One pretty great thing about last year, besides getting a bit of my own work out in the world, was all the research I got to do to complete it. This meant reading a lot about food, drinks, agriculture, ecology, entrepreneurship, distilling, et glorious al. Here are a few of my favorites, very good starting points if you’re concerned that you can’t eat tuna on the reg AND be a good conservationist (hint…you can’t. I know. I’m sad, too.).
The following books helped me sort my thoughts on food-as-culture, drinks-as-food, and the many-tentacled concept of sustainability when it comes to what we consume.
The Third Plate, by Dan Barber
For all the likely deserved criticism of Dan Barber as a tyrannical and self-important chef figure, this was a fascinating and important book. Barber is the classic-French-trained, Alice Waters-indoctrinated chef/owner of the seminal farm-to-table Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants, and he has used his caché as a world-class chef to go a few stops further on the Michael Pollan food train. The book’s premise: looking for the future vision of American cuisine, since its present, prime meats-centric incarnation has wrought ecological, nutritional, and economic ruin. Barber has well-researched takes on biodiversity on land and sea woven in with entertaining stories of meeting chefs and farmers from Upstate NY to Extremadura. Sure, we’re talking about expensive restaurant meals most of the time, but I do think there is validity in Barber’s stance that what chefs at high-end joints do influences how the majority eat, over time. It’s not every book that gets you this excited about wheat breeding.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate, by Simran Sethi
Again, great research, distinct voice, topic I could LITerally and FIGuratively eat up all day. It’s like seasoned journalist and podcaster Simran Sethi asked herself “What does Hope feel like reading about?” and the answer was this. Through the book, Sethi examines the need to preserve genetic diversity of not only the three title foods, but also beer, coffee, and seafood, by dishing out history and expert opinions from around the world.
Along the way, we meet scientists, chefs, yeast-hoarders, coffee nerds, and my favorite oenology legend, Dr. Ann Noble, who hilariously forgot the author was coming and wound up inviting her in to lunch, instead. One of the most interesting choices in the book, for me, was the inclusion at the end of each chapter of detailed tasting instructions. Sethi’s theme that we can “save” these foods by eating a wider and more expensive variety of them is hammered home by the insistence that parsing flavors in, say, a bar of nice chocolate is not only a fun thing to do, but a responsible one. No, this doesn’t absolve anyone of being otherwise socially responsible, but it helps this small part of the world.
Not everyone will be down with this premise, nor with the narrative voice. I was. I liked it a lot. I also spend more of my income on food and drink than on clothing, electronic gadgets, personal grooming, and housewares, combined, so you know where my loyalties lie.
Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production, by Sarah Bowen
I wrote about this book in Movers & Shakers, but really, my hopes for how many people will read the book all the way through are not super high. Not because it’s a boring book (it’s not!) but because reading is hard, and takes a long time, and we didn’t have the dough to make an audiobook, which is how I personally consume 95% of my reading material. So far, I know my sister has almost done it. Brava.
Anyway, IF you peeked into the “Mezcaleras and Madrinas” chapter, you would know the depth of my appreciation for Sarah Bowen’s comprehensive tome on the history, production, politics, regulation, consumption, etc., etc. of agave spirits. Her research into how ancestral foodways around the world are preserved through the DOC system is an essential read if you are concerned with how small farmers get paid and how good your cheese tastes. It really is the best exploration I’ve read so far about what “sustainable” does and can mean, socially and environmentally.
These three books vary in tone and subject matter, but what ties them together for me is not only how carefully researched and put together they are, but the common emphasis on flavor as an essential component when talking about food production. Industrial tequila, Bowen finds, is detrimental to Jalisco’s small farmers, and also tastes like turpentine. Why not do better? Dan Barber compares the rich and rangey flavors of heirloom wheat as opposed to the “dead” mass-produced wheat with as much concern for the taste of the bread as the health of the soil. The inseparability of the concepts–healthy soil = healthy plants = tastier and more nutritive food–is central to his book. Sethi concurs: specialty food production isn’t a wholesale solution to monoculture, but the speciality chocolate and coffee markets are helping hang on to the diversity that remains, and greater consumer demand will help change the agricultural systems, if we keep demanding it. They all acknowledge the need for systemic changes, but put the ball in the consumers’ court, as well. If you can afford to make better choices, it’s your responsibility to do so. Otherwise the mono-culturalists will win and really awesome chocolate will always be crazy expensive, and probably go extinct.
What other books belong on this list? LMK.