Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.
To that end, we present to you today an opinionated round-up of the best books on food, none of which are cookbooks. Some are loving historical treatises on how food and cooking and eating used to be, and those are both beautiful and heartbreaking to read, because we’ve lost that and it isn’t coming back. Others are manifestos on our broken food system, and what we can do to change it. And others are simply writings about food for pleasure and enjoyment, and those might make you a better cook simply by osmosis.
(A more expansive reading list on food politics, with some duplicates from this post, can be found here, if that’s the direction you yearn to go.)
An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler
“Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine. It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be – a clear path through them.” An Everlasting Meal isn’t exactly a cookbook, although it does include some deliberately vague sort-of recipe-ish suggestions. What it does better than almost any other book on food, however, is teach you how to live fully in the kitchen, how to enjoy your time there, how to make your food your own. It teaches comfort and care and, as indicated in its subtitle, it teaches about cooking with economy and grace. Adler’s writing shimmers; my copy is filled with little sticky tabs to mark the most gorgeous phrases. We’ve now made the act of cooking so unreasonably difficult and pretentious and full of rules, and this lovely book reminds us that there’s no need for all that fuss. Just cook something simple, for yourself or for others, and enjoy it. That’s the whole secret.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway – truly the original bro! – is known more for his drinking and bullfighting and womanizing and fishing. But he loved food, too, and nowhere in his works is this better reflected than in A Moveable Feast, a bittersweet memoir of his time as a struggling young writer in Paris. Because I too learned to love food in Paris, this book holds a special place in my heart, so much so that I named my first company after it. I read not long ago that after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, this book sold out of every bookstore in the city; I understand why. For a snapshot of a rich time and place that most of us never knew and will never see again, A Moveable Feast isn’t to be missed.
Anything by M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David
If you want to read about the true lost joys of eating and drinking, the thrill of finding the first wild strawberries at the farmers’ market, how to cook defiantly when pantries are bare, or the pleasure of gathering at the table for hours with wine and conversation and friends, you can do no better than M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David. Fisher was American and David was English, so they bring remarkably different cultural backgrounds to the table, but their writing is luminous. Both women address the bleakness of the edible landscape during and after war; David’s writings about food and eating and cooking in sunny southern Europe after escaping the sorrowful grey dampness of post-war Britain practically sing with warmth and sunshine. Any of their works will suffice, but I recommend How to Cook a Wolf and An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. This is writing to take you out of our current situation, and that’s a blessing.
The Third Plate, Dan Barber
Dan Barber is currently working harder than any other chef in America to change the way we grow and raise food. Though his restaurants (Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside the city) aren’t exactly egalitarian, his policy work and his commitment to reducing food waste are laudable. The Third Plate eloquently argues that in order to transform our food system we simply have to move away from our traditional, resource-intensive, CAFO-based “meat and potatoes” diet and find the place where good farming and good cooking intersect. Oh, and he started a seed company, too.
Anything by Julia Child
Read anything by Julia Child, and you’ll begin to understand the meaning of persistence. Child came to her fame relatively late in life – she only enrolled in culinary school in her late 30s – and she wanted more than anything for Americans to love good food and to love cooking. Julia Child transformed the American food scene more than any other person, and though her cookbooks are of course classics, her other writing deserves a careful look, too. My Life in France details the formative years she and her husband Paul spent in Europe, where Julia learned to cook at Le Cordon Bleu (my alma mater!), and you can see her passion for food and cooking grow exponentially every day. As Always, Julia, a book of heartfelt letters between friends, is also worth a read.
Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
I know of at least two other small farmers who began their farming journey by reading this book, and I’m sure there are many more. Kingsolver and her family relocate from Arizona to their family farm in Kentucky and chronicle a year of “food life.” In 2017 the book was re-released in a ten-year anniversary edition, and in the decade-plus since its publication its theme has become more relevant than ever. Ultimately this book is gentle and kind and yet still effectively conveys the important message that our individual decisions do matter, and that we can change the entrenched system if enough of us choose to act.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
If you choose to read one single book about food, make it this one. No one else has done more to elucidate food policy in the U.S. than Pollan, and all of his books are worth reading. His book Cooked is another stellar choice that focuses more on the simple yet somehow immensely complicated act of cooking, which most of us have given up. I vote Pollan for president in 2024! You heard it here first.
It’s still winter out there, so grab a quilt and a mug of strong tea and a book and settle in by the fire. And if you have additional suggestions for our list, please share in the comments below. Happy reading, friends.
“I don’t know how things are going in your world but it’s cold and people’s nerves seem a little shot and sensitive. Go make a pot of something good and invite someone you like over. It beats yelling at the TV alone.” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo