Stick to baseball, 12/30/17.

Since my last links post, I’ve written three Insider pieces, on Colorado signing Wade Davis, Cleveland signing Yonder Alonso, and San Francisco trading for Evan Longoria.

On the board game front, I reviewed Photosynthesis for Paste, and ranked my top ten board games of 2017 for them too. Over at Vulture I did another Best of 2017 list, looking at the best light game, heavy game, board game app, expansion, and more.

The Wall Street Journal asked me to contribute to their annual “Who Read What” series, where 50 avid readers provide one or two books that really stood out for them in the preceding year. I was specifically asked to name one work of fiction and one of non-fiction, and chose The Erstwhile and Betaball.

As always, feel free to sign up for my email newsletter, which costs you nothing and won’t clog your inbox; I’ve only sent three total in the last two months, so if anything, I should probably be sending more. And, of course, thanks to everyone who bought Smart Baseball for themselves or as a Christmas gift.

And now, the links…

Pig Tales.

Barry Estabrook’s Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat didn’t make me a vegetarian or cause me to stop eating pork, but it has certainly reinforced a lot of things I was already doing to try to avoid contributing to our food-industrial complex. Estabrook exposes some of the worst practices in the pork industry, including inhumane treatment of pigs, widespread doping of animals with antibiotics, and terrible pollution that ruins surrounding neighborhoods. Estabrook’s point is that animal husbandry doesn’t have to be that way, but he doesn’t quite get around to saying that this would involve Americans accepting that meat shouldn’t be cheap.

Pig Tales is structured in a predictable way: here’s the setup, here are all the bad practices (some awful, some merely objectionable), here’s the cost of the modern meat-production complex, here are a few folks doing it the right way. It’s certainly effective, and Estabrook is a skilled storyteller. You can’t read about the horrible conditions in which factory-farmed pigs are raised – in cages where they can barely move, sitting in their own excretions, covered in sores – without at least wondering if there’s a better way (unless you’re a sociopath, I guess). I thought his descriptions of local efforts to combat pork-factory pollution were even more compelling because they illuminated a side of the industry that’s much less well-known; raising pigs indoors is a dirty job, and produces a lot of waste that pollutes local air, water, and soil, with much of it dumped into artificial “lagoons” that overflow when there’s a substantial rain. Estabrook talks to local activists and groups fighting the pernicious aspects of pork production – labor abuses and environmental degradation – and uncovers how certain states, notably North Carolina and Iowa, have bent over backwards to favor corporate agriculture over the rights of residents to things like clean air and water or safe housing. (North Carolina especially seems to have debased itself for Big Pig, hardly a surprise given how badly gerrymandered their state is.)

Estabrook also describes the breakdown in our food inspection system, largely because it has fallen too far under the sway of the industrial food producers themselves. He highlights the story of one USDA inspector who was reassigned to a job farther from his house, ostensibly to get him to quit, because the factory owners didn’t like that he was doing his job. Pig Tales was published in 2015, six-plus years into a Democratic administration that, in theory and practice, was more open to regulations than the previous one, and I can only imagine that this is going to get worse given the Trump admin’s war on science within the executive branch. The USDA is a long-running disaster anyway, pushing “nutrition standards” that rely as much on industry input as on actual science (to say nothing of the uncertainty around the science of nutrition), but the fact that it’s understaffed for the mission of ensuring the safety of our food supply only exacerbates the problem. That’s one agency I’d like to see scrapped and rebuilt from scratch, with a focus on food safety. Estabrook only gets at one of the agency’s problems, but he refers heavily to this 2013 report on swine slaughter plants that found widespread, egregious violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act … with no real consequences for the manufacturers.

Pig Tales isn’t all bad news for pork eaters, however, as Estabrook visits multiple farmers who are doing something right – many who’ve eschewed antibiotic use, others who don’t use cages or only use them right around birthing, and still more who raise smaller herds as part of an integrated agricultural setup. His stories all give some threads of hope, but I think Estabrook should have emphasized the “cheap meat” problem more: Americans expect meat to be inexpensive, because it has been so for so many years now, but the retail price of factory-farmed meat does not accurately reflect the negative externalities that arise from its production. He hints at the subject, but I could have used a concluding chapter here that pointed out what I think is obvious: If pork producers were regulated correctly, meaning that they adhere to food-safety standards and pay for damage they cause to their environments, pork would become more expensive because no one would be able to produce it cheaply enough to turn a profit at current commodity prices. And I’m not sure anyone is ready for a world where some consumers are priced out of some or all types of red meat. That’s a legal and ethical concern that Estabrook doesn’t broach.

The author makes it very clear that he believes there is such a thing as sustainable, ethically-raised, environmentally responsible pork production, and he’s probably right – but it won’t be available to everybody. Raising meat that doesn’t damage the environment, put us at risk of foodborne illnesses, accelerate antibiotic resistance, or mistreat the animals is expensive. It takes a lot of land, as with responsible beef production (although the economics of sustainable beef are worse), and more labor per animal. I don’t think I learned anything from Pig Tales that I didn’t already know about pork, but I did learn about how state and local governments have abdicated their responsibilities to protect their citizens, and that has only further driven me to consume less meat and, when I do consume it, to try to ensure it comes from responsible farmers. Perhaps if more consumers make those choices, the market will shift even in the absence of government regulation – but if meat is suddenly a luxury good, is it really sustainable at all?

Next up: My reviews are a few books behind, but I’ve finished Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night and Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce (just $2 on Kindle) and moved on to Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.

The Story of Sushi.

My most recent piece on ESPN.com went up yesterday – a preview of the major amateur free agents available in Latin America this summer.

I recommend a lot of books around here, but I’m not sure the last time I said that any you must read a particular book. If you like sushi, or just seafood in general, however, you need to get yourself a copy of Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (published in hardcover as The Zen of Fish), a tremendous read that blends the history of what we now refer to as sushi in the U.S. with a surprisingly interesting subplot around a class going through a sushi-chef academy near Los Angeles. Corson’s integration of the two threads is remarkable, but for me, the value was in hearing him subtly say to American diners: “SUSHI: UR DOIN IT WRONG.”

Corson boils sushi down to its core components – the rice, the vinegar in the rice, the seaweed – and even dabbles in some food chemistry by explaining why we particularly like those ingredients as well as raw fish, discussing umami and the chemicals that deliver it (glutamic acid and inosine monophosphate in particular) and why we like the flesh of sea creatures raw but generally don’t like uncooked meat from land creatures. He discusses why certain types of fish make better or worse sushi, and of course discusses wild fish versus farm-raised (wild is better, but farm-raised does have some advantages) as well as the dangers overfishing present to natural fish populations. There’s even a chapter on uni, a paste comprising the gonads of sea urchins, which I recently learned is also consumed raw in various Caribbean cuisines as well.

Those sections were interesting, but didn’t do too much to change the way I thought about sushi, since I already knew I liked the stuff. Corson also discusses the various traditions around sushi and the etiquette of eating it (use your fingers for nigiri; never rub your wooden chopsticks together; miso soup should be eaten after the meal), as well as the logic for eating certain pieces in certain ways. A good sushi chef will, if you allow him, consider the order in which you’re eating your fish, moving across a continuum from milder flavors to stronger ones, or from softer textures to firm ones. Stirring wasabi (which, you probably know, isn’t actually wasabi at most U.S. restaurants but American horseradish dyed green) into soy sauce reduces the flavor of the wasabi, because the heat is partly deactivated in liquid. The fish used in spicy tuna rolls – a thoroughly American creation – is generally refuse, scraped off the skin of the tuna after the best pieces have been removed and used for nigiri or other dishes that require better flavor and texture. In fact, most rolls are inauthentic and used to hide inferior-quality fish under ingredients that are strongly flavored, like chili oil, or that coat the tongue with fat, like mayonnaise or avocado.

I’ve never been a huge fan of complicated rolls, since they tend to layer lots of ingredients together and come with sticky-sweet sauces, and I’m not a fan of mayonnaise so I generally avoid spicy tuna anyway. Having a rich, fatty, sweet roll can burn your palate for the delicate flavors of the fish-and-rice nigiri. But Corson’s book, without ever explicitly saying, “don’t eat the fancy rolls,” presents three arguments – one based on authenticity, one on the quality of the ingredients, and the fact that sushi becomes rather unhealthy when you load it up with fats and sugars – for at least limiting your consumption of those rolls, if not eliminating them altogether. And the teachers and sushi chefs who appear in the book all share his disdain for the fancier rolls, even while they teach them at the academy because customers want them – and they’re very profitable. (Another good reason not to order them, actually – you usually get more bang for your buck with nigiri.)

A book that just discussed sushi’s history, traditions, and science would have been worth reading without an actual plot to carry it along, but Corson built his book around the story of a class at The California Sushi Academy, a school run by a longtime sushi chef named Toshi whose restaurant (adjacent to the school) is struggling and who is himself recovering from a fairly recent stroke that has sapped his energy. Corson focuses on a few specific students in the class, including Kate, the nominal star of the book, a young woman struggling to find a career while fighting depression who nearly quits the school a half-dozen times; Fie, the Danish model/actress who decided she’d rather be the bombshell behind the sushi bar; and Takumi Nishio, the former Japanese boy-band star who quit the music business to study first Italian cuisine and now authentic sushi; while also devoting some time to Zoran, the Yugoslavia-born/Australian-raised head instructor who is a True Believer in traditional sushi even as he teaches the students American-style rolls. Their stories are interesting, as are their struggles – except for Takumi, who, in the book at least, seems to be a complete natural at whatever cuisine he tries, so he’s fascinating but without much drama. Corson follows them on assignments outside the classroom, like feeding the cast and crew on a movie lot, or watches them work a shift in the back room of the restaurant, using each episode as a segue into some note on the history or components of sushi.

If you like sushi, The Story of Sushi is $10 well spent. You can simultaneously learn the history of the California roll – its inventor is actually known, and there’s a good reason why there’s an avocado in it – and why you shouldn’t really bother with it when you’re in a quality Japanese restaurant.

For more from Corson, check out his official site, which includes some notes on the people in The Story of Sushi and other links and articles about seafood.

Next review: Richard Russo’s The Whore’s Child and Other Stories.