Learning Curve

Living simply can involve some not-so-simple dilemmas

There was a time, not so long ago, when eating in an environmentally, ethically conscious way was a drab business — brown and beige food, with a few wilted organic vegetables relegated to a woebegone produce bin at the grocery store.

But these days, everything is coming up green and, forgive us, groovy. Buying delicious, locally and humanely raised food is the new righteous way to save your health and your planet.

As sustainable living turns chic, the choices for living the simple life become anything but.

Should you wash your dishes by hand, or does the dishwasher use less water? Drive to the farmers market or save gas and make do with what's in the closest supermarket? Must you become a vegetarian?

"It's been a long process for me," says D.J. Olsen, chef at a Los Angeles wine bar, who adds that he started buying organic food in Minnesota in the 1970s, in the days of Frances Moore Lappe's bestseller "Diet for a Small Planet." The food, he says, "was awful."

Now, he says, he buys organic produce in part because it tastes best, and when he pays a premium for meat from a ranch that raises its animals humanely, he's getting meat that he's happy to serve.

Caterer Rachael Narins grew up with a dad who washed and reused foil, and she spent Thanksgivings on Long Island, N.Y., where the turkey, vegetables and preserves all came from their neighbors.

"In my ideal world, you don't have to seek out ethical food, because it's all ethical," she says one morning over breakfast at a cafe.

The Los Angeles business she and a partner run, Chicks With Knives, describes itself as "S.O.L.E.," for sustainable, organic, local and ethical. When they cook in people's homes, they try to use produce from the client's yard. And they organize suppers with talks about the meal, occasionally including a farmer. Everything is up for consideration.

"I mean, look at this lemon slice," Narins says as she points to her glass of iced tea. "There's a whole (production) chain that goes along with that slice that's sitting on my glass and will get thrown out."

From belief to practice, however, might take some guidance. Fear not, there are plenty of books to turn to for advice. While Michael Pollan — perhaps especially in his 2006 book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" — inspired a lot of the current conversation about what to eat, where it comes from and how it gets to the table, several authors are addressing "sustainable" eating, a concept that has moved from the fringe to the mainstream.

Is it OK to buy that organic peach in January if it comes from Chile, or is the fuel used to transport it too costly to the planet? What about the lives of the animals killed for food? Or those of the people who work in slaughterhouses or pick strawberries? When words like "sustainable" are marketing tools, how can a consumer figure out what to do? And can a family on a budget afford to eat sustainably?

"We feel so out of control of everything that's around us," says Kate Heyhoe, author of the book "Cooking Green." "Being green is something we can impact."

Heyhoe, and Mark Bittman, in his book "Food Matters," offer practical advice about shopping and cooking for human health and the health of the planet.

Heyhoe urges readers to reduce their environmental impact, what she calls a "cookprint," by such efforts as more efficiently using appliances, which account for 30 percent of household energy use. She also provides lots of little tips — which materials work best for cutting boards, how to thaw foods efficiently, how much energy various grills use.

Bittman advocates a "sane eating" approach that calls for plates piled high with fruits and vegetables, but with only sparing amounts of snack foods and meat. By following his own advice, says the author of the popular traditional cookbook "How to Cook Everything," he lost weight and reduced his blood sugar and cholesterol.

The authors encourage their readers to cut down on meat (Bittman says to eat only about a pound a week), and they suggest ways to eat cheaply and healthfully.

"Eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home," Bittman writes. So to feed six people, his grilled kebabs call for 2 pounds of vegetables and 1 pound of meat or fish, and his cassoulet has just a pound of meat.

Nothing encapsulates the difficulty of our current food choices more than fish. Fish can be a nutritional bonanza. But figuring out which fish to eat could make people tear their hair out.

As Heyhoe says, it "opens up the biggest can of worms." And in his new book, "Bottomfeeder," Taras Grescoe digs through that can thoroughly.

Grescoe's entertaining and enlightening worldwide tour, from the fish-and-chips shops of England to extravagant seafood dinners in China, can leave readers feeling that even buying fish for dinner requires a Ph.D. to avoid mercury or keep from contributing to over-fishing, pollution or mislabeling.

Fortunately, Grescoe includes a listing of what to eat among other resources.

If all this information inspires a desire for blissful ignorance and a Birkenstock ban, there's another option.

Consider Sophie Uliano's new book, "The Gorgeously Green Diet," which holds out the promise of saving money, looking great and going green — with three entry points, depending on your level of commitment: "Light Green," "Bright Green" and "Deep Green," each with a shopping list and eating plan.

She encourages readers to garden and compost, work out, make their own yogurt and bread and buy in bulk. Like other writers, Uliano gives her readers a gentle nudge, asking not for revolutionary changes but rather for "small, everyday steps that make sense for your busy and budget-challenged lives."

It's not all work and no play: Her recipes include a flourless chocolate cake and a version of creme brulee.


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