Some Notable Food Books of 2008

There are food books and there are food books. The following list contains no whispers from FoodTV icons or other foodie celebrities. Just dedicated scholarship and authenticity (or as much authenticity as is possible when it comes to real food). The brief descriptions following each title following come from product blurbs provided by the publishers.

americas-food-blattAmerica’s Food: What You Don’t Know About What You Eat, by Harvey Blatt

“We don’t think much about how food gets to our tables, or what had to happen to fill our supermarket’s produce section with perfectly round red tomatoes and its meat counter with slabs of beautifully marbled steak. We don’t realize that the meat in one fast-food hamburger may come from many different cattle raised in several different countries. In fact, most of us have a fairly abstract understanding of what happens on a farm. In America’s Food, Harvey Blatt gives us the specifics. He tells us, for example, that a third of the fruits and vegetables grown are discarded for purely aesthetic reasons; that the artificial fertilizers used to enrich our depleted soil contain poisonous heavy metals; that chickens who stand all day on wire in cages choose feed with pain-killing drugs over feed without them; and that the average American eats his or her body weight in food additives each year.

Blatt also asks us to think about the consequences of eating food so far removed from agriculture; why unhealthy food is cheap; why there is an International Federation of Competitive Eating; what we don’t want to know about how animals raised for meat live, die, and are butchered; whether people are even designed to be carnivorous; and why there is hunger when food production has increased so dramatically. America’s Food describes the production of all types of food in the United States and the environmental and health problems associated with each.

After taking us on a tour of the American food system-not only the basic food groups but soil, grain farming, organic food, genetically modified food, food processing, and diet-Blatt reminds us that we aren’t powerless. Once we know the facts about food in America, we can change things by the choices we make as consumers, as voters, and as ethical human beings.”

atlas-of-food-millstoneThe Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where, and Why, by Erik Millstone and Tim Lang

“Food – how it’s produced, processed, sold and consumed – affects us all. It is crucial not just to our personal health and welfare, but to the health and welfare of all nations, many depending on agriculture to survive. With global population heading towards 9 billion and chronic famine and poverty affecting a huge number, the issues covered in this atlas could not be more important. It traces the food chain and show how it is affected by history, politics, natural events, lifestyles and eating habits. It looks at how food is traded, the operations of the market, the uses of technology including GM food, and the impacts on consumers, farmers and manufacturers around the world. The reader will come away with a clear grasp of the issues, the contending pressures and interests, and the options for the future. Winner of the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Award for the best book on food 2003.” Revised edition 2008.

bananaThe Banana: Empires, Trade Wars, and Globalization, by James Wiley

“The banana is the world’s most important fresh fruit commodity. Little more than a century old, the global banana industry began in the late 1880s as a result of technological advances such as refrigerated shipping, which facilitated the transportation of this highly perishable good to distant markets. Since its inception the banana industry has been fraught with controversy, exhibiting many of the issues underlying the basic global economic relations that first emerged in the era of European colonialism. Perhaps more than any other agricultural product, the banana reflects the evolution of the world economy. At each stage changes in the global economy manifested themselves in the economic geography of banana production and trade. This remains true today as neoliberal imperatives drive the globalization process and mandate freer trade, influencing the patterns of the transatlantic banana trade. The Banana demystifies the banana trade and its path toward globalization. It reviews interregional relationships in the industry and the changing institutional framework governing global trade and assesses the roles of such major players as the European Union and the World Trade Organization. It also analyzes the forces driving today’s economy, such as the competitiveness imperative, diversification processes, and niche market strategies. Its final chapter suggests how the outcome of the recent banana war will affect bananas and trade in other commodities sectors as well. The Banana belies the common perception of globalization as a monolithic and irresistible force and reveals instead various efforts to resist or modify the process at local and national levels. Nevertheless, the banana does represent another step toward a globalized and industrialized agricultural economy.”

closing-the-food-gapClosing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, by Mark Winne

In Closing the Food Gap, food activist and journalist Mark Winne poses questions too often overlooked in our current conversations around food: What about those people who are not financially able to make conscientious choices about where and how to get food? And in a time of rising rates of both diabetes and obesity, what can we do to make healthier foods available for everyone?

To address these questions, Winne tells the story of how America’s food gap has widened since the 1960s, when domestic poverty was “rediscovered,” and how communities have responded with a slew of strategies and methods to narrow the gap, including community gardens, food banks, and farmers’ markets. The story, however, is not only about hunger in the land of plenty and the organized efforts to reduce it; it is also about doing that work against a backdrop of ever-growing American food affluence and gastronomical expectations. With the popularity of Whole Foods and increasingly common community-supported agriculture (CSA), wherein subscribers pay a farm so they can have fresh produce regularly, the demand for fresh food is rising in one population as fast as rates of obesity and diabetes are rising in another.

