Our bookshelves are overflowing with a bounty of food and farming books—here are some of our favorites.
Our bookshelves are overflowing with a bounty of food and farming books—here are some of our favorites.
June 18, 2019
Nothing improves a lazy summer day—or, really, any day—like lounging around with a good book. Whether you’re reading on the beach, in the woods, or on your couch, Civil Eats has you covered. Below, our editors and reporters briefly review some of the best food and farming books we’ve read this year, and we share a number of books on our own summer reading lists.
This list is far from complete, so if you’ve got a favorite new book you think we’d like, let us know in the comments below, or by email. Happy reading!
Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C.
By Ashanté M. Reese
Ashanté M. Reese, an assistant professor in the department of geography and environmental sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (and a participant in our recent roundtable discussion on food access), has spent years in ethnographic exploration to expose the historical and socio-economic forces that have given rise to low food access communities. In her work, and in this new book, she investigates how race, class, and the decline of food access in the majority-Black Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. is mirrored nationwide in communities of color. Reese documents systemic and pervasive racism and segregation while analyzing gentrification and corporate supermarket failures. Through extensive ethnographic interviews, Reese talks with Black residents about the way they have navigated and gained agency through resistance to unequal food landscapes. Black Food Geographies is a study in the power of self-reliance and alternative models of community-building.
— Naomi Starkman
Reported and written amidst the worst drought in California’s recorded history—and published after that drought broke amidst a rain- and snow-intensive winter—Mark Arax’s monumental new book on California’s water system underscores the madness that makes the Golden State an agricultural powerhouse. The water making Kern County’s ever-expanding nut and fruit orchards possible, he writes, “arrives by way of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, the one-of-a-kind hydraulic system built by the feds and the state to remedy God’s uneven design of California.”
Arax, who grew up in California’s ag-intensive Central Valley, is brutal and unsparing in his depictions of the confluence of power and greed in shaping the state’s water policies. He writes about rich farmers who dried out the historic Black community of Fairmead by sucking out the groundwater to grow their nuts. He writes about the engineers who “stole” the San Joaquin River. And he writes about the soliders, miners, and missionaries who killed and erased the state’s indigenous peoples. Though The Dreamt Land is not a light read, it is a compelling and powerful history of how power and greed shape the land, and Arax has achieved a masterful distillation of how California got here, warts and all.
— Matthew Wheeland
In the first pages of Food Routes, author Robyn Metcalfe—who describes herself as both a food historian and a food futurist—takes a simple slice of New York pizza and the deconstructs it to show just how complicated it is for each of those pizza ingredients to make it to the pizzeria. She follows flour grown in North Dakota and milled in New York, tomatoes from California, pecorino cheese from Italy, and mozzarella cheese from Wisconsin. This exhaustively researched book takes us through the myriad ways that our food is harvested, transported, eaten, and sometimes, unfortunately, wasted.
Food Routes isn’t just about what’s around us now, but what might be to come. Metcalfe posits how our eating habits and accompanying transportation systems could change as our lives become more urbanized and automated. Her imagined food future is simultaneously exciting and bleak; it’s full of hyper-personalized diets based on our DNA, pizza restaurants that know what we want before we do, and produce grown in rooftop gardens down the block—all available to those who can afford it. For every answer this book offers, two more questions emerge, foremost among them, “What even is ‘real’ food anyway?” and “What does ‘local’ mean?” After reading this book, it will be impossible to look at a slice of pizza, or a banana, the same way again.
— Stephanie Parker
Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Grains, Rural Jobs and Healthy Foods
By Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle
Fourth-generation farmer, entrepreneur, and organics advocate Bob Quinn introduced the world to kamut, an organic, nutrient-dense ancient grain twice the size of modern wheat, with three times the protein, and a wealth of antioxidants. Grain by Grain, co-authored by Quinn and Liz Carlisle of The Lentil Underground, aims to introduce wellness to our food system in the same way—by offering something different.
In the past 30 years, the authors have seen how American food policy, with its push for cheap food, has degraded our crops, our resources, our communities, and our health. Yet Grain by Grain is no doomsday screed. With a doctorate degree in plant science, Quinn combines a deep knowledge of how agricultural and political systems impact our food and our health with a folksy manner and relentlessly upbeat, can-do attitude. He argues that growing organic, nutrient-dense food offers the real value. “Value is not about getting things cheaply. It’s not really even about our stuff,” he writes. “It’s about ourselves, the value of human life and the value of community.”
— Ellen Kanner
Indian(-ish): Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family
By Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna
As Priya Krishna explains in the introduction to her new cookbook, the term Indian-ish describes her mother’s cooking: “60 percent traditional Indian, 40 percent Indian-plus-something-else.” This colorful, exuberant, and informative book is also about identity. Krishna, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1980, grew up in Dallas, “thinking and acting like an American, but looking like an Indian. Part of two worlds, but never fully part of one.” The book is packed with easy-to-follow, mostly vegetarian recipes that Krishna credits to her glamorous mother, Ritu, “a creative force in the kitchen,” who whipped up hybrid dishes such as pizza roti and tomato-cheese masala toast after working all day as a software programmer (and looking like a style icon while doing so, apparently). The recipes follow a simple formula, presented in the form of a brilliant diagram Ritu created. They are highly accessible and, once you’ve procured a few specialty ingredients, entirely doable. There’s a spice guide, a lentil guide, and a beginner’s guide to making dal. “Now repeat after me,” Krishna writes, “INDIAN FOOD IS EVERYDAY FOOD.” With Indian-ish, that just might be the case.
