Got an insatiable appetite for reading? Want an engaging bedtime story about, well, your dinner plate? Here are five nonfiction books that will hit the spot and reveal your food’s mysterious journey prior to arriving at the table. So help yourself to some learning, and don’t feel guilty when you go back for seconds.
Barbara Kingsolver — a writer well-known for her novel about a missionary family in the Congo, “The Poisonwood Bible” — reflects on a year spent eating homegrown and locally produced food in southern Appalachia with her family. She harps on the evils of industrial agriculture, a supermarket-centric diet and the loss of connection with where exactly our food comes from. With today’s locavore trend, replete with the intricacies of your chicken entrée’s farm background detailed on your dinner menu, books on local food and sustainable agriculture are sprouting up on bookshelves with fervor.
But Kingsolver, always a novelist, infuses a distinctive literary flavor to her diary of an accidental gardener, making “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” as delightful of a read as the Price family’s misadventures in the depths of the African jungle. With vivid passages on “the song of a stir-fry sizzle, the small talk of clinking measuring spoons, the yeasty scent of rising dough, the painting of flavors onto a pizza before it slides into the oven,” you’ll practically be drooling to embrace the lost culture of backyard vegetable gardens yourself.
Although published more than a decade ago, Eric Schlosser’s exposé on the fast food industry’s mutilation of the American diet remains as relevant as ever. What Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” did for meatpacking a century earlier, “Fast Food Nation” achieves today.
Schlosser investigates the mysteries behind the mass production of our food, from the chemistry responsible for both “natural” and artificial flavoring to the slop that goes in the cattle’s trough before it becomes your 99-cent hamburger. He begins his horror story with a fascinating historical account of the founding of fast food giants and the quick embrace of frozen french fries and Ford’s assembly line, building up to the overarching question of, “Where do we go from here?”
While this book carries a lot of shock factor akin to Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me” documentary, Schlosser packs in a heaping serving of journalistic prowess. His revealing interviews with underpaid, overworked teenage employees and slaughterhouse sanitation workers will make your jaw drop — and lead you on a speedy exit away from the drive-thru window.
Before he trotted the globe sampling an exotic smorgasbord for his TV show, Anthony Bourdain was slaving away behind the scenes as a chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan. In this deliciously funny — and characteristically vulgar — tribute to the often forgotten world of kitchen hands, Bourdain shares surprising tales about the cutthroat, rough-around-the-edges troupe who prepares your fancy dinner out. Although Bourdain would later boil down the very book responsible for catapulting him to fame to an overhyped warning on “why you shouldn’t order the fish on Mondays,” “Kitchen Confidential” is much more than that and is rightfully on the required reading list for foodies.
Our frank tour guide through restaurant kitchens dishes on what makes for the ideal mise en place, why Jackson Pollock-esque garnishes are unnecessary, and of course, why meat has a rightful place in humanity’s diet (vegetarians, read with a grain of salt). Coming from the guy who seems to run his kitchen like machismo hell, expect a rambling culinary commentary spiced up with a good dose of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, devil-may-care attitude.
Jonathan Safran Foer, contemporary literary darling and author of acclaimed novels “Everything is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” alternated between being a vegetarian and a carnivore for much of his life. After become a husband and father, he was forced to confront some serious questions about why we are willing to eat meat if we know about the animals who contributed their lives to our meals. Why is it considered OK for us to eat some animals but not others?
If you’ve heard that Foer’s passionate argument against animal cruelty converted Natalie Portman to veganism — or so she claims — then you have an idea of the type of powerful persuasion you’re getting yourself into. Foer delves into the many flaws of today’s “factory farming,” from the government-sanctioned destruction of our environment to the systematic degradation of animals as a mere protein source. He urges all readers to realize that their passivity on the issue only furthers the system, for “in the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle.”
A true storyteller, Foer infuses a potentially preachy sermon with wit about the insanity of the industry and heartwarming details about his own life and self-examination. Placing himself as the main character in this great dilemma about where our food comes from, Foer engages and moves the reader toward action, leaving an impressive trail of facts, statistics and did-you-know morsels of information behind him all the while. “Eating Animals” is a moral pick-me-up for loyal vegetarians who have fallen into mere habit and a bridge to understanding for skeptical meat-eaters. Regardless of whether or not you ultimately go vegan à la Portman, you’ll never feel quite the same way about the wafting aroma of freshly cooked bacon again. And as Foer will tell you, that’s a good thing.
Julia Child, Martha Stewart’s precursor, wrote the gold standard on French cooking for Americans, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One.” “My Life in France” is the true story behind that cookbook. More accurately, it is about Child’s love affair with French cooking.
Child had the good fortune of landing herself in Paris due to her husband’s government job, and eventually studied at the Cordon Bleu, discovering the enchanting secrets of French kitchens. “My Life in France” is a charming ode to the delights of Brie, bouillabaisse, boeuf bourguignon and baguettes. It’s also an inspiring tale, as the reader witnesses Child’s obsessive pursuit of culinary perfection. In her tireless efforts to get an English recipe for French bread just right, she uses up 200 pounds of flour. As she explains, “no one is born a great cook; one learns by doing. This is my invariable advice to people: … be fearless.”
Even those of us too young to have fond memories of Child’s TV cooking show will relish this memoir’s heartwarming nostalgia for post-World War II France and the culinary adventures the country offered to an American woman eager to savor it all. Child’s description of her seminal French meal will make your mouth water and leave you hungering for a similarly enlightening lunch. Bon appétit!