be found on the ground after the civets have passed them through their digestive tracts.

According to reports, the beans are unaffected by the adventure, and are prized for the special flavor and aroma they impart when roasted, ground, and brewed. Such beans are probably the rarest of coffee varieties, and sell over the Internet for $300 per pound. It might as well be noted that if passing through the bowels of a cat didn’t affect the flavor of the final product, these particular beans would be no more prized than other Indonesian coffees. [35]

As Edmonds concludes, "This represents the worst of humanity, in my opinion, with regard to gullibility: People are paying $300/lb for, and consuming, things picked from animal crap."

Edmonds is no food snob. Although obviously an expert chef in his own right, here’s what he has to say about French food — sentiments that will no doubt resonate in many of us who have been bewildered at what’s supposed to be so great about French restaurants:

Many Americans labor under the misnotion that French food is the finest cuisine, but that is the result of successful marketing (if effete snobbery qualifies as marketing). The French love to talk about, look at, and sell food. The Italians love to cook and eat it. For my money, anyone who will age pork and cheese for two years, and vinegar for twenty, is a food lover who merits emulation. [45]

And did I mention chocolate and bourbon earlier? I got that advice from this suggestion: "After eating a good meal — meat, cheese, salt — there’s little I enjoy more than a slice of cheesecake or hunk of chocolate along with a shot of bourbon or single malt" [56]. I’m partial to dark chocolate so tried that; and he’s right, it’s great with bourbon!

I’ll conclude with this quote:

The lesson? People make life better. Freer people make life better faster. And as the Italians keep demonstrating, advancing technology isn’t the answer, it’s the result. People — entrepreneurs, inventors, experimenters, and especially customers — are at the bottom of it all. Leave them alone to do their work, and watch your quality of life improve. [38]

Stephan Kinsella [send him mail] is an attorney in Houston. His website is www.StephanKinsella.com.

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