This article was first published in the Malaysian daily, ‘The Star’, on 5 May 2010 under the title ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. Photos by SL Wong and courtesy of Meike Bergmann/Judith Keller for BUNDjugend.
Game meat, eating in a group and using your bed as part of the cooking process: now, who would have thought these could help save the planet?
But in these times of melting-iceberg message fatigue, it takes quirky and innovative approaches to stir up that green conscience.
Christian Noll, 29, and Christoph Zinsius, 25, are housemates and passionate cooks who have been working to reduce their carbon footprints in daily life.
In Germany, food contributes to one fifth of the global warming caused by consumption per person per year. What about a cookbook, they thought, one that could help lower that statistic?
They amassed a group of like-minded individuals and parked the project under the environmental organisation for whom Noll worked, BUNDjugend, the youth arm of the German Friends of the Earth.
One and a half years, 55 recipes and hundreds of facts and figures later, the result is ‘Das Klima Kochbuch‘ (‘The Climate Cookbook‘), a recipe book that is refreshing, fun, and appealing enough to get every cook onto the climate-friendly bandwagon. The book is a mixture of recipes, feature articles, factual tidbits and URLs, the whole spiced up with bright, imaginative photographs and a funky layout.
The idea, says Noll, is not about stopping people from doing what they like. “We’re not telling people to become vegan. We’re inviting them to begin to do something about the climate by looking at how they consume food. Each person can decide where they want to begin.”
There is plenty of fodder here, from food production to transport and waste, and special themes like genetic engineering, fair trade products and virtual water, water used in food production.
Deciding what to include was not easy, and the team started by asking the obvious questions: is organic produce climate-friendly? Are air-flown apples really not? They then narrowed down the essentials and were lucky to rope in two of Germany’s top experts on food and climate change, to check and strengthen the information and recipes.
Noll says many facts in particular, came from Dr. Ulrike Eberle, co-author of a seminal book on sustainable consumption. It was also Dr. Eberle’s clear presentations of concepts and statistics that inspired their packaging of information.
“Publishing a cookbook is better than going to people and trying to influence them with dogma,” says Noll. “You can give the book as a present; it’s a soft approach.” He also points out that green cookbooks have become trendy. Four such books have been published in the US since last year, while a climate-friendly cookbook for vegetarians in Germany came out 10 days after theirs did.
“People everywhere are discussing food, and cooking shows on TV are very popular. Then, there’s the publishing of the FAO (Food And Agriculture Organisation’s) report ‘Lifestock’s Long Shadow’, whose information is slowly starting to diffuse into the public space.” The influential 2006 report names the lifestock sector as “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems”.
But the team focussed on a moderate approach. “Dairy products are not so climate-friendly, and for example, cake has butter but cake is not eaten every day, so OK, enjoy it,” says Noll.
The same approach was taken with the recipe selection. Following a general call for recipes among BUNDjugend members, 60 were shortlisted, tested and tweaked for climate-friendliness, ease of cooking and taste. They then went through chef Jan Lohr, courtesy of project partner Einhorn Catering, a specialist in organic and healthy meals.
“The most important point for me is that it tastes good,” says Lohr, 29. “So I would say to Chris (Noll), for this recipe, we must add more butter, and he would say, can you try an alternative? And I would try it, and go back to him and say, no, it needs butter, and so on.”
A surprise ingredient in the book is wild boar. It was included to show how much more climate-friendly game is compared to industrially-produced meat. Not that the team is encouraging hunting: in suburban Berlin at least, wild boar is actually a pest, and while animal rights activists might protest, enough animals are shot to make it available at butchers all year round. “See, you just eat your problem,” jokes Lohr.
Lohr sprinkled more complex recipes in the book, but says the recipes can be used by anyone with ingredients that are easily available in any supermarket. He admits that when he first saw the recipes, he was intrigued by ingredients he had never encountered. One was seitan, wheat gluten which is a meat substitute. He had fun trying out this new find with other chefs in his restaurant, who had also never heard of it.
