We’ve made a list and checked it twice: Here are more than two dozen books to read, gift, and cook from.
We’ve made a list and checked it twice: Here are more than two dozen books to read, gift, and cook from.
December 5, 2023
A condensed version of this gift guide was first sent to Civil Eats members in The Deep Dish newsletter. Become a member today and you’ll get the next issue in your inbox, as well as a number of other benefits.
At Civil Eats, we immerse ourselves in food and agriculture books throughout the year to deepen our knowledge, stay up to date, and produce robust coverage of the books making an impact in the food and ag space. And every year ahead of the holidays, we ramp up our reading to offer you a holiday book guide that we hope can aid you as you select gifts for your loved ones—and yourself.
In this 2023 Holiday Book Guide, you’ll find reviews of memoirs, personal essays, histories, science writing, journalism, cookbooks, guidebooks, and photo collections—written by our editors, staff writers, and freelance contributors. In addition to our top picks for holiday giving, you’ll find a roundup of our recent book coverage.
We hope it will prove useful for your holiday giving—and offer wisdom and inspiration to you and yours this holiday season.
If you’ve dreamt of volunteering with chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen (WCK) to help cook fresh and nourishing meals for survivors of natural disasters but haven’t been able to make it happen yet, you’re in luck: You can now have something of the experience delivered right to your doorstep. Andrés’ World Central Kitchen Cookbook comes to life with recipes inspired by the places that WCK has served, from Beirut and Ukraine to Nicaragua and Uganda. The books’ recipes—including Haiti’s Sòs Pwa Nwa (a pureed black bean dish) and Puerto Rico’s Marinated Queso Fresco (an homage to the region’s cheesemaking)—are arranged into chapters based on WCK’s values: empathy, urgency, adaptation, hope, community, resilience, and joy. And recipes aren’t all you’ll find here. In addition to stunning images from around the world, the cookbook is speckled with dispatches and ruminations from Andrés on the places he’s been and the magic he has seen alongside the unimaginable hardship that drew his organization there in the first place.
The Best American Food Writing 2023
Edited by Mark Bittman
Here’s a small confession: I don’t read much “food writing.” Yes, I’m immersed in food news, but getting to explore the essays, memoirs, and other genres that fit into the wider field of food writing is a rare treat. That’s why I am so appreciative of the Best American Food Writing series—each year, it provides a reliable, eye-opening showcase of a wide range of truly interesting, insightful writing about how food shapes our lives.
This year’s edition, edited by Mark Bittman, is no different: Entries span from Caroline Hatchett’s comprehensive history of rosin potatoes (AKA pitch potatoes) from Bitter Southerner to Curtis Chin’s short but sweet story from Bon Appétit about the night his two worlds—Detroit’s Chinatown and its surrounding “gayborhood”—collided in his father’s restaurant. The series recognizes that food is interwoven in all aspects of life, just like we do at Civil Eats, so I’m especially honored to have two Civil Eats writers represented in the series. Our Staff Reporter Grey Moran has a delightful article about foraging, published in Grist, included in the book. And our former Senior Reporter Wesley Brown’s powerful article about Black farmers in Arkansas, included at the end of the book, serves as a poignant reminder of all the work that remains in building a more just and equitable food system.
Why SNAP Works: A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program
By Christopher Bosso
Christopher Bosso’s Why SNAP Works is an immersive look at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as the food stamp program which has played a key role in feeding people, beginning in the 1930s by distributing agricultural surpluses and continuing through the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in the 2020s. In conveying the history of nutritional support in America, Bosso always lays the groundwork in support of SNAP, a program heavily maligned by the right that also acts as a subversive form of cash assistance. Bosso argues that there is a moral imperative for SNAP in a nation with a “paradox of want amidst plenty” and highlights the incredibly effective policy presence of the program. SNAP allows low-income people to access nutrition assistance without shame or proselytizing and empowers them to make their own dietary choices. Though SNAP is not without its problems, Bosso ultimately notes, it meets a pressing need while acknowledging political reality.
For those seeking a deeper understanding of SNAP and evidence-supported arguments in defense of same, Why SNAP Works conveys exactly what the title suggests: an articulation of SNAP’s benefits—and how it can improve—in a nation where nearly 13 percent of residents were food insecure in 2022.
