Review: We Fed an Island by Jose Andres and Richard Wolffe

The first half of this book was really interesting.  Andres writes a lot about the history of Puerto Rico and what happened with Hurricane Maria.  Also really interesting are his early impressions about the state of the island contrasted with other relief efforts (in the United States and in Haiti) and the reactions of Trump and his administration.  I connected with this book on a lot of levels, having worked closely with Puerto Rico on several grant programs, plus Andres is a very popular chef in my area.

Those interested in nonprofit work and/or relief efforts will appreciate Andres’ description of the efforts he goes through to keep his initiative moving – in other words, to feed as many people as possible.   Those interested in food will appreciate his frequent reminders that food needs to come from the heart, and that people in need deserve more than the soulless calories in a Meal-Ready-to-Eat (MRE).  I also appreciated his efforts to make the most of local businesses and labor on the island, rather than just importing things, and I appreciated his emphasis on trying to determine what the people needed most ( though as a chef, he always comes back to the same answer: food).

“A plate of food is not just a few ingredients cooked and served together. It is the story of who you are, the source of your pride, the foundation of your family and community. Cooking isn’t just nourishing; it’s empowering.”

But, I have to say that about halfway through the book I started to find it very repetitive, and also very self-congratulatory.  Andres is a master chef but the writing of this book is just so-so.  For example, the constant counting of meals – even though he says he’s more about quality than quantity – gets really old. So does the repetition of the phrase “we fed an island”.

I will say this as a long-time government employee – I don’t for a minute disagree with Andres’ criticism of bureaucracy, and I’m not surprised at the ineptitude he saw from FEMA and other feds on the ground in Puerto Rico.  I expected that.  But his story is one where he and his team do everything right, and the government does everything wrong, and that gets a little tiresome after a while.  I would have liked to hear more about problems he had within his own operation.

I also didn’t mind any of his criticisms of Trump.  Seeing Trump’s words quoted in a book was interesting but also horrifying.  It made me think about the generations of people that will read his statements in the future and wonder what on earth was wrong with us.  We may laugh at his stupid comments like “Puerto Rico is surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” But those stupid comments have real life impacts.

I was quite interested in his observations about the Red Cross, because when there’s a major disaster, that tends to be who I give to, unless I know about a specific organization.  When I don’t know where to give in a crisis, I tend to think the Red Cross has the expertise and the scale to get things done, where you never know with a small nonprofit.  Andres is very critical of the Red Cross, which I found disappointing.  Still, he’s one person with a very specific perspective.

As a chef and an activist, I give Andres very high praise, and I’m glad he’s sharing his (and Puerto Rico’s) story.  I just didn’t love the book.

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