Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the poetic phrases of a prophet, his words ringing with eloquent truth as he weaves myriad different threads of fact, memory, experience, statistic and dream into a complex narrative that is filled with the wild and domesticated flavors of the Sonoran desert.
Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food is ostensibly a book about a man who decided to take on the experiment to eat as locally as possible, with emphasis upon the wild, native foods of his Arizona home. And while generally, Nabhan does thematically stay with the subject of his experiences in trying to eat a majority of his diet locally with emphasis upon the traditional desert foods available in Arizona, his narrative does stray hither and yon, often going far afield on tangents that at first glance seem to lack relevance. However, as the reader plows forward, the threads that bind the seemingly tangential material to the central theme of the importance of a local, sustainable food supply come into sharp focus.
Eventually, the seeming mish mash of fact, statistic, memory and experience, come together into a tapestry that illustrates Nabhan’s central point: “life,” he asserts, ” tastes good.”
There are flaws in the book, to be certain. I found that there was a certain amount of romanticization of the past, particularly of hunter-gatherer ways of life, that I found to be irritating, especially when the author noted that he was being unreasonably idealistic about the realities of subsistence farming and hunter-gatherer societies, and yet continued in that vein anyway. He is an idealist, and somewhat obsessive in his quest for local foods, to the point where I found some of his actions to be distinctly-off putting.
He is also a pessimist, and much of his narrative focuses on the negative actions of the dominant society surrounding his attempts at eating locally and seasonally. His tales of land developer’s greed and rapacious behavior in the Sonoran Desert are disheartening, and all-too based on fact, however, when contrasted with his very militant reaction to commercial foods which used the image of the Sonora–the saguaro cactus–to sell non-cactus related products, I found his guesture to be wasteful, childish and futile, which was profoundly sad. It accomplished nothing to help conserve the saguaro, and didn’t even seem to make the author feel any better.
These jarring bits of storyline, however, do not erase the essential beauty of the tales told within the book. Nabhan is a born storyteller, and when he relates his and his brothers’ journey to their ancestral home–a tiny village in the mountains of Lebanon, I found myself moved to tears as I experienced with him the joy of homecoming and the flavor of welcome. When he tells of his experiences gathering traditional desert foods such as the fruit of the saguaro and “sand food” with the O’odham, I was spellbound, eagerly savoring every word and phrase he crafted to evoke those memories.
In the end, I found that while Coming Home to Eat was certainly inspirational, it was less useful to me than Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. Too many of Nabhan’s experiences and tales were specific to one ecosystem–that of a desert which is unique in all of the world, while Gussow’s experiences were more universally adaptable by anyone with the willingness to take up seed packet and spade, canning jar and drying rack.
That is not so say I regret having read the book, and feel that it serves no purpose. On the contrary, while I found myself at times more irritated by the author than charmed by him, I would not have missed the eloquence of his prose and the emotive strength of his narrative for any amount of money in the world. His writing is much more facile than Gussow’s; his voice is tinged with the poetic authority of Annie Dillard and his ability to pull a reader into the immediacy of his tale is reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver’s works.
Coming Home to Eat is the kind of book for us food-obsessed folk to curl up with in a comfortable corner chair, something to savor in nibbles and gulps, while a pot on the stove bubbles merrily away, cooking up something hopefully local, fresh and delicious.
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