Danny Childs studied ethnobotany in college. After doing his fieldwork in Peru, he ventured into the Atacama Desert and then to Chilean Patagonia. In each place, he learned about the herbs and plants that locals use for everything from dysentery (a bitter elixir of herbs mixed with high-proof aguardiente de caña) to fever (tea brewed from the leaves of an Indigenous laurel species). Later, he tended bar at a restaurant in Santiago where he used fresh ingredients to create seasonal craft cocktails. But it wasn’t until he became the beverage director at Farm and Fisherman Tavern in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, that he fully combined his passions for ethnobotany and mixology.
You can feel Childs’ excitement in Childs’ beautiful field guide to botanical cocktails, Slow Drinks. The straightforward recipes mostly rely on plants considered weeds or other foraged ingredients—and they build upon one another. Before you make the dandelion mead, you need to learn how to make the “ginger bug.” To make an amaro (relatively easy!) you need to first learn to make a tincture. Sprinkled throughout the recipes are fascinating historical tidbits about the Quaker who first cultivated rhubarb in the 1730s, for example, and the Indigenous tribes that used spruce tip tea to ward off scurvy. And while the book has plenty of recipes for alcoholic beverages, it also contains recipes for enticing non-alcoholic drinks—from spiced hibiscus syrup (for a hibiscus soda) to elderflower kombucha.
Good Eats: 32 Writers on Eating Ethically
Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite
The coeditors of Good Eats, both English professors and authors, have gathered a selection of creative nonfiction essays that requires “ecological thinking and a close attention to relationships, the environment, and diversity.” The 32 selections showcase the myriad (and often thorny) issues of ethical eating through personal stories, poetry, recipes, and more.
The editors acknowledge that their understanding of ethical eating was shaped, in part, by our work at Civil Eats—and we are happy to see a reprint of the essay “An Afro-Indigenous Approach to Agriculture and Food Security” by Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, which was previously published on Civil Eats, among the selections.
In “Do I Have to Give Up Chocolate?: An Ethical Dilemma,” Lynn Z. Bloom considers whether to boycott the popular confection in an effort to combat child slavery and environmental destruction in cacao production. In “Colonialism Ate My Body: Exploring the Intersections of Genocide and Diet from Manifest Destiny to Trendy Veganism,” scholar Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) traces the changes in Indigenous diets from pre-colonization to the present and analyzes what she calls “morality-based food policing.” Many of the essays provide more questions than answers about what an ethical food system should look like—a dilemma we often face in our reporting as well.
The Avocado Debate
By Honor May Eldridge
Expensive avocado toast has often been used as a reductive symbol of the millennial generation’s penchant for indulgent spending. And yet, as British food policy advocate Honor May Eldridge’s debut book The Avocado Debate points out, the modern avocado trade is full of much deeper problems than the fruit’s use on pricey toast.
“Buy an avocado from Mexico and you might be supporting the activities of a drug cartel,” writes Eldridge. “Choose one from Chile and you might be furthering the extraction of much-needed fresh water.” Even monarch butterflies have lost habitat due to the prevalence of monocrop avocado orchards, along the once lush, biodiverse hillsides of Michoacán in Mexico.
Yet Eldridge is far from calling for an avocado boycott. She acknowledges that many consumers can’t afford more ethically grown avocados—and that most globalized commodities share a similar story of extraction. Rather, it’s a call to consider our food’s origins more deeply, and the many hands it may have passed through before our own. By tracing the rise of the avocado from a subsistence fruit to a global commodity, Eldridge also offers an illuminating history of the globalization of food. My only qualm is that, for such a ripe topic, the book can be dense and dry in sections. But overall, The Avocado Debate is a humbling experience, and a potent reminder of how often food chains obscure our knowledge of food’s true origins.
Set in the Mexican state of Yucatán, the homeland of the Maya people, Rooting in a Useless Land by anthropologist Chelsea Fisher tells a complex story of competing narratives involving history, colonialism, sustainability, and land use. Fisher weaves together a series of interdisciplinary threads: soil science and forest biology, Maya communities’ traditional ecological knowledge, the archaeology of agricultural lands considered by some to be marginal, and how sustainable development nonprofits formed in the wake of NAFTA lured celebrity chefs like Rene Redzepi, Rick Bayless, and others to one specific community in the state of Yucatán. Readers who want a follow-up to the story of the Mexican food system told in Laura Tillman’s The Migrant Chef, which includes the theorizing and ecological intrigue of Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World, will find an engrossing read in Rooting in a Useless Land.
