Melanie Rehak was always a passionate cook and food lover. After reading the likes of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Wendell Berry, she tried to eat thoughtfully as well. But after the birth of her son, Jules, she wanted to know more: What mattered most, organic or local? Who were these local farmers? Was it possible to be an ethical consumer and still revel in the delights of food? And why wouldn’t Jules eat anything, organic or not?
Eating for Beginners details the year she spent discovering how to be an eater and a parent in today’s increasingly complicated world. She joined the kitchen staff at applewood, a small restaurant owned by a young couple committed to using locally grown food, and she worked on some of the farms that supplied it. Between prepping the nightly menu, milking goats, and sorting beans, Rehak gained an understanding of her own about what to eat and why. (It didn’t hurt that along the way even the most dedicated organic farmers admitted that their children sometimes ate McDonald’s.) And as we follow her on her quest to find the pleasure in doing the right thing—and become a better cook in the bargain—we, too, will make our peace with food.
1. What is the food philosophy of David and Laura Shea, owners of applewood? How does Melanie’s interaction with the different chefs, farmers, and other food service workers help her develop her own food philosophy? How did gaining access to their world through Rehak allow you to adjust your own food philosophy?
2. Discuss more generally the benefits journalists offer by gaining this sort of unrestricted access to otherwise closed venues. Think about where Eating for Beginners fits in with other book-length works of immersive journalism.
3. In the opening to chapter 1, Rehak compares butchering a duck to cutting her son’s fingernails. Where else do you see similarities between preparing food and raising a child? Rehak also states that she finds butchering the duck brings a greater sense of accomplishment than parenting often did. If you’re a parent, what are some of your strategies for realizing accomplishment in your own parenting? Or what do you do to counterbalance the uncertainty that comes with your parenting?
4. What did you learn about how restaurant kitchens operate? What makes applewood such a unique place?
5. What do candied orange peels mean to Rehak? What is the connection between food and memories and family? Talk about the foods you get nostalgic for and what they mean to you.
6. “Times of crisis have often been times for reconsidering food” (p. 80). What does Rehak mean by this? Do you agree? Use examples from your own life to support the statement.
7. What did you learn about the benefits of buying local? What do you think prompted the popularity of the locavore movement in recent years?
8. What are the risks of farming? Of raising animals for slaughter? “The real costs of growing organic food are higher than the prices it brings,” (p. 87) one of the owners of Lucky Dog Farm said. What did he mean by that? What did you learn about the real costs of organic food?
9. Rehak constantly makes literary references as she goes about her research. From fellow food writers to Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, and Italo Calvino. Talk about what you know of Rehak’s background. How does her non-culinary past benefit her as a tour guide? Does this make you more or less able to relate to her?
10. Discuss your favorite characters in Eating for Beginners. Who surprised you? Who inspired you?
11. What kinds of foods do the children of chefs and organic farmers eat? Why do their eating habits reassure Rehak?
12. Look at the dual trajectories of Rehak’s journeys as chef and parent. Where do they overlap? How does she change as a person?
13. Compare Eating for Beginners to books like Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, and What Are People For? and talk about how it fits in the food literature canon. Is it prescriptive, supplemental, an exposé?
14. How does Eating for Beginners compare to other parenting titles? What lessons does Rehak learn as a mother, and what did you find applicable to your own parenting style?
© 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Hannah Harlow.