I read Megan Kimble’s Unprocessed back in April and I didn’t intend to review it on the blog. Mostly I tend to review works of poetry or fiction, and Unprocessed is a nonfiction book. I’ve realized, though, over the last seven or eight months that I talk about Unprocessed with people more often than almost any book I’ve read in the last year, so it might be worth sharing. It really is a fascinating read.
At its most basic level, Unprocessed is a memoir about a young woman in Tucson Arizona spending one year eating food that is as unprocessed as possible. Throughout this memoir, there is also a good deal of rumination on just what unprocessed means and how to go about eating unprocessed food while living a somewhat normal life. She divides the book up into sections based on food type, like dairy, meat, sugar, and restaurant food, and also spends some time on how the economically depressed have a tougher time with food, particularly unprocessed food, than the affluent.
If you’re expecting a step-by-step how-to book on how to eat less processed food, you’ve got the wrong book. But if you’re looking for a book that feels almost like a modern version of Walden–I went to Arizona because I wished to eat unprocessed–focused on escaping the modern food system that gave us Twinkie’s, Happy Meals, and Franken-food with a shelf life that matches its plastic wrapping, then I suggest cracking this one open.
Kimble’s writing is, quite simply, delightful. I really felt like I was sinking into her world with her, standing in the kitchen with her when she made her first terrible, gooey chocolate bar sweetened with honey; squeezing the goat’s udders with her when she first milked an animal; tasting the unreal goodness of her first loaf of freshly baked whole wheat bread. I very much enjoyed being part of her journey.
And speaking of the journey, I liked that this book didn’t try to draw lines around a concept that simply isn’t clear. What is unprocessed? It’s a question that Kimble tries to answer throughout the book. She finds that processing is, in itself, a process that gets more extreme as it goes on. She also finds that often simply the intent behind the processing–to sell more unhealthy food rather than to preserve more food for when food is scarce, for example–can make something more processed. I think one of the discoveries I like the most is that unprocessing food tends to bring people and communities closer together, and that this is perhaps the greatest fault in our modern food system. Prepackaged foods negate the need to make dinner together, to make and break bread together.
This book wasn’t just an enjoyable read, it also contained lots of nuggets of research that I can use in my own life. I think the section of the book that was the most interesting to me was the section on alcohol. Like Kimble, I always assumed that beer, wine, and spirits were relatively unprocessed, but I was decidedly wrong. I think the fact I like to cite most to my friends, who all love microbrews, is that local beer isn’t really all that local. Sure, they brew the beer at a brewery, but most of the grain that goes into that beer comes from far away–Canada, Europe, nothing approaching local. Many local distilleries are even worse, buying Neutral Grain Spirits–essentially just super distilled clear alcohol–putting additives in it for flavoring, and aging it in a barrel for a year or so to produce things like aged whiskey or gin. If you were wondering how the new distillery near you can sell 12-year-aged liquor, that’s how. Even wine isn’t safe. Most cheap wines aren’t just grapes and yeast–there are many additives tossed in to enhance flavor.
Does this mean I’m going to stop going to microbreweries or stop buying Cupcake cabernet as my cheap sipping red? Of course not. But I think it’s good to have my eyes open about what’s really going on. I think that’s why this book is important.
But it’s also fun. I decidedly enjoyed reading through Kimble’s attempts at making her own sea salt, her struggles when eating in restaurants–something I sympathize with as a calorie-conscious eater, and her paradigm shift when she butchers a sheep. If you’re a foodie who is in for an unprocessed adventure with a hefty side of useful research about the food industry, I recommend you pick up this book.