The Winter Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Year-Round Harvests
By Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre
Across most of the northern part of North America, local food production comes to a grinding halt in November, leaving even the most dedicated farmers’ market shoppers seeking out produce from warmer climes. Canadian farmers Jean-Martin “JM” Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre want to see that change. They’ve written a detailed, research-based book designed to inspire small-scale farmers in cold places to keep producing food through the winter. With instructions on how to choose the heartiest cultivars, “harden” them for winter, and outfit a greenhouse to keep vegetables just warm enough without using massive amounts of energy, The Winter Market Gardener makes a strong case for winter growing. It also provides fascinating historical context, including an ode to Maine farmer Eliot Coleman and the estimated 10,000 small farms in the region surrounding Paris, which perfected the art of winter farming in the 19th century. More than a simple guidebook, The Winter Market Gardener is a roadmap for a major shift to the food system, and it’s one that Fortier and Sylvestre argue will provide a year-round alternative to industrial monocrop agriculture and a profitable addition to today’s small farms.
The Meth Lunches: Food and Longing in an American City
By Kim Foster
During the pandemic, Kim Foster set up a food pantry in her front yard. As she and her family handled mountains of food, she observed how she thought and felt about the people who needed what she was offering. The book is set in Las Vegas but brings specificity and life to broad American questions about inequity and economic opportunity. Foster interrupts cozy expectations of food as a gathering tool for families and communities and helps us see its equally powerful but negative impacts.
In the book, we meet people who hoard food and other items as an instinct to protect against lack. Foster also introduces us to people like Johnnie, a supermarket clerk who was starved as a child and chose her workplace as insulation against crushing anxiety. Through a food lens, Foster invites us to see the painful constraints and often invisible side effects of poverty. She carries the reader through her experiences and emerging thoughts, offering research and suggestions on how social problems like substance dependence, the foster care system, legal roadblocks to safe housing, and inadequate access to food and cooking facilities can be better handled.
Our futuristic, tech-fueled food system tends to inspire doom and gloom: The CAFOs, GMOs, monocrops, and herbicides that dominate our diets are all bad news. But writer Taras Grescoe is an optimist—and a historically-minded one. In The Lost Supper, Grescoe goes in search of the world’s lost flavors, ranging from garum—a sauce made of fermented fish guts—to the “Aztec caviar” ahuautle, or water boatmen eggs, to Wensleydale, an all-but-lost English farmhouse cheese. Think of this book as a mashup of Atlas Obscura and Decolonize Your Diet. The chapters are whirlwind trips from the Aztecs to the Phoenicians, from Turkey to North Carolina. But some of its most poignant moments occur in Grescoe’s own Montreal kitchen, where he tests his hand at making his own garum and Neolithic bread dough, with his picky sons as taste-testers—a reminder that the future of the food system will likely be shaped by the time-tested tradition of experimenting in our own kitchens.
When fourth-generation farmer Will Harris took over his family cattle farm in southwest Georgia in the 1970s, he followed in the footsteps of his father and the thinking of the time and grew adept at industrial methods, manipulating fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, antibiotics, and hormones to maximize the efficiency and productivity of his operation.
Then one day in 1995, while packing his cattle into a double-decker semi-truck bound for a slaughterhouse several states away, he recalls that something suddenly felt wrong. A Bold Return to Giving a Damn details Harris’ transition away from industrialized, commoditized, and centralized agriculture to the regenerative model he uses now, which he says prioritizes the health of the herd, the land, and the local economy of Bluffton, Georgia. Now, White Oak Pastures—a significant player in the regenerative agriculture movement—raises cows on organic pasture, allowing them to carry out their instinctual behaviors in a rotational system.
Civil Eats has reported on Harris’ operation several times—mostly recently covering a controversial study on the farm’s ability to sequester carbon—so I was excited to read his memoir. The book exceeded my expectations. It is strong in narrative, rich in description, and has a palpable sense of place. It reads as a love letter to his land, his herd, and his rural community and a manifesto on how and why to farm in a way that protects them all. Harris has a strong vision for how to manage animals more humanely and holistically than the dominant agricultural system, and his story presents living proof that a better way is possible.
