My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What’s not to like? Wine, Chocolate, Coffee, Beer, and Bread? (Plus one more that I’ll get to…)
Sethi breaks each examination into three parts…a mix of her personal history with the food and historical history (wasn’t sure how else to put that); looks at sourcing and the impacts of high yield hybrids and strains on the higher quality beans, grains, yeasts, grapes, etc. – loss of diversity; and a short section on how the experts suggest enjoying each. She does a good job telling the story of the small farmers, vintners, chocolatiers “operating on the slimmest og magins”, trying to make a living.
I liked most of what Sethi wrote, highlighting a few quote-worthy segments…
On cacao, Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier, who pays premium prices for premium cacao seeds/beans that he has to have shipped, by more costly air, with their shells intact…a 30% waste as the shells are not the cacao he needs, and resulting in low margins:
…there’s a greater likelihood of reduction in genetic diversity if we don’t value a differentiated, specialty market. My value isn’t in purchasing power; it’s in showing the potential of what good cacao processed in the right way can taste like.
On coffee, Sethi quotes Aaron Wood, former head roaster for Seven Seeds Coffee Roasters in Australia:
I love coffee because it’s for the people. It’s social. You wouldn’t go out for a bar of chocolate, would you? People drink wine to get out of their day and get into their night, Coffee brings you into your day.
On beer, Ms. Sethi says of the tragic species of beer (my term, not hers), “[a]ppropriately known as bottom-fermenting yeast, lager yeasts produce clean and crisp beers, like Corona, Heineken, Bud and Pabst Blue Ribbon. They are considered more commercial because they’re uniform, controllable and don’t produce the depth of flavor we find in ales.” Well, she got that right. and quoting Ben Ott, former head brewer at Truman’s brewery, London,
If you want to attract a lot of people, then you make the beer as bland as possible.
Ms. Sethi nails it with, “It works: Lager is the most popular beer in the world.”
The subtitle refers to that loss of diversity, resulting in loss of quality. Think about it…junk chocolate vs gourmet chocolate; Folgers vs Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee; Budweiser vs actual beer…Ms. Sethi quotes Caleb Taft, at the time a wine director who introduced her to a specialty grape in a wine called Trousseau Gris:
The intention behind big wines is consistency.”
Meaning the Beringer’s etal…but it’s more than that. The intention behind ALL big markets is consistency: beer, chocolate, coffee…and we all lose because of that.
I thought Ms. Sethi threw in the proverbial TMI about her personal relationships in her narrative a little too often. I’m not sure if she was trying to make a connection with the reader, but given the subjects (and my personal passion for three – chocolate, coffee and beer), that connection would likely be a given for any reader. For her exposure of the problems we face when we allow a declination to the lower denominators of the Big producers, this could be a five star book, but I don’t think she made enough of a case. Plus, she added a sixth “food” at the end that put me off; she crowed about a particularly well cooked octopus dish she had in Peru. She followed that travesty with an appropriate segment on overharvesting the sea resulting in, again, loss of diversity, but the damage was done in her sharing her delight in eating such an disturbingly intelligent creature.
Regardless, this is still a good book with good information about foods that I happen to like.