Food politics book club

Our house is filled with books. On shelves, stacked by the bed, in my office…the only place that doesn’t contain any books is the kitchen. N reads a lot of military history mixed with an eclectic selection of farming books and autobiographies, and my choices tend to be modern fiction plus just about anything on food. I feel as strongly about books as I do about food: if they’re not good, I won’t finish them. I have no sense of obligation having started a book; there are simply too many stellar books out there to waste time on the appallingly bad ones. I’ve written before about how choosing books for our trip was one of the toughest parts of packing; I didn’t care at all about which tattered shirts and frayed cargo pants I brought, but I cared a lot about the reading material.


Because I talk a lot about food politics both here and in my cooking classes, I’m often asked for book recommendations. I’ve put together a compilation of some of my favorite books on food politics and America’s desperately compromised food system. Know that there are many more great selections out there, and if you have recommendations for books I haven’t included, please share them! If you’re looking for an even more comprehensive list of some of the best books on food politics, go here.

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It is not possible to have a discussion about food politics in America without mentioning Michael Pollan. In my opinion, no author has done more to explain how what was once just “food” evolved into “industrialized agriculture.” I think Cooked is by far his most accessible work; even for me, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire get a little…technical. But really, anything by Mr. Pollan is guaranteed to get you questioning your assumptions. And if you can’t commit to reading his books, watch his Netflix series based on Cooked. Plus, his breathtakingly simple manifesto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” is by far the best seven-word statement on food I’ve ever encountered.

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Four Fish, Paul Greenberg

It is virtually certain that certain species of fish currently used as food will become extinct within our lifetimes; our visit to Japan’s famous Tsukiji fish market simply stunned us with the sheer quantity of seafood caught and sold every single day. There isn’t much positive that can be said about the world’s fishing industry, but this book explains it in a clear, simple manner. (Please, if you’re in the U.S. and you choose to eat fish: consider buying only sustainably caught or responsibly farmed American seafood. Or eat much, much lower on the ocean food chain, like sardines and anchovies. Whatever you do, please don’t buy farmed fish from southeast Asia; their abuse of both humans and the environment makes ours here in the U.S. look positively benign.)

The Meat Racket, Christopher Leonard

One of the best and most difficult books I’ve ever read on our industrial meat supply, The Meat Racket exposes the brilliantly cruel “bracket” system used in modern CAFOs. This book is a carefully researched and shockingly grim portrait of the massive corporations like Tyson currently controlling the vast majority of America’s meat market, and of the farmers trying desperately to stay afloat in a game totally rigged against them. Read at your own risk; you’ll have a hard time buying frozen chicken nuggets after this one.

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

This book, published in 2001, is subtitled “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and could be rightfully argued as the one that started it all. No one really has anything nice to say about fast food in general; it is toxic to the people who eat it, the people who work there, the animals sacrificed for it and most definitely the planet. But it’s great for shareholders…or at least it was, until the fast food industry started slowing down after decades of growth. This is one area where there may actually be something positive on the horizon: fewer Golden Arches across our country.

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Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger

Ever been curious about sodium caseinate? How about modified food starch? Hydrolyzed soy protein? Polysorbate 60? Learn more than you ever wanted to know about how our processed food is made. (Remember, food at home is “cooked.” Food in packages is “processed.”) And we wonder why our gut microbes can no longer handle anything.

The Third Plate, Dan Barber

Last December, N and I had the honor of attending the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at Chef Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns just outside of New York City. I’ve admired and respected this chef since his early days of farm-to-table cuisine; in the professional chef world, he is at the forefront as an advocate for less food waste and a more conscious approach to cooking and food overall. Simply one of my very favorite food books.

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook

This book sort of pretends to be just about tomatoes and is actually much more about the workers planting and picking them, but it’s still worth a read. We’ve had out-of-season produce in supermarkets for so long that we rarely think about it anymore, but it’s not just the earth that takes a beating – the people do, too. This book almost singlehandedly brought about a very public and (somewhat) successful battle with fast food companies and supermarkets over fair pay for farmworkers; learn more here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver might be more known for her fiction, but when she and her family packed up and left Arizona for rural Kentucky, then documented their attempts to eat solely from their own land for a year, the food cognoscenti paid attention. It’s a deceptively simple book (with recipes!) that explains why modern turkeys can’t reproduce naturally and why organic certification is almost impossible for small farms to get and why you should bake your own bread, but there is a lot more under the surface. If you’re thinking about running away to your own piece of land as we are, this book will push you farther in that direction.