Over the last three decades, Winne has found a way to connect impoverished communities experiencing these health problems with the benefits of CSAs and farmers’ markets; in Closing the Food Gap, he explains how he came to his conclusions. With tragically comic stories from his many years running a model food organization, the Hartford Food System in Connecticut, alongside fascinating profiles of activists and organizations in communities across the country, Winne addresses head-on the struggles to improve food access for all of us, regardless of income level.

Using anecdotal evidence and a smart look at both local and national policies, Winne offers a realistic vision for getting locally produced, healthy food onto everyone’s table.


cooking-this2Cooking: The Quintessential Art, by Hervé This and Pierre Gagnaire

“From its intriguing opening question–“How can we reasonably judge a meal?”–to its rewarding conclusion, this beautiful book picks up where Brillat-Savarin left off almost two centuries ago. Hervé This, a cofounder (with the late physicist Nicholas Kurti) of the new approach to studying the scientific basis of cooking known as molecular gastronomy, investigates the question of culinary beauty in a series of playful, lively, and erudite dialogues. Considering the place of cuisine in Western culture, This explores an astonishing variety of topics and elaborates a revolutionary method for judging the art of cooking. Many of the ideas he introduces in this culinary romance are illustrated by dishes created by Pierre Gagnaire, whose engaging commentaries provide rare insights into the creative inspiration of one of the world’s foremost chefs. The result is an enthralling, sophisticated, freewheeling dinner party of a book that also makes a powerful case for openness and change in the way we think about food.”

creating-abundance2Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development, by Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode

“This brilliant book challenges one of the dominant interpretations of history. The standard story of the industrial revolution holds that rapid economic growth came from replacing people and animals with machinery. Olmstead and Rhode show that the standard story is only half right. Agricultural yields soared in the age of industrialization because farmers and scientists updated plants and animals just as much as machinery. This book provides a fresh and exciting interpretation of economic, technological, and agricultural history that should inspire others to look for other arenas in which biological innovation has played a more important role than we have suspected.”
-Edmund Russell, Department of Science, Technology, and Society and Department of History, University of Virginia”

fat-wileyFat: A Cultural History of Obesity, by Sander Gilman

“The modern world is faced with a terrifying new ‘disease’, that of ‘obesity’. As people get fatter, we have come to see excess weight as unhealthy, morally repugnant and socially damaging. Fat it seems has long been a national problem and each age, culture and tradition have all defined a point beyond which excess weight is unacceptable, ugly or corrupting.

This fascinating new book by Sander Gilman looks at the interweaving of fact and fiction about obesity, tracing public concern from the mid-nineteenth century to the modern day. He looks critically at the source of our anxieties, covering issues such as childhood obesity, the production of food, media coverage of the subject and the emergence of obesity in modern China. Written as a cultural history, the book is particularly concerned with the cultural meanings that have been attached to obesity over time and to explore the implications of these meanings for wider society. The history of these debates is the history of fat in culture, from nineteenth-century opera to our global dieting obsession. Fat, A Cultural History of Obesity is a vivid and absorbing cultural guide to one of the most important topics in modern society.”

christmas-baxterImmovable Feast: A Paris Christmas, by John Baxter

“A witty cultural and culinary education, Immoveable Feast is the charming, funny, and improbable tale of how a man who was raised on white bread-and didn’t speak a word of French-unexpectedly ended up with the sacred duty of preparing the annual Christmas dinner for a venerable Parisian family.

Ernest Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast”-a city ready to embrace you at any time in life. For Los Angeles-based film critic John Baxter, that moment came when he fell in love with a French woman and impulsively moved to Paris to marry her. As a test of his love, his skeptical in-laws charged him with cooking the next Christmas banquet-for eighteen people in their ancestral country home. Baxter’s memoir of his yearlong quest takes readers along his misadventures and delicious triumphs as he visits the farthest corners of France in search of the country’s best recipes and ingredients. Irresistible and fascinating, Immoveable Feast is a warmhearted tale of good food, romance, family, and the Christmas spirit, Parisian style.”

in-defense-of-foodIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

“What to eat, what not to eat, and how to think about health: a manifesto for our times

‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ These simple words go to the heart of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, the well-considered answers he provides to the questions posed in the bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Humans used to know how to eat well, Pollan argues. But the balanced dietary lessons that were once passed down through generations have been confused, complicated, and distorted by food industry marketers, nutritional scientists, and journalists-all of whom have much to gain from our dietary confusion. As a result, we face today a complex culinary landscape dense with bad advice and foods that are not ‘real.’ These ‘edible food-like substances’ are often packaged with labels bearing health claims that are typically false or misleading. Indeed, real food is fast disappearing from the marketplace, to be replaced by “nutrients,” and plain old eating by an obsession with nutrition that is, paradoxically, ruining our health, not to mention our meals. Michael Pollan’s sensible and decidedly counterintuitive advice is:’Don’t eat anything that your great-great grandmother would not recognize as food.’

Writing In Defense of Food, and affirming the joy of eating, Pollan suggests that if we would pay more for better, well-grown food, but buy less of it, we’ll benefit ourselves, our communities, and the environment at large. Taking a clear-eyed look at what science does and does not know about the links between diet and health, he proposes a new way to think about the question of what to eat that is informed by ecology and tradition rather than by the prevailing nutrient-by-nutrient approach.”

revolution-in-tasteA Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800, by Susan Pinkard

“This book traces the development of modern French habits of cooking, eating, and drinking from their roots in the Ancien Regime. Pinkard examines the interplay of material culture, social developments, medical theory, and Enlightenment thought in the development of French cooking, which culminated in the creation of a distinct culture of food and drink.”

smoked-seafoodThe Smoked Seafood Cookbook: Easy, Innovative Recipes from America’s Best Fish Smokery, by T. R. Durham

The Smoked Seafood Cookbook uniquely addresses a neglected spot on the culinary bookshelf. With everything from smoked salmon to mackerel to finnan haddie and smoked scallops, Durham’s recipes offer ideas for exciting salads; pasta, potato, and other starch dishes paired with smoked seafood; soups from every corner of the globe; easy-to-prepare appetizers; even smoked-seafood variations on the classic dish brandade.

The Smoked Seafood Cookbook is also designed to take advantage of the near-universal availability of smoked seafood online, via mail-order, in specialty shops, and in almost every supermarket in America. It offers information on the kinds of smoked seafood available, their particular flavors and textures, and what cooking applications best suit each variety. Durham provides chapters on do-it-yourself techniques for home smoking, an illustrated chapter on slicing and serving your own smoked fish, and a listing of sources for smoked seafood. Additionally, the book is beautifully illustrated throughout with color and black-and-white drawings by local artist Noel Bielaczyc.”

swindledSwindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, by Bee Wilson

“Bad food has a history. Swindled tells it. Through a fascinating mixture of cultural and scientific history, food politics, and culinary detective work, Bee Wilson uncovers the many ways swindlers have cheapened, falsified, and even poisoned our food throughout history. In the hands of people and corporations who have prized profits above the health of consumers, food and drink have been tampered with in often horrifying ways–padded, diluted, contaminated, substituted, mislabeled, misnamed, or otherwise faked. Swindled gives a panoramic view of this history, from the leaded wine of the ancient Romans to today’s food frauds–such as fake organics and the scandal of Chinese babies being fed bogus milk powder.

Wilson pays special attention to nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and England and their roles in developing both industrial-scale food adulteration and the scientific ability to combat it. As Swindled reveals, modern science has both helped and hindered food fraudsters–increasing the sophistication of scams but also the means to detect them. The big breakthrough came in Victorian England when a scientist first put food under the microscope and found that much of what was sold as “genuine coffee” was anything but–and that you couldn’t buy pure mustard in all of London.

Arguing that industrialization, laissez-faire politics, and globalization have all hurt the quality of food, but also that food swindlers have always been helped by consumer ignorance, Swindled ultimately calls for both governments and individuals to be more vigilant. In fact, Wilson suggests, one of our best protections is simply to reeducate ourselves about the joys of food and cooking.”

taste-of-placeThe Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, by Amy B. Trubek

“How and why do we think about food, taste it, and cook it? While much has been written about the concept of terroir as it relates to wine, in this vibrant, personal book, Amy Trubek, a pioneering voice in the new culinary revolution, expands the concept of terroir beyond wine and into cuisine and culture more broadly. Bringing together lively stories of people farming, cooking, and eating, she focuses on a series of examples ranging from shagbark hickory nuts in Wisconsin and maple syrup in Vermont to wines from northern California. She explains how the complex concepts of terroir and goût de terroir are instrumental to France’s food and wine culture and then explores the multifaceted connections between taste and place in both cuisine and agriculture in the United States. How can we reclaim the taste of place, and what can it mean for us in a country where, on average, any food has traveled at least fifteen hundred miles from farm to table? Written for anyone interested in food, this book shows how the taste of place matters now, and how it can mediate between our local desires and our global reality to define and challenge American food practices.”

tomorrows-tableTomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak

“By the year 2050, Earth’s population will double. If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation. Clearly, there must be a better way to meet the need for increased food production.
Written as part memoir, part instruction, and part contemplation, Tomorrow’s Table argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture–genetic engineering and organic farming–is key to helping feed the world’s growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. Pamela Ronald, a geneticist, and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, take the reader inside their lives for roughly a year, allowing us to look over their shoulders so that we can see what geneticists and organic farmers actually do. The reader sees the problems that farmers face, trying to provide larger yields without resorting to expensive or environmentally hazardous chemicals, a problem that will loom larger and larger as the century progresses. They learn how organic farmers and geneticists address these problems.
This book is for consumers, farmers, and policy decision makers who want to make food choices and policy that will support ecologically responsible farming practices. It is also for anyone who wants accurate information about organic farming, genetic engineering, and their potential impacts on human health and the environment.”

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