— Liza Schoenfein
Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont
By Teresa M. Mares
Throughout several years of interviews with workers on Vermont dairy farms, “encerrado” was the word that anthropologist Teresa M. Mares heard most often. “This term translates into a number of English descriptors: confined … trapped … bounded … enclosed,” she writes in Life on the Other Border. Mares’ in-depth, academic account explores how borders become “both a place and a process” for the workers. The majority are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who leave the dangerous U.S.-Mexico border behind only to find that proximity to the U.S.-Canada border puts them in an area of increased immigration enforcement. This leads to isolation on farms and makes workers invisible in their workplaces and hypervisible in public (in a state that is close to 95 percent white). Mares presents their individual experiences, details how their daily lives have been impacted by President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and investigates the challenges they face in accessing food for themselves and their families. She also covers the ways in which they are defying the borders that constrain their lives, by building food sovereignty through gardens and organizing projects like Milk With Dignity within the worker-led Migrant Justice movement.
— Lisa Held
Mostly Plants: 101 Delicious Flexitarian Recipes from the Pollan Family
By Tracy, Dana, Lori, & Corky Pollan
Unlike his contemporary, Mark Bittman—a producer of countless recipes—Michael Pollan’s books have primarily focused on his better-food philosophy, starting with his oft-quoted directive to, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Now, his mother and three sisters—Corky, Tracy, Dana, and Lori Pollan—have stepped in with a practical guide to help eaters heed that directive. Mostly Plants is a cookbook filled with simple, plant-forward recipes that range from vegan lentil and roasted tomato pasta to dry-fried beef with vegetables. Where the Pollans’ cooking really shines is in taking typically meaty recipes and shifting them to dishes that up the vegetable-to-meat ratio. Think chicken burgers made with grated zucchini, vegetable-loaded turkey chili, and bulgogi beef salad. “We believe that the key to eating well, both for our own health and that of the environment,” they write in the introduction, “is not to overturn the dinner table, but simply to change its balance.”
— Lisa Held
Raw Material: Working Wool in the West
By Stephany Wilkes
Picking up knitting 20 years after she put aside her needles to pursue a career in tech, Stephany Wilkes went to her local yarn shop looking for local wool. That mundane—and largely unsuccessful—search led her to quit her job and train to shear sheep after learning that the once-thriving wool industry in the United States had been decimated by the flood of cheap clothing made with synthetic fibers produced overseas by industrial manufacturers. With a tell-it-like-it-is style, Wilkes looks behind the labels on our clothes to lay bare the toxic textile supply chain. She also brings to life the cast of interesting characters and ornery sheep she encounters on her journey to understand the ranchers and the land they steward, and discover the terroir of wool.
— Kathleen Bauer
Suffering from farmers’ market frenzy or CSA anxiety? Abra Berens can help. Her cookbook Ruffage gives seasonal produce the myriad possibilities it deserves. A farmer-turned-chef at Michigan’s organic Granor Farm, Berens understands vegetables from the ground up. “Farming changed the way that I cook. [B]eyond cultivating a love and desire for vegetables, I learned of the plant’s needs,” she writes. She applies that same approach to cooking, a skill she developed at Ireland’s esteemed Ballymaloe Cooking School.
The first part of Ruffage focuses on the pantry and larder items that Berens believes you need to succeed. Beans and whole grains add satiety and oomph. Miso, yogurt, chili oil, and other components build flavor and richness. The balance of the book is arranged by vegetable, with a chapter for each, ranging from cabbage to corn to kohlrabi. Applying different culinary techniques—braising, roasting, pureeing—and layering on different ingredients means a season’s worth of cucumber is far from a season of sameness. Her seared cucumber recipe is a revelation, for instance. So is the Middle Eastern flavors she adds using with cumin, yogurt, and parsley. Berens’ practical kitchen wisdom is matched by EE Berger’s clean, vibrant vegetable photography. Don’t have Berens’ farmer sensibility? Haven’t had the benefit of attending a premier culinary academy? Ruffage offers the next best thing.
