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.

Cookbooks 1 sml

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.

Cookbooks 2 sml

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.

Cookbooks 3 sml

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


Food for thought


Octopus skewers, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Food – ingredients, preparation, presentation – is something I think about far more than the average person. As I’ve mentioned, at home we almost never eat out, both because I love to cook and because I’m often testing recipes or preparing for a class, so I tend to have an excess of food on hand at any given moment. Food obviously plays a huge role in travel, too, and for me that’s both positive and negative. I love tasting unfamiliar ingredients and trying to appreciate a place through its food culture, but the reality is that more often than not restaurant food is disappointing and overpriced – especially when you’re traveling in heavily touristed areas. I know how much I’m overpaying for it and I hate that feeling of being cheated – paying $75 or more for a “nice” meal, only to leave with a bitter taste. It’s tough, though, especially in a country like Japan where everyday communication is delicate at best and a mess of unforeseen land mines at worst, to know where the locals eat. My answer to that, invariably, is “at home.”


Prepared food counter, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

Other people travel and visit art museums and temples and things. I travel and visit minimarkets and grocery stores, because I think few places tell a country’s story better than where the locals shop for food. I was looking forward to Japan for many reasons, but the food was high on the list. We have a superficial impression of Japanese food in the U.S. – primarily sushi, of course, then perhaps tempura or soba or various tofu dishes. I’m interested not in what people eat when they go out to celebrate a special occasion (do we all eat at The Capital Grille every night? I think not), but what they grab from the store at 5:30 on a Tuesday night after a long day at work.

FullSizeRender (3)

Soba noodles with shrimp tempura, Arashiyama.

And I’ll admit – I’ve been really surprised by Japanese food culture, at least what little I’ve seen of it. First and foremost, sugary drinks take a lot of rightful blame as a major source of excess calories in the American diet; we’re now seeing “soda taxes” and other measures designed to curb consumption and hopefully reduce our obesity and diabetes rates. But Japan, which I think many people perceive as one of the healthiest countries in the world (see The Blue Zones) is absolutely covered with drink vending machines. They are everywhere. There are apparently more than 5.5 million machines in this tiny country, while the U.S. has just under 7 million for nearly three times the population and a lot more landmass. While the machines do contain bottled water, they also contain sugared coffee drinks (cold and hot – and that is a miracle in the middle of this damp, frigid winter), sports drinks (the awkwardly-named Pocari Sweat is my favorite), and plenty of other sugary beverages. Clearly, the machines are worth the real estate – so why aren’t the Japanese plunging into a sugar-related health crisis like we are?


Fried snacks, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

I’ve also been surprised at the amount of refined grains, but that may be because I’m so focused on teaching whole grains at home. Obviously plain white rice is a staple served with every meal; we’re currently on a farm stay and the rice steamer is kept filled with fresh, hot rice for eating at any time of day. But the buns, pastries and breads are all soft, white and sweet – the bread available for our morning toast here is like that super-cheap, super-thick “Texas Toast” we used for French toast as kids. I watched the nine-year-old son eat four pieces slathered with fake butter and jam for his breakfast this morning, and he’s thin as a whippet. So again, I’m observing very high consumption of refined grains – which the body essentially converts to sugar – and yet not observing the expected results.


One of N’s recent lunches, and the only time yet I’ve seen raw vegetables such as lettuce and tomato.

Meals for us have primarily been inexpensive, filling and warming – plenty of ramen, of course, plus other noodle soup variations, but also curry rice and simple “lunch sets,” which usually include miso soup, various pickles and a main such as chicken and rice (photo above). These too have surprised me with the overall lack of vegetables. While there might be a few small dishes of pickled or fermented vegetables, we’ve only once had any served raw – a fresh carrot and daikon salad here at the farm, with a delicious creamy, tangy dressing. There are never any vegetables in the soups or with the meat and rice, certainly nothing like what we’d think of as traditional stir-fry. That said, the Japanese tend to cook more seasonally than we do, and I suspect we’d see a greater variety of raw vegetables during warmer months than in the middle of bleakest winter.


Pickled vegetable selection, Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

In stores, it’s package after package after package. From a thousand varieties of crunchy salty snacks to pre-made sandwiches to “Hot Pockets” to sushi and sashimi, I’ve noticed very little in the way of fresh ingredients designed for preparing meals at home. Fresh fruits and vegetables are almost nowhere to be seen and crazily expensive when found; I bought an apple in downtown Kyoto – one apple – for about $2.50. We’ve walked by a couple of small fruit and veg stands, but literally nothing that would rival your most basic American grocery store produce department with its stunning array of gloriously arranged, perfectly shiny, identically sized out-of-season fruits and vegetables. And yet the farm we’re currently staying on has acres of fruit trees and thousands of apples in cold storage right now, so where are they all going?


The oddest dessert I’ve ever eaten…jellied fruit and red beans with clear gelatinous cubes underneath. Algae? Gelatin? Space-age packing material? Also it came with what I thought was a sauce and may have actually been hand sanitizer. Not dead yet.

So after nearly two weeks of eating and travelling in Japan, I’m left with a mess of contradictions. The diet appears, at least on the surface, to be as unhealthy as ours in the U.S. And yet the people here, at least from my extremely limited research, don’t seem to be plagued by the same health crises. What can we learn from this?

(P.S. Please know that these observations are only based on a few days here in Japan and are in no way intended to represent some sort of serious large-scale sociological study. If anyone has spent time in Japan and has additional insight to share about the food culture, I’d love to hear it!)