Peak-Oil Prophet James Howard Kunstler on Food, Fuel and Why He Became an Almost Vegan
I grew up in Woodland Hills, Calif., a nominally pastoral, petrocentric Los Angeles suburb, so peak oil prognosticator James Howard Kunstler's dim view of our car-crazed culture really resonates with me.
Kunstler's relentless skewering of suburbia, and his penchant for apocalyptic predictions have landed him a reputation as a cranky Cassandra. But as Ben McGrath observed while strolling around Saratoga Springs with Kunstler for a recent New Yorker piece, "Far from the image of the stereotypical Chicken Little, he was more like an amiable town crier whom the citizenry regarded fondly, if a bit skeptically."
So, when a friend and I found ourselves headed to Kunstler's neck of the woods for a conference recently, we arranged to have dinner with Saratoga Springs' resident soothsayer. Contrary to his contrarian reputation, Kunstler proved to be an affable, upbeat guy.
We chatted about food, politics, urban planning, gardening and a dozen other topics, but I'm not much of a note-taker; I'd rather eat than tweet. So our dinner conversation was off the record, including, mercifully, his ribald remarks about Alice Waters and Martha Stewart, which decency should preclude me from even alluding to.
However, he graciously agreed to answer my questions via e-mail about his conversion from carnivore to (mostly) vegan and other foodish and fuelish topics.
Kerry Trueman: Let's get right to the meat of the matter -- or, rather, the lack thereof. You used to enjoy eating "lots of meat, duck fat, butter by the firkin." What made you decide to go more or less vegan in recent months? Was it hard to make the transition to a plant-based diet?
James Howard Kunstler: It was as simple as a trip to the doctor's office. My cholesterol and blood pressure were too high. I had to take some radical action. I've enjoyed the challenge of cooking with a very different range of ingredients. But I like cooking and am pretty good at it -- I worked in many restaurant kitchens when I was a starving bohemian -- and I figured a lot of things out.
For instance, that you can make stocks and sauces by braising onions and aromatics without oil or butter. The only thing I really miss is making really bravura dishes for company, like chicken pie with a butter-saturated crust, duck-and-sausage gumbo, brownies ... you get the picture. ... I'm still excited by the challenge of vegan (or nearly vegan -- I use skim milk) cookery.
There are some excellent cookbooks out there, by the way, like Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, The Accidental Vegan by Devra Gartenstein, and the Candle Cafe Cookbook by Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza.
KT: A study has just come outshowing that although the French spend two hours eating each day -- roughly twice as long as we do -- they're among the slimmest of the 18 nations in the study. Americans were the fattest, with more than 1 in 3 Americans qualifying as obese. How would you explain this phenomenon? What compels Americans to eat so many of our meals in our cars?
JHK: Americans eat so many meals in cars because: 1) The infrastructure of daily life is engineered for extreme car dependency, and 2) because the paucity of decent quality public space and so-called third places (gathering places) for the working classes (and lower) -- and remember, it is the working classes and poor who are way disproportionately obese. The people portrayed in Vanity Fair magazine are not fat. I suspect that the amount of time Americans spend in their cars is roughly proportionate to the amount of time French people spend at the table.