— Ellen Kanner
Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply
By Mark Schapiro
Investigative journalist, author, and U.C. Berkeley lecturer Mark Schapiro dives deep into the increasingly consolidated world of seeds and the practical solutions to maintaining food sovereignty and biodiversity, asking the essential question of who owns our seed supply. “Like all environmental stories, start with a seed and you quickly end up in the realms of money and power—who has it, and who’s struggling to gain or regain it,” he writes. Schapiro draws attention to both dwindling supplies—three-quarters of global seed varieties are now extinct and more than half of all commercially traded seeds are controlled by just three agrichemical companies (DowDuPont, Bayer-Monsanto, and Syngenta-ChemChina)—and the deleterious impact of climate change on the future of our food supply. And yet Schapiro finds hope in the “resistance,” highlighting initiatives worldwide from Syria to Native American seed savers and others, demonstrating how farmers, researchers, and activists are determined to retain control of the earth’s genetic resources and the very essence of our means of existence.
— Naomi Starkman
The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World
By Amanda Little
Journalist Amanda Little takes a close look at the state of the world’s food system at the brink of an era driven by climate change and examines a range of (mostly market-based) solutions. Little describes the journey as a search for a middle ground between what she calls the reinvention camp and the deinvention camp, or “those who see technology as corrosive” and “those who see it as a panacea.” In her reporting, she traverses the world, visiting several companies working to bring cellular meat to market, indoor farming operations, a salmon farm in Norway, GMO advocates in Kenya, the founder of a moringa business, and others; throughout, she strikes a curious, optimistic tone. And although she touts the benefits of many companies looking to reduce human labor, she ends the book by concluding that many more people will likely need to get involved with food production in some way. She writes, “whether you’re a large or micro-scale farmer, a gardener, a policy advocate, a permaculture evangelist, a chef, a botanist, an engineer, or a conscientious consumer, many more of us will find a way to participate in a movement to protect and adapt our food supply to the pressures of climate change and growing urban populations.”
— Twilight Greenaway
With her latest book, prolific food writer Bee Wilson takes on the not-so-simple task of looking at how humans across the world eat today, why we eat the way we do, and how it affects our health. This well-organized, thoroughly researched book leaves no story untold about the way our global diets have shifted in two generations from a traditional, limited range of foods to a globalized menu available year-round. Wilson explores how growing global affluence has led to an unending array of options as well as an unhealthy lack of access, causing many people to be simultaneously overfed and undernourished. She implicates companies, trendsetters, governments, and capitalism in humanity’s failure to provide healthy, affordable food to our growing population.
Wilson turns on its head Michael Pollan’s famous assertion that we should only eat what our great-grandmother might recognize as food because it’s very possible they may have grown up under tremendous food insecurity and hardship. In addition, while great-grandma wouldn’t recognize our processed food of today, she also probably wouldn’t recognize healthy ingredients that are decidedly food, like kale and mangoes.
Whether you agree with her completely, somewhat, or not at all, everything Wilson writes is backed by a plethora of graphs, information, and anecdotes and throughout its nearly 400 pages, The Way We Eat Now is well-written and never boring. At the end, readers may be better able to answer the question, can we still eat well in this rapidly changing foodscape, and if so, what will that look like?
— Stephanie Parker
We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream
By Caleb Zigas and Leticia Landa
The small business incubator La Cocina was founded in San Francisco in 2005 to support low-income women of color, including many immigrants and refugees, in getting their food-related business ideas off the ground. The We Are La Cocina cookbook contains around 75 home-cooking recipes from around 40 La Cocina alums who have come to the U.S. from all over the world and now own their own restaurants or food businesses. In addition to the steps required to make each dish, this colorful, photo-packed cookbook tells the stories behind the food—of La Cocina as an organization and of each of the women who share their recipes. On its pages, we get to know Bini Pradhan of Nepal and her recipe for momos, Nafy Flatley of Senegal and her recipe for peanut stew, and Veronica Salazar of Mexico and her recipe for the hen soup she grew up eating. We Are La Cocina is a warm, inviting cookbook full of heart and soul. Like the organization it grew from, it affirms the importance of equal opportunity, diversity, inclusiveness—and the power of food to bring us all together.
— Christina Cooke
Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen
By Yasmin Khan
Calling Yasmin Khan’s new book a cookbook doesn’t do it justice. It includes more than 80 recipes, ranging from familiar—hummus, tabbouleh and falafel—to less well-known, traditional Palestinian dishes, such as musakhan, a flavorful chicken oven roasted with red onions and lots of spices including sumac, allspice, cinnamon and cumin. And the recipes are accessible: You could flip open the book and make almost any of them with a quick trip to your local grocery store. But Zaitoun is also the type of cookbook you want to sit down and read, letting the words and the photography wash over you. Throughout the book, Khan takes readers into Palestininan homes and kitchens, sharing stories of food, history, and everyday life that are often overshadowed by the politics of the region. “It hasn’t existed since the British Mandate of Palestine ended in 1948,” Khan writes of Palestine in the book. “But the national and cultural identity of the people has never waned, and neither have the delights of the cuisine.
— Bridget Shirvell
Other New and Noteworthy Books to Consider
Feeding the Other: Whiteness, Privilege, and Neoliberal Stigma in Food Pantries
By Rebecca de Souza
My Food Stamps Cookbook
By Rachel Bolden-Kramer
Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Struggle for Food Safety
By Timothy D. Lytton
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