Other books I recommend not pictured here (most likely because I loaned them to someone):

The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan

Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss

Anything by Marion Nestle

Anything by Joel Salatin


Interlude: Cows love Skittles

Friends, we interrupt our regularly scheduled light and fluffy travel programming to bring you a brief interlude on cows. Cows and Skittles, to be precise. If you are here just for fun travel adventures, please feel free to tune out now – this one is about food politics.

Perhaps some of you noticed a little story that a couple of papers ran recently about a Skittles spill on a Wisconsin highway (although I’m painfully aware that there are one or two more significant American news stories to focus on right now). To summarize, a truckload of red Skittles missing their signature “S” spilled onto the road thanks to a rain-saturated cardboard box. When the local sheriff’s department came out to investigate, they discovered that the candy was on its way to be used as cattle feed. Maybe it’s fake news? Now that so much of what we read contains “alternative facts,” it’s hard to know what to believe. (You can read versions of the article here, here and here, and I’m sure there are plenty more.) Feeding food waste to cattle is apparently common practice in the U.S.

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Bessie here actually prefers M&Ms to Skittles, if you want to know the truth.

Back in 2012, the severe drought that swept across the country caused corn prices to skyrocket, and that’s reportedly when the trend of feeding excess food to cattle really accelerated. In some cases, cows were even fed candy that was still wrapped, although a professor of animal nutrition seemed mostly convinced that the wrappers would pass through the cow without issue. I’m in no way a vet or other animal expert, but I imagine that plastic really can’t be good for an animal’s insides – even one as large and tough as a cow.

But wait, you might say. Skittles are mostly just corn syrup, which is just corn, right? And that’s what the cow would be eating if corn prices hadn’t risen so much, so really, what’s the big deal? It’s actually not the Skittles that bother me – it’s all the other stuff we don’t know about. Consider that the only reason we now know that these Skittles were intended for cattle feed is because they spilled. Had they not spilled, we’d still be shoveling our CAFO hamburgers in, none the wiser. This story indicates that a lot of other mysterious food waste goes to our cows, including but not limited to stale baked goods, peanut and almond shells, and orange rinds. Probably harmless, yes, but do these ingredients affect the integrity (what little there is) of the meat? Could a severely peanut-allergic person have a reaction to beef from a cow fed on peanut meal? I have no idea. And I also have no idea what is in our food.

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My point is not that the Skittles themselves that are inherently bad (although they are). It’s that you didn’t know they were there. How can anyone make an informed decision about what they eat when they don’t have all the information? How can I implore my cooking students to read the label of every food item they buy when I know full well that label is inherently misleading? I also resent the implication that feeding Skittles to cows saves them from the landfill and is therefore virtuous. In a country that wastes over 40% of all edible food produced, I’m fairly certain that the quantity of Skittles we’re talking about here is negligible enough that the landfill excuse doesn’t hold up – greenwashing at its finest.

Some time ago, a friend who shops very consciously received a recall notice at the bottom of her grocery store receipt indicating that the big-brand chicken she’d purchased weeks earlier had been recalled. Since she deliberately never purchased big-brand chicken, she knew this had to be a mistake – yet when she contacted store management, she received a boilerplate customer service response that didn’t address the issue. Follow-up calls and emails went ignored, leaving her to assume that of course she had purchased that chicken – labeled as organic and packaged under a “clean” name – even while trying so hard not to. Plus, organic and conventional chicken were both part of the same recall, so how can one trust that the organic product really is? And that leaves us here, stumbling around the grocery store in a panic, reading labels frantically and generally feeling like a failure all the time because we no longer have any faith in a system designed to protect us from fraud and mislabeling.

These stories are compelling on many levels, but my takeaway is this: unless we’ve grown, raised and processed food ourselves from start to finish, we no longer can have any faith that we’re buying what we think we’re buying. I know plenty of people who wouldn’t feed their kid Skittles (concerns over Red 40 high on the list) but would certainly offer a lean beef stir-fry with plenty of supposedly organic vegetables and arsenic-free brown rice. Yet these same people, who are working so hard to get it right, are getting it wrong. Again and again, because they cannot trust that they’re buying and consuming what they think they are.

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I’d love to end on a positive note, so I’ll leave you with this – if you want to trust your food, grow your own. Start a small garden. (If you’re in the Denver area, support a locally-owned business and go here for everything you need to get growing.) Raise backyard chickens. Get a beehive. Join a CSA. Know what you’re eating and where it came from, and be willing to ask questions. Also: eat less meat, and spend more money on it, and know who raised and processed it. And please, let us know your thoughts on this story. We’d specifically like to hear if you feel confident about label honesty and accuracy (including organic vs. conventional) and what exactly is in the food you buy.