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  • Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right: Reflections, Rhymes, Rants, and Recipes by Eric L. Ball
  • Christopher Bakken
Eric L. Ball . Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right: Reflections, Rhymes, Rants, and Recipes. New York : State University of New York Press . 2013 . Pp 339 . Paperback $24.95 .

In the prologue to his memoir, Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right, Eric L. Ball admits that he doesn’t “expect to report anything utterly remarkable or unprecedented” (4) while he attempts to describe what it means to “eat right.” Making yogurt at home, fretting about one’s carbon footprint, shopping locally, souring bread with a wild yeast starter, foraging for mushrooms and wild greens—a few decades ago such things may have seemed unusual, and perhaps even counter-cultural. Now, they are the kind of thing many environmentally-conscious cooks, Food Network addicts, and “well-read American foodies” might take for granted. While a large proportion of Americans still eat in a state of blissful, fast-food ignorance, many others, like Ball, have come to believe that eating is an intellectual and political act, and so they bring their convictions with them to the garden, farmer’s market, and dinner table, concluding, as Ball does, that “there are important connections between the sustenance of bodies and other supposedly higher matters, such as the sustenance of spirit (1).” But Ball didn’t [End Page 191] arrive at such conclusions, as most do, by reading Michael Pollan and by embracing the local-food ethos of famous chefs like Alice Waters. Instead, he internalized these culinary values while living in Greece—on the island of Crete in particular, where almost everything is “organic,” where almost everyone is a “locavore,” and where such trendy concepts seem rather silly, since they have always been simple facts of traditional Greek life. At the heart of Ball’s memoir is the story of how someone from rural New York, someone without so much as a dash of Greek blood, found a deep and zealous engagement with Cretan culture. Indeed, his “obsession with Cretan food” quickly translates “into an obsession with food and cooking in general” and much of the book traces Ball’s quest to apply the virtues of island food-ways to an American setting. This project requires him to reevaluate what it means to eat, and also what it means to live by eating “right,” which is to say “eating Cretan.”

In many respects, Ball’s memoir follows the familiar arc of the fish-out-of-water travel narrative. He follows his college girlfriend to Crete, eventually marries her, and embraces her Greek family as his own. He learns the language well enough to read Kazantzakis and to write columns in Greek for a newspaper in Heraklion. He marvels as Eirini, his mother-in-law, performs miracles in the kitchen. And in Manolis, the philosophizing, winemaking, larger-than-life figure of his father-in-law, he finds a kind of father he never had. Of course, Greece has always been an easy place for foreigners to fall in love with, and at times Ball’s account of his years on Crete is predictable and sentimental: “Crete moved me in ways no other place I loved ever had,” he remarks while gazing upon an olive grove and vineyard at dusk, describing how the landscape begins to “dance” and how he is suddenly “overcome with powerful sensations of recognition, as though I’d just realized that I was a reincarnated Cretan, and the residue of an old Cretan soul somewhere inside me just became conscious that it was back in Crete” (144). It’s no surprise that when compared to such frothy and epiphanic reckonings abroad, his academic life back in the United States doesn’t stand a chance: “The more passionate I became about Crete,” he comes to realize, “the more I hated my life in Chicago.” Even when his marriage falls apart and he is forced to remain permanently in the U.S. he maintains his love affair with Crete at a fever pitch, discovering that he’s been permanently altered by his experiences on the island. Ball recounts his difficulties in trying to...


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pp. 191-193
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