In our selection of holiday books, you won’t find a lot of recipes, but you will find out what we crave (salt, sugar, fat), love, obsess, how we taste, why it’s difficult to control our food supply to ensure we are eating what’s healthy and stay away from what’s not. In Spring 2014, we will add a whole selection of books about the history of food and culinary traditions.
The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, Adam Gopnik (Random House). If you followed Gopnik’s wanderings through food halls (ah, the rue Cler), parks and eccentric places in Paris to the Moon, then this book is probably for you. The Atlantic’s reviewer says, “It’s history, nutrition, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology all rolled up into one delectable streusel of insight and illumination, in Gopnik’s unapologetically intelligent yet charmingly witty style.” Review
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan (The Penguin Press) 468 pages. Fire, water, air, earth – all essential elements for life, and, according to the prolific author Michael Pollan (this is his seventh book), to the creation and enjoyment of food. Like the Botany of Desire, Pollan has an organizing principle of four key components: in this case, he learns to grill, stew, bake and ferment from culinary masters. But the learning process never strays far from his essential mantra: Take back the kitchen, know your ingredients and be willing to cook, argues Pollan, to make our food system healthier and more sustainable. The reviewer notes, “… cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.” Review
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss. ( Random House) 446 pp. Wonder why you can’t stop with one Oreo, Dorito or Cheeto? Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss had unprecedented access to major food manufacturers and got them to reveal how they formulate what we crave and enjoy – salt, sugar and fat – in processed foods and how those foods addict us. In a related book by Melanie Warner —Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took over the American Lunchbox (Simon & Schuster) 288 pp – the researcher-author brings home packaged and frozen food to test whether foods beyond expiration dates taste worse, get buggy or have other deleterious effects. Not really, she says. (Are they all made like Twinkies?) Warner estimates there’s 5,000 different additives that are allowed to go into our food. You decide whether one or both of these books are essential reading. Both share important messages about getting back to basics.
Moss and Warner are both featured in an hour-long radiocast. (Diane Rehm Show). This link also includes an excerpt from Warner’s book and access to Moss’s feature article in the NYTimes Magazine. Interview q and a with Moss
Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America (New Press, Perseus Distributor) 342 pp. Wenonah Hauter has an organic farm and serves as the executive director of Food & Water Watch. Personally, I have deep respect from my youthful experiences in southeastern Pennsylvania for local producers and farmers’ markets that helped feed me as I was growing up. Forget all that, says Hauter. The independent farmers and food processors have been subsumed by giants like Cargill, Tyson, Kraft and ConAgra. Here is her own take on the meat, vegetables, grains and milk that make up the typical US diet. As the HuffPo reviewer notes, “…four companies control 80 percent of the cattle market, four companies own 66 percent of the pork market, four companies own 58 percent of the poultry market and so on – with JBS and Tyson in this top four in all three markets….” Hauter reminds us of what cannot be said often enough: Big companies control the food industry. Huffington Post Review
The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table (Scribner) 319 pp. Tracie McMillan went undercover to look at the food industry and the few options many poor Americans face. She went to work picking produce, stocking shelves at Wal-Mart with old and sometimes slimy vegetables, and serving up food at Applebee’s that’s mostly premade and reheated in the microwave. You will appreciate her point of view: food workers deserve better wages, hours, health insurance; and consumers need “kitchen literacy” to plan and prepare simple, healthy meals. “Changing what’s on our plates,” says she, “simply isn’t feasible without changing far more….” Review
Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat (University of Chicago) 218 pp. Harvey Levenstein looks at what Americans are scared of, in the kitchen and on the table. He finds fear of fat (lipophobia), germs, chemical additives, flies, even dogs (they’re dirty) as the enemy in a century of public policy (remember when margarine was healthier than butter?) and almost comical concerns that Americans have raised and waged war over (people turned in their “dirty” pets to have them put down!). OK, trends, fads, follies and misadventures have not ultimately triumphed, but there’s always a new fear just around the corner. Review
Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, Gordon Shepherd (Columbia University Press). Humans enjoy five tastes, all sensed through the tongue: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. The most important component of flavor isn’t taste or mouth feel, it’s odor. Work your way through how the tongue, the nose, the brain and other senses all play a role. You’ll also find out why fast-food meals maximize sensory stimulation, and why we have food preferences, cravings and addictions (chocolate, ice cream) Review
Craving Earth: Understanding Pica, the urge to eat clay, starch, ice and chalk, Sera L. Young (Columbia University Press) 240 pp. Here is something that humans share with animals – witness the dog that loves to eat dirt. Is it a mineral deficiency? An obsession? It turns out that Amazonian parrots have “clay licks” to avoid absorbing the toxic quinidine sulfate, which is common in many plants. Baboons eat dirt. As a human practice, it has been known for over 2000 years. Pregnant women sometimes develop a craving for chalk or clay. And kaolin-rich clay, eaten by native peoples, is actually the source for treating diarrhea. Review
GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach (Norton) 348 pp. Roach approaches eating, digestion, and elimination in the same robust way she produced other well-appreciated books such as Packing for Mars. If you decide to follow this romp, you’ll discover the symbiosis between smell and taste (see Neurogastronomy above), how a man with a permanent hole in his stomach was studied for years, how Elvis really died (megacolon) and a lot of other arcana. Review and Roach’s web site
Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, Mark Prendergast (Perseus) 554 pp paperback. Prendergast’s purpose in creating a comprehensive history of coffee was to look at the developing world who supplied the “haves.” While coffee has spread to worldwide usage, it originated in Ethiopia. The Dutch took a tree to the East Indies and enslaved a population to grow the product. The French took a tree to Martinique – one tree resulted in most of what was grown in the Western Hemisphere. And Prendergast reminds us, while the French were plotting the revolution in coffee houses, slaves in what is now Haiti were growing and supplying their coffee beans. Interview on Morning Edition and Prendergast’s web site
Vegetable Literacy, Deborah Madison (Ten Speed Press,) 416 pp. Some might call this a cookbook, but in fact Deborah Madison breaks new ground in the world of gardening and cooking, with an in-depth look at the relationships between everyday vegetables and their similarities. You will find shared characteristics– think of carrots, Queen Ann’s lace, parsley, fennel and cilantro — that are in the same botanical family. She also addresses “difficult” vegetables in the cabbage family — such as the rutabaga which many people would turn down cold. Madison provides 300 recipes that show ways of making vegetables work together so it’s no more motherly mantra “eat your peas and carrots”. Now we know better why they don’t work together. Review and story in the Christian Science Monitor
The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart (Algonquin). Grapes, rye, sorghum, potatoes, coriander, cinchona, juniper, bitter orange. What would your spirits cabinet look like without all of largesse from the earth? Very meager indeed! Grains, herbs and fruits are central to the intoxicating stuff humans have imbibed for thousands of years. Here is a book that offers the backstory on the botanical storehouse used to make and flavor our favorite drinks. Stewart is a prolific writer. Her book The Earth Moved, also Algonquin, is a paean to the achievements of earthworms. Her web site
The Dirty Life: Farming, Food and Love, Kristin Kimball. (Simon & Schuster) 276 pp. Here’s the riff: East Village sophisticate-freelance writer (and vegetarian) Kristin Kimball goes to the Adirondacks in 2003 to write a piece about the on-farm life of a biodynamic young farmer with 500 acres and a sustainable approach. On the first day he pretty much insists she has to help him slaughter a pig –would that make you flee? She ruins her fancy blouse and goes home– comes back again (and then permanently) to live on Essex Farm, chronicles her first year of unmechanized farm life (horsepower only), the 100+ families who depend on the farm’s output (it’s a CSA operation), and sheds her city ways. Listen to the NPR story and read an excerpt. Review
Compare this book with Novella Carpenter’s successful memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Penguin Press) which begins, ““I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto [of Oakland CA].” Book review and excerpt