Food primer piques appetite, curiosity

By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 28, 2010

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In “Eating for Beginners,’’ mommy lit meets “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’’ Michael Pollan’s trip up and down the food chain. What took so long?

Writer Melanie Rehak is the mother of then 1-year-old Jules, a picky eater. She also has a head full of facts about organic food, hormone-free milk, free-range chicken, and food miles. What should she be feeding — or at least attempting to feed — her child? “If I chose chicken that was hormone-free but not free-range, was there any point?’’ she asks. “Was it really so bad to eat a hot dog once in a while?’’ Rehak cites a study claiming that 61 percent of Americans are confused about what to feed their families. She counts herself among them.

So begins a journey to figure out her food priorities. She talks her way into the kitchen at applewood, a Brooklyn, N.Y., restaurant that spells its name with a twee lowercase and is devoted to sustainability and supporting local farmers. She works her way through its stations, learning to make vinaigrettes and plate salads, cook fish, work the grill, and make pastry (the included recipes, which can seem incidental, get increasingly more interesting as her skills improve). She also meets the producers who provide the restaurant with vegetables, cheese, meat, and fish. She helps harvest and deliver crops; she learns to milk and butcher. She goes deep-sea fishing.

As an account of where our food comes from and what goes into creating it, the book is amiable and engaging enough. Rehak is an accessible writer. She shares her experiences, both positive and negative, with good humor. (More concrete sound bites are often delivered in oracular fashion by her subjects. “[E]veryone in general should be eating way less meat than we do,’’ says a farmhand. “Meat should not be cheap, and if it is, you’ll pay for it in other ways.’’) But the title is apt. “Eating for Beginners’’ is reading for beginners, people just starting to think about the impact of large-scale agriculture on health, environment, and economy. It accomplishes the same thing as the movie “Food, Inc.’’ did — it brings these issues to a different audience, this time through the lens of motherhood. For anyone who has read Pollan and Eric Schlosser, there’s not much here that’s new.

Rehak’s conclusions are about what you would expect (she does live in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, an epicenter of organic mommydom). “I realized my indecision was starting to fade,’’ she says. “Much in the same way that Jules’s birth had made the health issues real to me, the people and places I was visiting, applewood included, were making an intricate web of eating, environment, and community newly clear to me.’’ It’s worth it to her to spend more money to support these people, and worth it to go out of her way to get their products.

But compromise is OK, too. It’s not so bad to buy the occasional imported cookie, or feed your child a hot dog now and again. “Just knowing that even the children of organic farmers sometimes ate fast food was a huge relief,’’ she writes. Ah, the terrible self-judgment of being a modern parent.

“Eating for Beginners’’ is excellent PR for the businesses about which Rehak writes. You will want to sample applewood’s dishes, Cato Corner Farm’s cheese, Lucky Dog Farm’s produce. This book may not help you decide what to feed your children, but it will make you hungry for the kind of food it’s selling. And that, perhaps, is the point.

Devra First can be reached at


An Education in the Pleasures of Food From Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid

By Melanie Rehak

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $25