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 out showing 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.
Fast food is not a new phenomenon in the USA, however. Frances Trollope's sensational travel book of the 1830s, The Domestic Manners of the Americans dwells on the horrifying spectacle of our hotel dining rooms, where people bolted their food with disgusting manners. Americans have been in a tearing rush for 200 years.
KT: In The Long Emergency, published in 2005, you predicted with astounding accuracy how the subprime mortgage meltdown would unfold. Your latest novel, World Made By Hand, takes place in the near future after a massive flu outbreak that originated in Mexico. Um, what should we start worrying about next?
JHK: Worry about the "recovery" that never comes and the insidious collapse of our institutions and arrangements that will proceed from this. Worry about lost incomes and vocations that will never come back (e.g. marketing exec for Target, Inc.) and the need to find new ways to be useful to your fellow human beings (and incidentally perhaps earn a living). Worry about finding a community to live in that is cohesive enough to stave off anarchy at the local level. Worry about building the best garden you can and making good compost. Worry about how difficult it is to learn how to play a musical instrument at age 47.
KT: You recently wrote "there's no way we can continue the petro-agriculture system of farming and the Cheez Doodle and Pepsi Cola diet that it services. The public is absolutely zombified in the face of this problem -- perhaps a result of the diet itself." OK, so how will we stock our post-peak-oil pantries? Do we really need to start hoarding rice and beans?
JHK: Get some kind of a hand-cranked home grain mill. Personally, I think it is indeed a good idea to lay in a supply of beans, lentils, rice, oats, other grains and don't forget salt, boullion (soups can sustain us with any number of ingredients), dried onion flakes, spices (chilies and curries especially). Our just-in-time, three-day's-worth-of-inventory supermarket system is very susceptible to disruption. And we're very far from establishing workable local food networks in this country.
The fragility of petro-ag is being aggravated by the collapse of bank lending now. Farmers need borrowed money desperately. Capital is as important an "input" as methane-based fertilizers. I think we could see problems with food production and distribution anytime from here on.
KT: You're an avid gardener -- do you grow much of your own food? Do you worry that you'll have to guard your greens with a gun if our collapsing economy sends the mall rats outdoors to forage after the food courts run out of pretzel nuggets?
JHK: I don't grow any grains. I have successfully grown potatoes, but won't this year (I'm renting my current house and its accompanying property). This year, I'll be planting mostly leafy greens -- collards, kale, chard, lettuces, plus some peppers and tomatoes (pure frivolity). It is not hard to imagine that food theft will become a problem. The trouble, though, is that the sort of people liable to do the thieving are exactly those with the poorest skills in cooking. You have to know what to do with kale to make it worth stealing. It may be more like kitchen theft: "... what's that you got on the stove, pal?"
KT: You evidently enjoy cooking and entertaining. Who would your dream dinner guests be (limiting your guest list to those folks who are currently among the living)?
JHK: I have a pretty good revolving cast of characters among my friends locally who make regular visits to my table. This week, a farming couple who are renting 20 acres off a wealthy land-truster (and doing a great job of market gardening) are coming over, along with the Rolling Stone environmental reporter and his wife, who is writing a gardening book. I don't need no steenkin' outatown celebrities.