Full disclosure: I have a black thumb—my husband is the campesino in the family. But Ben Hartman’s lessons in The Lean Micro Farm are not lost on me, and—encouraging people to go small intentionally and make decisions based on ease and efficiency—they apply to much more than farming. That’s not to say growing food isn’t hard work. Yet Hartman and his family manage to work less and make the same income on one third of an acre—the renowned Clay Bottom Farm—as they did on an acre. Hartman’s guide to how to downsize to fit into an urban or suburban neighborhood is like a study in farming history: pare down to seven tools, leave roots in place to nourish the soil, and “trust the compost.” Hartman maximizes many practices from the past while implementing today’s tech “on a human scale” to reap the greatest reward. The guide is especially helpful in its specifics, literally down to the baseboards used to construct the family’s functional barnhouse and greenhouse, and it details how to get the most out of popular crops in micro spaces. Mixed greens, tomatoes, snap peas, hemp, and more—even for this black thumb, Hartman makes it seem doable.
In the spring of 2017, veterinarian and environmental scientist Elizabeth Hilborn noticed that all the tadpoles had disappeared from a normally teeming swale on her North Carolina farm. That initial discovery kicked off a one-woman investigation into the cause of the disappearance, which she conducted as the contamination’s ripple effects gradually eliminated bees, worms, birds, and bats from her property.
Hilborn traced the mystery to the agricultural chemicals—neonicotinoids, fungicides, and glyphosate—used on an adjoining property. With this revelation, Restoring Eden becomes an examination of how much remains unknown about the impacts of widely-used pesticides—even within the local agencies tasked with environmental protection in farming communities. And Hilborn’s intimate, passionate connection to her land and its ecosystems demonstrates what’s at stake. Without the web of creatures that sustain her farm, Hilborn’s soil degrades; her garden, without pollinators, is stunted.
Hilborn’s story zooms in on the issues I’ve reported on at a macro level by looking at the level of a community, a farm, and a stream—where the frogs no longer serenade her to sleep and the bees no longer pollinate her blueberries. On the impacts of neonics—the chemicals that coat most corn and soy seeds in this country—especially, her experience illuminates so much. While the contamination disasters I’ve covered are extreme, what is more alarming is the fact that in farm communities all over the country, the normal annual planting of neonic-coated seed likely results in many undocumented situations just like hers. It just takes a keen observer to notice and a dogged investigator to make the connections. In the end, Restoring Eden is a story about the precarity of the biodiversity that sustains life on this planet in the face of an agricultural system that runs on chemicals that threaten it.
What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds
By Jennifer Jewell
Jennifer Jewell, host of the Cultivating Place podcast, weaves diaristic memoir with science writing in this meditative reflection on the importance of seeds. Sparked by the author’s experience of seed shortages at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, What We Sow urges readers to engage with the supply chain and support more local, community-based practices, such as seed saving and seed libraries. For Jewell, that call to action emerges naturally from a sense of wonder at the seeds of her Northern California home—the native coffeeberry that only germinates after a fire, or the silky strands of narrowleaf milkweed seeds that allow them to sail on the wind. It’s also tied to the memory of her mother, an avid gardener who sowed a love of plants in her daughters before her untimely death due to breast cancer. “Is it inappropriate, indulgent, myopic to contextualize my understanding of seed writ large with my understanding of self and place?” Jewell asks. Her conclusion is that there’s no alternative: Seeds, she writes, are the “verdant cycling chassis of life on which our places, our pasts, and our ancestors, communities, and individual days are held.”
In the immortal words of Shrek: Onions have layers. So too does The Core of an Onion, Mark Kurlansky’s encyclopedic exploration of the ubiquitous allium and its culinary legacy. The author ranges widely across time and space in search of fascinating onion facts to fill the first half of the book, from ancient Mesopotamia—source of the first written recipes involving the vegetable—to early 20th-century Britain, where French onion salesmen known as Johnnies peddled their bulbs while pedaling bicycles. After touching on the onion’s botany, the chemistry of its tear-inducing powers, and the origins of renowned varieties such as the Vidalia and Walla Walla, Kurlansky drills into the diversity of its uses in the kitchen. Adventurous cooks will find recipes for historical curiosities such as an onion custard from 1860, an onion ceviche that dates to colonial Peru, and the onion soup favored by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.
Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education
By Stephanie Land
In Land’s first book, Maid, she told the story of supporting herself as a housecleaner; the book became a Netflix series and has been described as a “memoir for the poor.” This book picks up where Maid left off and is an intimate portrait of single motherhood and the hunger that Land and her daughter faced as she finished college. Many of the social support systems she tried to access as a student, such as food stamps and student loans, didn’t fit inside the constraints created by the higher education system, or her particular academic schedule.
