The best books about food

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

How to make hummus

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It’s no secret that we here at Quiet Farm are big fans of the humble bean. We’ve discussed this before, of course; beans are high in protein and fiber, both of which help keep you full longer and keep your digestive tract functioning properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat, beans make a terrific whole-food alternative (unlike many of the processed soy patties now masquerading as meat). They’re cheap, easily available, store forever in the pantry, simple to cook and often local; it’s no wonder I make a pot of beans every three or four days.

Today, though, let’s talk hummus. There are a few foods that I firmly believe will always be better when you make them yourself – for me, that’s granola, yogurt and hummus. Of course you can easily buy all of these things at the grocery store, but hummus is surprisingly expensive for what it contains, and it will take you all of ten minutes to make a batch. You might find yourself making a batch once a week. And it’s so simple that hopefully you’ll read this entire post before realizing that I managed to avoid giving you a recipe…because hummus is more of a concept than a true recipe.

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Best diet hack ever!

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It’s January, and in America at least, that means New Year’s resolutions. Gyms are packed. Whole Foods is packed. Juice bars are packed. “Revolutionary” diet books and “foolproof” programs and “guaranteed” supplements and exorbitantly expensive electronic bikes are winging their way to doorsteps across the country even as we speak. And for what, dear friends? Although “get healthy” and “lose weight” are by far the most common resolutions, numerous studies have shown that over 80% of all resolutions are abandoned somewhere in February, if not sooner. The problem isn’t the resolution itself – it’s the way most of us go about it.

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In this country, we are nothing if not dietary extremists. We go vegan or Paleo or gluten-free on impulse, or because we think everyone else is doing it. We blindly subscribe to the latest social media-fueled/celebrity-endorsed “health” trend. (Looking at you, celery juice.) We ignore moderation as a lifestyle entirely, and instead fixate on the newest, shiniest trick that promises to make us better, healthier and twenty pounds lighter. But why haven’t the fifty previous sparkly tricks worked? Because all of those glittering promises are built on quick fixes and short-term solutions, not on building a lifetime of habits. Let’s be honest – anyone can stick to pretty much anything for a week or two, maybe even a month or six weeks. Eat more salads? No problem. Cut back on alcohol? Easy. Go full-on keto? Tougher, but still manageable.

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Farm update: October 21

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The south lawn of our house makes a peaceful resting spot.

Is it autumn where you live? Is it crisp and cool with bright scarlet and gold leaves everywhere? Is it dark when you wake up in the morning? It is here, and we’re settling into this brief transition season before winter extends its icy grip. Much of our work these days involves cleaning, tidying, preserving, covering and generally setting things in place for the colder months. We try to take advantage of these bluebird fall days for as long as we can; once the snows come, we won’t be working outside much.

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Growing garlic takes forever, but it’s worth the wait.

Ninety of this season’s largest garlic cloves have been planted in a bed newly prepared with lots of rich compost. Last year’s garlic went into an existing cinderblock bed that was here when we moved in; a few weeks ago we broke that bed down and dispersed the soil into new trenches for garlic and asparagus. The cloves will slumber quietly here over the winter, and in the spring we’ll hopefully see green garlic peeking up through mulch and snow. Every year we’ll plant more and more garlic; we eat a lot of it, of course, but since garlic adapts to its unique environment, we want a generous quantity to save for planting.

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The water runs through a culvert underneath our driveway and out into our pasture. You can see our flume in the upper right.

We ran our irrigation water for the first time this season, and it went surprisingly well. Our pasture isn’t planted right now so the irrigation run was more of an experiment to see how the water would move through our gated pipe system. We own shares in a local creek that pulls water from reservoirs on the Grand Mesa; when we want to run water we order a certain amount for a certain period and that water is deducted from our account. This run was for two days (forty-eight hours straight!) and it requires a lot of hands-on management, mainly opening and closing gates manually in the big pipes. When we’re more comfortable with our irrigation we won’t need to babysit it as much, but we’re unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mere feet from our house, and we definitely want to pay close attention to where it’s going.

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Our tomato crop redeemed itself after a rocky start.

We harvested all of our vegetables prior to our recent hard freeze and brought in just over one hundred pounds of green, unripe tomatoes. In the past I’ve never had good luck ripening tomatoes indoors, but for whatever reason these are ripening quite well. They’re no longer good to eat fresh – the overnight temperatures dropped too low, so the tomatoes taste as though they’ve been refrigerated – but they’re perfect for sauces, soups and purees. A pantry stocked with canned homegrown tomatoes is a winter gift indeed.

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One of our little saplings, hopefully protected from winter weather (and deer). 

We’ve hustled recently to layer all of our fruit tree saplings with warm winter mulch. Some of our little trees look healthy and others are…struggling. We’re hopeful that the mulch blanket will keep the trees protected from our harsh winter weather, since their root systems are likely to still be quite delicate. One of our priority spring projects next year will be to put a drip irrigation system in the orchard so we can stop watering the trees by hand.

We’re back to work, friends. We wish you a good week.

 

Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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You can pickle that

Are you swimming in zucchini and other summer squashes right now? We are, and grateful for it; if not for squash and kale and basil, I wouldn’t have grown much of anything this season. But what to do with all that zucchini, once you’ve grilled it in thick slices and tossed it with pasta and made overly-sweet not-at-all-healthy zucchini bread and so on? Those plants keep producing, even the surprise volunteers that showed up in the potato towers and the compost pile. Well, you could pickle that.

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What to do when the zucchini are threatening to take over.

The Quiet Farm household isn’t a huge fan of traditional cucumber dill pickles. I’ve tried them all the ways over the years – even traditional barrel fermentation, which meant that I once dumped five gallons of moldy, slimy cucumbers and their brine into our overwhelmed compost pile back at our old house in Denver – and it’s never been something that we’ve loved. (One of my sacrosanct rules of preserving: only make what you’ll actually eat.) Our altitude means that canned vegetables have to be processed much longer in a boiling water bath so pickles are almost always soggy; limp, overcooked cucumbers aren’t my thing. Also, even though I adore sharp, acidic flavors, standard vinegar pickles are sometimes just…too much.

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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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The Farm Series: I-Guana Farm

As we’ve discussed previously, Quiet Farm is located in the “fruit basket” of Colorado. The Western Slope produces Colorado’s revered Palisade peaches, along with apples, cherries, plums, apricots, table grapes and wine grapes. Fruit grows so well here because the climate doesn’t experience the significant diurnal swings common on the Front Range. (In February 2018, the temperature in Denver dropped 72 degrees in forty hours.) Fruit trees, especially once they’re in flower, cannot survive extreme temperature shifts, so harvesting fruit on the Front Range is hit-or-miss. It’s hit-or-miss over here, too, as all farming is, but with a lot more hits than misses.

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Last year – our first year as official Western Slope residents – we ate ourselves silly on local peaches, plums, cherries and apples. The apricots, though, were lost to a late spring freeze, so while a few orchards had a very small amount of fruit to sell, it wasn’t widely available and we missed out entirely. This year, between our record snowfall and ideal spring weather, the fruit growers in our area have a bumper crop of just about everything, with apricots no exception. We’re even seeing wild apricot trees, heavy with fruit, growing on roadsides around us. It’s been a banner year.

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Farm update: July 8

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This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

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