Every year, in the world of food, there are great cookbooks—slim volumes or glossy tomes that, at their best, not only teach us new dishes but escort us into new worlds.
But this year, unusually, was also a wonderful year for books about aspects of food policy and culture. Below, I’ve picked five that especially resonated with me, books that critically or delightfully examined things that I either wanted to know more about, or knew nothing about and needed to be educated on.
If you’re still gift-shopping—and who isn’t?—you should consider them. For yourself, even. Don’t you deserve a gift? You do.
(Disclosure note: The world of food-policy writers is a pretty small one, so I am connected in some manner to each of the authors below, by work assignments or friendly chat or because we spoke at the same event. I don’t think that affected my judgment, but fair warning.)
I lived for five years in Minnesota and, like everyone else in the state, trekked every year to the sprawling State Fair—where I’d always see, and always be curious about, the solemn, competent kids from the local 4-H clubs, often handling animals much bigger than they were. Butler, a senior editor at Mother Jones, encounters 4-H during her own attempts at backyard bird-raising, and goes in search of 4-H kids in California, looking for a imagined “real 4-H’er” in overalls and cowboy boots. She tells a charming, funny narrative in which she’s candid about her own ignorance of farming, and respectful of the teens she ends up meeting, who are raising animals to compete in local county fairs. She scrutinizes 4-H’s corporate relationships—Monsanto and Cargill are among its donors—and questions the pressures that lead the kids to feed their animals legal but questionable supplements. Ultimately, she sees in 4-H a program that could help train the needed next generation of farmers, and help the rest learn more about what it takes to grow our food.
In early 2009, Sam Fromartz embarked on his own odyssey of discovery. He was a longtime home baker who had never been able to master the baguette, the signature bread of France, and also a freelance writer. With the start of the recession, several of his regular clients suddenly had no work for him, leaving him with time on his hands—and then he snagged a seemingly miraculous assignment to go to Paris and learn to make true French bread at the side of an award-winning boulanger. That experience—which led to his home baguette being named the best in Washington, DC, beating out ones make by professionals—launched him on an inquiry into the chemistry of baking, the history of lost grains, the place of bread in culture, and the obsessions of micro-growers and outlaw bakers. In the end, Fromartz—now the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN)—delivers a memoir, recipe book, and ultimately, a meditation on reviving diversity and flavor in a food too many take for granted.
Bread may be the staff of life, but alcohol makes living worthwhile. Rogers, the articles editor at Wired, interrogates booze by examining the ingredients and processes that combine to create it—yeast, sugar, fermentation, distillation and aging—followed by the components of our experience once we drink it: smell, taste, euphoria, intoxication, and aftermath. What results is chemistry, physics, neurobiology and deep history (the origins of alchemy in ancient Egypt, the rise of eaux de vie during the Black Death) combined with geekery over the cellular structure of oak and some alarming self-experimentation to test hangover cures. Even if you don’t drink, Proof is worth reading for lovely and often witty language; the air outside a whisky warehouse smells of “fresh cookies cooling in the kitchen while a fancy cocktail party gets out of hand in the living room,” and de-alcoholized wine tastes like “existential death.”
Much less fun than the previous three books, but essential reading nonetheless. Over the several decades of the food movement, activists have forced public attention to a variety of problems caused by industrial-scale agriculture: monopolistic business practices, violations of animal welfare, destruction of the environment, dangers to public health. What has tended to be ignored in that long investigation is how factory farming affects the unseen workers who toil in it. Genoways, a contributing editor at Mother Jones, remedies that neglect with a thoroughly researched, precisely documented indictment of how swine processing techniques caused a rare neurological illness in workers at a slaughterhouse. Starting from that mystery epidemic, he anatomizes the vast expansion and concentration of U.S. hog production across the 20th century and exposes the collision of anti-immigrant sentiment, corporate profit-taking and federal neglect that threaten the health of workers, local communities and meat-eaters far from any processing plant.
This book by an award-winning chef and board member at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture north of New York City is on a lot of year-end best lists, with good reason. Barber critically examines both 20th century eating patterns and the farm-to-table movement that challenged them, and finds them both wanting—confessing, along the way, to his own responsibility in not adequately valuing the sustainability of what he served. Rejecting both a meat-centric “first plate” and the better-sourced but still resource-intensive “second plate,” Barber champions the emergence of a “third plate”: a style of eating that works with natural patterns and enshrines ethical, authentic raising of proteins and produce. To demonstrate what that means, he visits a forest in northern Spain to examine the interdependence of ancient oaks and the free-range pigs that produce jamon iberico; an innovative aquaculture operation in the Mediterranean; a grain merchant working to restore heritage rice and corn to the South Carolina coast; and a Washington State plant biologist trying to breed more flavorful wheat. “The right kind of cooking,” he writes, “promotes the vibrant communities, above and below ground, that make food delicious in the first place.”