Though Land was effectively “bootstrapping” as the American ethos prescribes, and seeking entrance to the middle class through higher education, she faced systemic barriers to resources. These proved to be as insurmountable as the social barriers of the university. Syncing her duties to her child and her classes was tough, and the head of the MFA program she desperately wanted to attend didn’t believe that kids and grad school belonged together. Despite being blocked from that program, Land has gone on to write potent books and has built a successful writing career, one that finds her simultaneously advocating for the visibility of people living in poverty, and for change.
Endangered Eating: America’s Vanishing Foods
By Sarah Lohman
In 1996, Slow Food launched the Ark of Taste to catalog roughly 5,000 foods from 150 countries that are in danger of going extinct. Since these plants, animals, traditional foods, and techniques hold cultural significance, Slow Food wanted to ensure their survival by creating awareness and boosting demand for them. Its motto: “Eat it to save it.”
Four years ago, Sarah Lohman embarked on a mission to study Ark of Taste entries from eight U.S. regions, including the Navajo-Churro sheep nearly eradicated by the U.S. government; the unique American dates grown only in California’s Coachella Valley; the heirloom sugar cane still cultivated in Hawaii; and the Carolina African runner peanut, which was thought to be extinct since the 1930s. In Endangered Eating, Lohman goes deep into the backstories of these iconic foods to surface how they came to become part of the cultural fabric of local communities and why they’re so threatened today.
For example, we learn about how sassafras trees, whose leaves are dried and ground into filé powder, are at risk of becoming extinct in Louisiana due to disease. We also learn how the Choctaw people introduced filé powder to African cooks, who added it to a West African stew that became known as gumbo. And we meet Lionel Key, revered for grinding filé powder by hand on his mortar and “pedestal” until his death in 2017. As a fun bonus, Lohman provides recipes throughout the book, including one for gumbo that was inspired by three cookbooks dating back to 1903. This particularly resonated with me and my love of old cookbooks, especially junior league cookbooks, which provide a fascinating snapshot in time of a region’s most beloved recipes.
Beyond the Kitchen Table: Black Women and Global Food Systems
Edited by Priscilla McCutcheon, Latrica E. Best, and Theresa Ann Rajack-Talley
As in so many other parts of contemporary life, the contributions of Black women have been largely unsung in the last decade’s rising scholarship at the intersection of race, equity, and food. Beyond the Kitchen helps right that wrong. The book ultimately works to replace the narrative of Black women as victims of exploitative food systems with a more accurate one anchored in their myriad global impacts as activists, scientists, and overall agents of transformative change.
Edited by scholars of geography, sociology, and Latin American and Latino Studies, the book focuses on women of the African diaspora in particular. By sharing the stories of women who live in regions that historically made up the transatlantic slave trade—including one about three generations of Cuban entrepreneurs and another about the history of mothering across the Black agrarian movement—Beyond the Kitchen makes a compelling case that the path to food justice, food security, health, and poverty reduction must be paved with the generational knowledge and expertise of Black women.
Grocery stories—whether they’re about supermarkets, corner stores, or, in this case, gas stations—are among my favorite food-system topics to cover, so I was immediately drawn to Kate Medley’s new photo book, Thank You Please Come Again. The simple reason I find these compelling is that groceries are so very complex. Take a close look at a single food retailer and you will find a microcosm of interwoven issues, including labor, policy, nutrition, supply chains, climate change, economics, community investment and development, and almost any other topic you find interesting. In Thank You Please Come Again, Medley brings a keen eye and a broad perspective to how gas stations that have restaurants—or, as writer Kiese Laymon writes in his compelling foreword, “restaurants that serve gas”—are central to community, economy, and culture across the South, especially in rural areas, where food and fuel services can be many miles apart.
Across the hundreds of photos that Medley uses to document gas station restaurants, she shows how these businesses, and the people who run and frequent them, reflect the past, present, and future of life in the southern U.S. Medley documents the Fred Eaton Service Station in Prichard, Alabama, for instance, which has been in operation since the early 1960s and is one of fewer than 50 Black-owned gas stations in the entire country. She visits Betty’s Place in Indianola, Mississippi, which opened in 2008 in the same location on the town’s Main Street where a whites-only gas station had once existed. And she spotlights a number of immigrant-run restaurants serving foods from home—including, in Louisiana alone, Peter Nguyen’s Banh Mi Boys in Metairie; Abbas Alsherees’ Shawarma-on-the-Go in Uptown New Orleans; and Gurpreet Singh’s Punjabi Dhaba in Hammond.
