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Food Fight 

Gina Mallet certainly knows how to rile readers in her memoir treatise Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World (Norton, $25.95). She takes a few of the most significant foods in the Western Hemisphere and gives you a sobering account of how they've changed for the worse in the age of industrialization and paranoia.

But Mallet is crafty. First, she weaves an evocative scene: a compelling history of the food, or perhaps a memory from her British childhood or extensive travels. She recalls buying cheese at the food hall at Harrod's in London, for example, noting the selection of Bries that were "big discs, three inches thick, with crusts crisscrossed with caramel thatching. The Brie was made from raw milk and therefore alive; once cut, it died and stopped ripening."

After conjuring so many delectable images that I'm ready to scour Atlanta for a ripe wedge of Brie de Meaux, the champion of Bries, Mallet drops the bomb. Real Brie de Meaux is all but extinct. Then she launches into clear-eyed reporting on the war against raw milk cheeses like Brie de Meaux - led, not surprisingly, by Big Brother strong-arming from the American government.

In story after story, Mallet illustrates how the essential pleasures of natural foods - farmhouse eggs, dry-aged beef, heirloom tomatoes - have been mass-produced into sterile, bland shadows of their once innate goodness. Seafood? Disappearing from the world's polluted, over-fished oceans rapidly. Apples? Bred into insipidness at the hands of monopolizing supermarkets who want only varieties that look comely, regardless of taste.

Mallet's book won a James Beard award this year, and I was surprised before I read it why it had received so little attention in the press. Now I get it. Last Chance is far from a feel-good read. But for those of us who care about honoring and preserving the quality of food in the face of modern growing and processing practices, Mallet's work is required reading. And a call to action.

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