Food does more than feed us – it is essential to human development, brain health, social interactions, and the joy of being alive. A great way to satisfy your soul if you’re housebound, or taking fewer trips to the grocery or market.
We’ve compiled 16 classic and recent books that we’ve recommended over the years on food, chefs and food writers, the basics (milk, meat, sugar, salt, fat), and the abundance of the sea.
Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat, John McQuaid (Scribner)
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid looks at flavor – there are five: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami (savory) – to decipher how it is woven into our genes, our cravings, our personalities and behavior. Believe it or not, the five basic tastes are central to our survival – and it begins in utero. Some people are predisposed to taste foods differently. McQuaid’s web site on Tasty
He points out you may be a “supertaster” if you dislike strong flavors—nearly 1 in 4 people fall in that category. Flavor was even a helpful evolutionary trait – a way for early hunter-gatherers to avoid poisonous berries or other dangerous plants or food that was decomposing. Losing your sense of taste? It’s normal as you age that your sense of taste is reduced. Read an Excerpt
Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat, Marta Zaraska. (Basic Books). Today’s world appetite for animal protein is astounding – and it only keeps growing. Did you know that Brazil is the largest exporter of beef? And India is #2 ?(Water buffalo is called “beef” in the Indian subcontinent.) The author’s website
Zaraska notes: “The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that by 2020 the demand for meat in North America will increase by 8%(as compared to 2011), in Europe by 7% and in Asia by a whopping 56%. In China, meat consumption has quadrupled since 1980.” The author’s website
Meat is about a lot more than who’s eating what. There are natural resource issues–the amount of water to produce a pound of hamburger, climate change implications (greenhouse gases, especially methane from animal waste), the use of land to produce feed for animals rather than humans (corn and soy), and our inability to successfully use animal waste as a major power source. You’ll learn how meat-eating propelled the human species to grow a larger brain, develop tools, and achieve social development. This is NOT a diatribe – you’ll learn a lot. Kirkus review Listen to a radio interview
Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us, Lee Goldman(Little, Brown)
Our bodies are out of sync with 21st century life, says cardiologist Lee Goldman who reviews how humans continue to hang onto survival traits that worked well in the Paleolithic era, but today threaten us with obesity, heart attack, stroke, depression and suicide. Here are the four “deadly sins” that early humans used to advantage and which are now killing us: Craving for high-calorie foods and the ability to store excess calories as fat; the craving for salt; fear and self-protection for escaping prehistoric dangers; the ability to form blood clots (a good thing if you’re wounded, but not if you are sitting on your tush all day). Each of these helped provide an evolutionary advantage for humans in its time, but not now! Read the book review Read the Opinion piece in the Washington Post
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss. (Random House) 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. New York Times review Youtube interview
Ten Restaurants That Changed America is a social history that actually reflects the history of the U.S. Think of how Schrafft’s restaurants made it possible for New York women to buy moderate-priced lunch away from home in a congenial setting and Howard Johnson’s restaurants (with motor lodges) helped shape long-distance travel and tourism on our highways in the 1960’s. Abraham Lincoln loved Delmonico’s potatoes ! Here are the historian Paul Freedman’s choices for Ten Restaurants That Changed America. Read more about his choices
Fish: Staff of Life
Fishing could be a perfect bookend to MILK (see below) in how it sustained civilizations, armies, traders, travelers. Archeologist and best-selling author Brian Fagan reviews how fish over millennia sustained cities, nations and empires . Fishing: Humanity’s last major source of food from the wild, and how it enabled and shaped the growth of civilization is a “…[h]istory of the long interaction of humans and seafood…[and covers] archaeological sites worldwide to show readers how fishing fed human settlement, rising social complexity, the development of cities, and ultimately the modern world.” (Yale University Press) Read more
Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg (Penguin Press). Did you miss this acclaimed book in 2011? Greenberg looks at how cod, salmon, tuna and sea bass are being driven to extinction by commercial overfishing and consumer demand. First, read his beautiful essay— a paean to bluefin tuna — in the New York Times Magazine and listen to his radio interview with Terry Gross.
Book review in Audubon
Greenberg’s newer book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood (Penguin) uses three species to demonstrate “our nation’s broken relationship with its own ocean”– the Louisiana brown shrimp, the Eastern oyster and sockeye salmon. For those of us in the Chesapeake Bay estuary (that’s 6 states and 64,000 square miles), we’re already keenly aware of the severe damage to the oyster population – those supreme filter feeders that once, in huge numbers, were able to filter and clean the entire Chesapeake Bay in just 24 hours.
Greenberg looks at the damage done to the New York marshes where oysters once thrived and efforts to bring back those areas. He urges: “[B]uild a bridge back from the plate back to the estuary. This requires us to not just to eat local seafood. It requires the establishment of a working relationship with salt marshes, oyster beds, the natural flow of water from river to sea, and the integrity of the ocean floor.”
