Great Food Writing: A Culinary and Cultural Adventure
When Michael Moss’s book Salt Sugar Fat was recently excerpted in the New York Times magazine, the cover was just a picture of a Dorito with an enticing pull quote: “I feel so sorry for the public.” I, for one, was hooked, and quickly got my hands on a full copy of Moss’s exposé of the processed foods industry. It’s a riveting—and terrifying—read, and getting immersed in it has made me want to read more about every aspect of food culture and history. Accordingly, I’ve sorted through masses of food writing and put together a reading game plan for just such a foodie education, a path through books that cover the many facets of food and the role it plays in our lives. There’s no need to follow this trail exactly; it’s more of a starting point to using these many food writing resources as you see fit. I haven’t read all of the following books, but I’ve done a lot of research on them, and I hope that the sequence I’ve devised for reading them will make for an enjoyable and enlightening ride through great food writing. Join me, won’t you?
Step 1: Start big
Before diving into the particulars of any one area of the food writing world, it makes sense to start with the basics on a macro level. The volume I’ve chosen to fulfill this role is Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food, by Felipe Férnandez-Arnesto. Starting from prehistoric times, this book follows the evolution of cooking, eating as a ritual, agriculture, and much more—I chose it for its sheer scope. For slightly more focused but still expansive looks at two prominent aspects of food culture, I’ve also selected John McPhee’s Oranges and Raymond Sokolov’s Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food. The former—of which I’m already a fan—takes readers through absolutely everything to do with oranges, from their historical roots to their current growth and distribution. It’s a lens through which to view agriculture’s place in our culture, and provides a particular case study to dovetail with the larger trends discussed in Férnandez-Arnesto’s food writing. Sokolov’s book is about restaurant cuisine both high and low, and delves deeply into the complex world of dining out. The author took on the post of food editor at the New York Times in 1971, and his book is a chronicle of the myriad—and often exotic—meals he’s eaten. Given that restaurants and chefs are a huge part of how we view the world of food today, Sokolov’s book will provides a telling counterpoint to the stories laid out by the previous two authors. And now that we’ve got the basics under our belts, let’s move on to the details.
Step 2: Zoom In
Now’s the time to dig a little deeper into any corners of food writing that especially intrigue you. There are all kinds of ways to do this. Maybe you want more of what Sokolov dished out; in that case, check out Anthony Bourdain’s memoirs or chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s intimate Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for some time. If your tastes run a bit more classical, there’s always the legendary Julia Child’s My Life in France or Thomas McNamee’s biography of Alice Waters, both of which offer in-depth looks into the lives of prominent culinary visionaries. There’s also the option of looking more closely at a particular food or ingredient, and trust me, if you can think of the food, there’s a book all about it. A few prime examples: Mark Kurlansky on salt; Jack Turner on spices; Jessie Oleson Moore on baked goods; my personal favorite, Steve Almond (his real name!), on candy. Finally, if you’re interested in a closer look at the—often unappetizing—science of how eating really works, you won’t find a better read than Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.
Step 3: The Ugly
You knew this was coming. Food writing is fun, but food writing can also be horrifying, as when it shows us the realities of the sprawling industrialized food system in which we’re all implicated in one way or another. Luckily, the books that demonstrate these difficult truths are also, in many cases, fantastic reads. For a broad overview of the issues plaguing the American food system, Michael Pollan’s well-known The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is the way to go. Another classic in this area is Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, which exposes the seedy underbelly of fast food restaurants and their connections to a whole host of American ills, from obesity to economic inequality. Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, which began this exploration for me, unfolds along the same lines, focusing instead on the realm of packaged processed foods. Moss’s book also has the benefit of reading like an academic thriller—it’s full of sharp characters and nefarious deeds, with a strong sense of narrative.
Those three alone with give you quite a comprehensive sense of the troubles we’re facing, but there are plenty of other great works of food writing available in this vein, should you want to expand your knowledge further. For a vivid philosophical examination of carnivorism and vegetarianism, check out Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals; for a first-hand look at food production and food service, investigative journalist Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table is a gem. And, lest you think that all the perils in our food system are a recent development, there’s also Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Wilson tours readers through a shocking history of sloppiness and corner-cutting in the world of food, which will both make you glad of present-day regulations and make you worry that they don’t go far enough.
Step 4: The Beautiful
If you read even one of the titles listed in the section above, you’ll likely be feeling a bit hopeless by now. Well, despair not: there’s a whole category of great food writing designed to restore your optimism and give you the tools to deal productively with your newfound culinary insights. As a strong antidote to the aforementioned hopelessness, pick up Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The story of the author’s family’s decision to move to a farm and dedicate themselves to eating locally and naturally for a year is a testament to the transformative power of food, and though you might not be able to make such an extreme change yourself, it’ll get you thinking about what moves you can make toward living and eating better.
Similarly, new titles from Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan encourage readers to learn more about the implications of what they eat, and how to more effectively cook for themselves. Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…For Good does exactly what its subtitle says it will: it gives readers a viable plan for eating habits that are good for both person and planet. Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation looks more closely at the development and value of various culinary techniques, and along the way, it becomes an inspirational text for taking more responsibility for the things we consume. Along those same lines, Pollan’s older In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and straightforward Food Rules—look for the beautiful edition that Maira Kalman illustrated—are also great resources. For the nitty-gritty of understanding ingredients and cooking responsibly, a favorite of mine is Deborah Madison, a prominent vegetarian cookbook author whose latest, Vegetable Literacy, is not only a user-friendly cookbook but also a glowing paean to the world of vegetables and its value to humans. I, for one, am feeling a little bit better just thinking about these books.
Step 5: Quit Worrying
Sure, there’s a lot to think about, but panicking isn’t the way to go. Want proof? Have a look at Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat, by Harvey Levenstein. Levenstein focuses his food writing on a succession of food fads, trends, and phobias in the United States, and argues that we’d all do better with a little less fright and a little more measured thoughtfulness. It’s a calming and valuable lesson, and one to carry with you as you make your way through this delicious minefield of a reading list.