It’s not always a pretty picture, but Medley’s photos offer a revealing, beautiful glimpse into one facet of life in the Deep South that even folks who have spent time on the roads through those states may not have witnessed or fully embraced.
Corn Dance: Inspired First American Cuisine
By Loretta Barrett Oden with Beth Dooley
Emmy-winning chef, ethnobotanist, and food sovereignty activist Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi) is regarded as a Native American culinary trailblazer, whose work predates today’s robust Indigenous foodways revitalization efforts. When she and her son opened Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1993, it was the first restaurant in the United States to shine a spotlight on local, Indigenous ingredients. Oden’s debut book is equal parts memoir and cookbook, sharing the stories of her upbringing in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and showcasing Native recipes geared toward home cooks. She explains that as a child she “learned to walk in two worlds,” referring to the contrasting lives she led with her mom’s Potawatomi family—gardening, foraging, and cooking alongside grandmothers, great- grandmothers, and aunties—and her dad’s European family, whose ancestors came to America aboard the Mayflower.
At 48, she realized she wanted to explore the world and better understand her place in it. Thus began a cross-country journey learning from cooks, elders, and knowledge keepers, which ultimately landed her in Santa Fe. During its 10-year run, Corn Dance Café drew national attention for its hybrid cuisine—reflecting her own ancestry—and featured pre-colonial ingredients like bison, elk, rabbit, wild rice, corn, beans, and squash. These simple yet satiating foods factor heavily into her book, which offers easy recipes spanning from the plains to the forests to the oceans. With this tome, Oden encourages everyone to embrace local Indigenous flavors. “I believe we are connected to life when we sit down together over a good meal,” she writes. “If we can come together at the table, we can come together in peace.”
The Farmer’s Wife: My Life in Days
By Helen Rebanks
Promising an honest portrait of life on a sustainable farm, Helen Rebanks might have subtitled her debut book “In defense of a career as a homemaker.” The memoir, which sparkles with details, traces her life growing up on her grandparents’ 120-acre farm in the Lake District of England, working odd jobs in Oxford while her husband James studied history, then remodeling three homes in three years to save enough to return to farming, and raising four children. “Motherhood is a treadmill of demands,” she writes, but “I didn’t have children for someone else to bring them up.” Although she expresses shock when she barely knows what day it is, she finds joy in seeing her child play with the same toys she did.
Some readers might be disappointed that Rebanks’ involvement in farming is limited to maintaining farm records, paying the bills, and occasionally assisting with tasks like tagging sheep. She does yield a few pages to sustainable farming practices, like soil management, though these are more buzzwords than insights. However, other readers will find comfort in Rebanks’ genuine recounting of both the strains and satisfactions of homemaking. Plus, there are recipes for “proper wholesome food.”
Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others
By Amy Thielen
What’s the point of all of this—the struggles for sustainable farming and smart agricultural policy that Civil Eats spends so much time reporting on? The latest cookbook from James Beard Award-winning writer and chef Amy Thielen has helped me formulate an answer: A healthy food system is the rock on which we build community. And Company is an inspired guide to crafting meals that bind friends and families together. Thielen arranges her 125 recipes into menus sized for different occasions and groups, such as a lazy summer lunch for six, a deer camp feast for 10, and an Argentinian-inspired barbecue for 20. Her detailed yet conversational style helps readers troubleshoot the cooking of each dish, as well as plan for advanced prep work and the creative use of leftovers. The book benefits from the gorgeous, intimate kitchen photography of Kristen Teig, but Thielen’s descriptions are sensory delights in themselves. She writes that a strudel dough should be “so thin that a palm reader could read your future through it,” for example, while crushed pork cracklings in a cheese spread “detonate on the tongue like Pop Rocks.” In a world that can feel increasingly divided, Company sings eloquently of the connecting power of food.
