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Culture of food explored at book festival event
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Culture of food explored at book festival event

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With the growth of the Internet, cookbooks are slowly going the way of the compact disc and the phonebook. That’s a sobering thought for the authors featured at a Friday panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

The panel, titled “Family, Food and Community,” featured five authors who talked about the importance of food in culture and trends in the food industry.

One of those trends is the decline of the cookbook, which is slowly losing traction as more people turn to the Web for their recipes.

“I think it’s a dying industry,” said Andrea Chesman, author of “Recipes from the Root Cellar: 270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables.”

“I think we’re in a time of transition and we don’t know where we’re going to come out the other side,” she said.

Joe Yonan, food and travel editor for The Washington Post, compared it to downloading a single song rather than purchasing an album — the reader loses a lot of valuable background and context.

“It’s akin to me to the conversion of music to MP3s,” he said. “You don’t get the beauty of a personal perspective.”

The first half of the panel was dedicated to the writers’ personal experiences with food — growing it, preparing it and breaking bread with loved ones. That was actually the subject of the book edited by panelist Caroline M. Grant, titled “The Cassoulet Saved our Marriage: Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat.”

The book is an anthology of essays — co-edited by Lisa Catherine Harper — on the social and personal significance of food. One essay, for example, is about a woman’s attempt to adapt her grandmother's Lithuanian borscht recipe to her vegan diet.

“It’s a look at why food matters, not just what to eat,” Grant said. “A lot of the national conversation about food falls along a single axis, and it’s not very comforting.”

Food was central to family life for Cathal Armstrong, an Irish-born chef who owns several restaurants in the Washington area. Armstrong said he learned much of what he knows from watching his father, a skilled amateur chef.

Armstrong’s book, “My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve” (co-written with David Hagedorn), combines the usual cookbook fare with stories of his family. He said he fondly remembers sitting down with them every night for dinner, something too many families today miss out on.

“The big link that’s missing is the dinner table, where we sit down, we talk about social things, we talk about boyfriends, we talk about current affairs,” he said. “A return to that will save our way and save the future.”

Panelists also talked about problems facing the food industry. Most of them agreed culinary professionals need to do a better job of reaching the general public — especially teaching the value of cooking healthful meals instead of going for cheap instant food.

Ira Wallace, author of “The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast,” said there needs to be incentives for people using food benefits to buy local and organic.

“People who get their [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program] benefits from farmer’s markets see marked improvements in health outcomes,” she said.

Wallace and Armstrong also condemned the corporate farming industry, which they said have overused chemicals and genetic engineering. Armstrong criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture for restrictions that make it harder for small-operation farmers to compete.

The panelists also agreed there is a growing gap between high-end food culture — which is behind the popularization of organic and local food — and the rest of the population. That’s a troubling development, Chesman said, when you think about the role of food in bringing people together.

“I’m seeing an increasingly segregated society, and we’re segregated in our foodways,” Chesman said. “I think it’s humanizing for us to be able to socialize in wider circles.”

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