For it is by making it fun that readers will be attracted and hence, the book’s aims achieved. In clustering the recipes, the usual starters, mains and deserts format was abandoned in favour of different ways of thinking about food, what Noll as describes making connections that are important to people.
So one category is titled ‘Group eating makes for less loneliness’.
The human lesson here is in enforcing community, the green lesson is that cooking for more than one is more climate-friendly (all of the book’s recipes are for four). In addition, it discourages the fast food culture of eating alone, in a hurry and being uncaring about what is consumed.
The fun element is also injected through suggestions of alternatives to the usual ingredients in traditional recipes as well as new recipes. Moreover, cooks are encouraged to draw from food traditions and wisdoms world-over. “It’s young, it’s fresh, it’s for all people – it’s OK if you don’t know what is the best kind of flour to use,” says Lohr.
The differing attitudes within the team itself undoubtedly shaped the book. “We had very long discussions,” recalls team member, Julia Balz, 35. “And we would keep talking until we all agreed. For example, rice production is supposed to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but can we really say rice is not good for the climate?”
To answer that specific conundrum, for example, they reached into the past and discovered a defunct traditional German method of cooking rice, which Balz remembers her grandmother using: put the pot of half-cooked rice in bed and cover it with the blanket for 30 minutes, allowing the rice to finish cooking in the retained heat.
Lohr was so inspired by this method that he tried it with a recipe using spelt (an ancient whole grain wheat), and was thrilled that not only did it work, it kept his bed warm!
“Many people have set mindsets and established connections when it comes to food and the environment,” says Noll. “I, myself, learned a lot of things doing this book. I think I was more dogmatic before. Now I tell myself I should try wild boar or buy air-flown mangoes without feeling guilty.”
He hopes the book can be adapted globally. “Today, the nutritional pyramid appears in cook books everywhere. I’d like to see climate information in there in the same way. People start by being aware of energy-efficient kitchens, then they start thinking about energy use and how that is integrated into nutrition.”
I am inadvertently put through a test.
Lohr whips up a dish from the book, a gnocchi with Spitzkohl. The former is an Italian dumpling pasta, which the recipe encourages cooks to make from scratch (potato, wheat and eggs); the latter is a crunchy cultivated wild mustard, a late Summer/Autumn vegetable. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, it is scrumptious but so filling, I cannot finish it and almost ask them to take it away, half-eaten.
Just in time, I remember that waste is one of the climate change sins, and meekly spoon it up.
“Everybody can do something for the climate,” says Balz. “And everyone – even vegans – will find something in the book!” ω
10 TIPS FOR A CLIMATE-FRIENDLY KITCHEN
by Dr. Karl von Koerber, ‘Das Klima Kochbuch’
~ Reduce meat and dairy products, but if you eat them, eat organic versions thereof
~ Buy organic food products
~ Choose seasonal fruits and vegetables
~ Buy from local growers
~ Cut back on processed food
~ Leave your car behind when food shopping
~ Use alternative energy, lower CO2 emissions
~ Use energy-efficient cooking appliances to save money and electricity
~ Invite your friends over so you’ll cook more often and reduce CO2
~ Reduce food wastage and recycle what you can’t use
The Photography of ‘Das Klima Kochbuch’
The photos for the book feature creative, elaborate setups as well as food shots. Meike Bergmann, one of the two photographers, recounts:
“Judith (Keller) and I did all the landscapes together and styled them ourselves. It was a lot of work, but also very fun to do. The more elaborate landscapes took about one day each. We both thought that (the book) was a really interesting idea with lots of potential for a creative illustration of a serious subject. Just like the food is supposed to be fun and inspirational to cook, eat and enjoy in the company of friends, we wanted to make the book fun to look at and inspire the reader to want to engage with the topic.”