Americans now guzzle shrimp as though it is a birthright: most of it comes from cheap Thai fish farms (another book, not Greenberg’s, looks at the linkage between shrimp production and slavery in Thailand!) So, with 94,000 miles of coast in the U.S.and 3.5 million miles of rivers, why are we importing nearly all (91%) of our seafood? You cannot avoid this book – it’s a must read. Review in the Boston Globe National Public Radio interview
For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking (Barton Seaver) Chef-of-the year (Esquire 2009), former National Geographic fellow-in-residence and conservationist, Seaver has committed this book and his culinary oeuvre to making sustainable choices about what’s for dinner from the ocean domains. For Cod and Country (Sterling 2011) features recipes we can all use. Review in The Atlantic
Extended radio interview with Seaver (WAMU-FM)
MILK: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas: Author of the single-subject, single-word books, Salt, Cod, and Paper, Mark Kurlansky is back with Milk. It’s a bodily fluid that ranges from human to bovine, but don’t leave out yak, goat, camel, pig and horse. As usual, Kurlansky has all the bases covered. On the issue of “breast versus bottle,” you’ll find out that it makes a difference in your intelligence if you were nourished by your mother’s milk, and why some indigenous women have nursed piglets and puppies. Kurlansky’s command of arcana is astounding. Here are just two examples. “French orphanages once distributed goats and donkeys for direct [breast]feeding. Kurlansky mentions an 1816 German book called The Goat as the Best and Most Agreeable Wet-Nurse.‘”This is a page turner. (Bloomsbury) Read the review
Next up for Kurlansky: Salmon comes out this year!
At Chez Panisse, chef-owner Alice Waters inspired a new generation to respect organically grown food and buy directly from the growers (today that’s hardly a novelty). COMING TO MY SENSES
The Making of a Counterculture Cook, written with Cristina Mueller and Bob Carrau (Clarkson Potter Publishers) is a prequel: It ends on the night in 1971 when Chez Panisse opened.
Adam Gopnik, who was Paris bureau writer of The New Yorker for five years (1995-2000), assembled this series of essays as Paris to the Moon. It’s clear that as an expat Gopnik feels shut out; it doesn’t stop him from climbing the wall every way that he can. He becomes an “insider” at his favorite brasserie, which is about to be sold to a large restaurant group and helps stage a resistance operation that allows the beloved waiters to keep their jobs. Don’t expect grand gestures — rather small moments to treasure in these books. New York times review
The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book originally published in 1954 (Anchor paperback from 1960) weaves together recollections of her Paris years (beginning when she arrived in 1907) and role as life companion, amanuensis and cook for Gertrude Stein and the roiling salon of greats and near greats in art and literature that gathered around Stein.
Throw in tales about French servants, dishes for artists, household cuisine during the German Occupation (WWII) and actual recipes –– the most talked about was a detailed recipe for hash fudge (or brownies). My own copy of the 1960 paperback edition includes the recipe. In your hands, you have what Toklas wanted to create: a book of her own. When the book came out in 1954, New Yorker writer Janet Flanner called it “ a book of character, fine food, and tasty human observation.” Toklas herself talks about the recipe and the US publishers’ refusal to put the recipe in the book. Read about the book and listen to her 5-minute interview; it’s a riot).
Julia Child’s My Life in France (Anchor Books) is a dual love story – first with her husband Paul, who swept her off to Paris and taught her all about la vie française when they lived in Paris and Marseilles for six years (1948-1954); and second, her love affair with the foodways and cuisine of France.
Julia was in her early 90’s when this book was being organized with her great-nephew, and is reconstructed from her memories, letters between Paul and his twin brother, and Julia’s correspondence with her sister and close friends. Join Julia at 81 Rue de L’Université (she and Paul called it “rue de loo”) as she dives into markets, cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu, their annual Valentines Day ritual, the countless hours of testing and retesting the recipes that became the backbone of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. New York Times Review
Cracking the code” is how Patricia Wells’s husband describes the “bible” she has written in the Food Lover’s Guide to Paris: The Best Restaurants, Bistros, Cafés, Markets, Bakeries, and More (Workman) — a handbook now in its fifth edition– for the occasional visitor, the new expat and those who call Paris home.
“Paris is still born anew with each season…with the sighting of the first asparagus, sweet cherry, fragrant morel, briny oyster, gold Vacherin cheese or earthy wild duck….” Here is the place to learn the ways of Paris food and how to find the best bakeries, bistros, brasseries, open air markets, cheese shops, cafes, and chocolatiers. My 1999 edition was an indispensable source for several trips to Paris. Patricia Wells web site
Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in food and love from a year in Paris (Penguin Group, 2013) is no knockoff from Julia Child or Patricia Wells. Daughter of Chinese-American parents, Paris was her dream city come true when her diplomat husband was posted there; then he was promptly reassigned to a year in Iraq (she had to stay behind).
Mah’s loneliness as an outsider with only fledgling French to guide her, was eventually overcome by her insatiable curiosity about French regional cuisine. You will learn the history and process for making 10 of France’s most important regional dishes: andouillette sausage (made from tripe), the Alsatian staple choucroute garnie, the pistou of Provence, mussels and more. The bonus: recipes for each of the food specialties. It’s a delightful romp through regional cuisine. Review in the Wall Street Journal Read an excerpt
Ann Mah’s website shares info on 3 french-themed books on cuisine and wine she has published
Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City, Katie Parla and Kristina Gill (Clarkson Potter) $30
Two American women adopted Italy as their home – and offer up cucina romana across many venues that offer classics, sensational fare, and new traditions: bars and trattorias to food stalls on the street, What better way to discover Rome’s unique character, culture and history than through food and drink – a 2,000 year journey.
In Tasting Rome, journalist Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill, you find cookbook, travel memoir, history, geography, and regional identity – from Caesar to carbonara! New York Times book review