The Preserving Garden encourages readers to customize their gardens to produce food that they either want to have around regularly or want to experiment with at their own discretion—and how to preserve the bounty that they’ve dedicated time to, in order to take full advantage of the work they put in. Personally, I’m a beginner when it comes to gardening, so I appreciate how the book categorizes the flavor profile of each variety of fruit, vegetable, and root, as well as how to nurture each plant. Turner then explains how best to preserve each item and suggests how to make use of it later, when it’s ready to eat. With plums, for example, you can freeze them or cook them down with sugar, brown malt vinegar, and seasonings to preserve them as sauce that will last at least four weeks. Capers, on the other hand, can be preserved by dedicating almost 20 days of curing. Luckily, Turner gives readers best practices on how to properly care for their preserves by reviewing at-home food safety measures. Because the book explains not just how to conserve one’s garden produce but also when to plant, harvest, and prune, as well as whether to cross-pollinate, it serves as a how-to guide for gardening novices—and a beneficial resource for anyone looking to understand their garden better, from planting to plating.
Food, Inc. 2: Inside the Quest for a Better Future for Food
Edited by Karl Weber
The movie Food, Inc. is the same age as Civil Eats—both were launched in 2009, and both explore the many problems in the U.S. food system with an eye on how to fix them. When the documentary, and its accompanying book of reporting, hit the media, the interest was palpable—it was unprecedented at that time for world-class journalists, academics, philanthropists, and farmers to share their insights into how to make food work for everyone. I remember at the time a real sense that fixes were possible, and maybe even imminent. Fast-forward 14 years, to the release of Food, Inc. 2 (again, the movie and the accompanying book), and one can’t help but be a little discouraged.
Just as with the cover of the recently released United Nations Emissions Gap Report, I can’t help but feel like we’re stuck in a broken record, with the same problems from 14 years ago only getting worse and the urgency of addressing them accelerating. It doesn’t help that the lead essays, from Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, date back to 2020 with light updates from Schlosser—even the three and a half intervening years have not shown much promise in addressing the crises that emerged during the early days of the pandemic. Still, as a primer on the latest thinking and doing on the most pressing issues facing the food system, Food, Inc. 2 is valuable. Featuring contributions from experts in farming, nutrition, human rights, policy, economics, and our own Lisa Held on the impacts of CAFOs, the new book, like the new film, provides an important update, and some powerful thoughts on how to address, the intractable problems our food system faces.
Yields: A lot of emotional connection
Combine archival research, family stories, interviews, and personal experience, and you’ll get Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts. Writer Crystal Wilkinson adds a pinch of story about Black settlement in Casey County, Kentucky, then stirs in the arrival of her maternal great-great-grandparents to help uncover the Black Appalachians omitted from history. She bakes in stories of her ancestors and their use of their land’s food resources and sprinkles in her own family recipes. Each chapter is filled with different food-related themes and blended with stories from her “kitchen ghosts.” Wilkinson mostly recounts her time with her grandmother, the matriarch and cook in her family, and says her grandmother’s memories live in her own cooking.
Praisesong inspired me to think about my own north central Kentucky family. Although my core childhood days reside across the country from my family of ancestors, I can imagine them sharing recipes and techniques similar to those of the Wilkinson family. When I’m whisked back to my own childhood, I can see our “kitchen ghosts” come through my mom when she prepares our version of the “Wild Greens,” “Garlicky White Soup Beans,” or “Hearty Vegetable Soup with Hamburger (and Spaghetti Noodles)” just as Wilkinson rolls out in this book.
Our Little Farm: Adventures in Sustainable Living
By Peter and Miriam Wohlleben, translated and adapted by Jane Billinghurst
In the beginning of Our Little Farm, Peter and Miriam Wohlleben write, “We would like to tell you how we started our journey into sustainable living,” and on this promise they deliver handsomely. Our Little Farm reads as part personal account and part how-to manual for setting up and operating a small homestead. In arrow-straight prose, the Wohllebens cover topics as vast as how they choose vegetables to grow in their home in northwestern Germany to how to remove slug slime from your hands after picking them off of cabbages (a dry paper towel, then soap and water if you’re curious). They divide chapters into sensible subjects like “Selecting Tools and Gear” and “Starting with Chickens.” You won’t find any romantic talk of farm life—the Wohllebens keep the focus sharply on practicalities, with a welcome sprinkling of recipes throughout. For an aspiring homesteader who wants an extremely detailed, first-hand account of what it takes to live their vision, this book could serve as a trusty guide and valuable record of a type of life that few have taken the time to document in such detail.
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