While we've all been eating our entire lives, recently there has been a huge increase in awareness of where our food comes from, how it's produced, and how that affects our bodies and our environment. Along with this awareness has come a cornucopia of books focusing on food. There are books about what to eat, how to eat, where to eat, why to eat, and, I'm sure, when to eat. In an effort to help you narrow your search for the essential volumes to add to your book shelf I've compiled my list of the essential food books for the green eater from the past few years. The titles range from food history to cookbooks to food system analysis. Keep reading to get your fill.
The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating
The 100 Mile Diet documents the eating experiment of Vancouver couple, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon. Unless you've only recently stumbled on the idea of local eating, you've probably heard that the authors ate foods only sourced within 100 miles of their urban apartment for a whole year. What starts as a struggle through the first spring grows into a quiet revolution around the dinner table.
There is a simplicity and honesty in the 100 Mile Diet that makes it attractive and accessible. It's not about rules, it’s about exploration and celebration of everywhere. Smith and MacKinnon are not breaking down a system or digging up the dark side of an industry. They’re celebrating - creating community.
After the release of the book, the 100 Mile Diet became a cultural phenomenon that struck a chord with people around the world. Smith and MacKinnon demonstrate how the daily need to eat can create lasting community by consciously connecting, in the most basic way, with the immediate environment. Along the way, people living in Scotland, Alaska, Sweden, even Antarctica, share 100 mile eating stories with them. Their journey is restricted by geographical boundaries, but the idea transcends them.
The quintessential book about the joys and struggles of local eating.
100 Mile Diet
(For some odd reason the U.S. publisher changed the name of this book to the cumbersome Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally.)
Food Security For The Faint Of Heart: Keeping Your Larder Full In Lean Times
Once the domain of survivalists, Mormons and others waiting the apocalypse preparing for the worst is entering the mainstream consciousness. In our uncertain times a book like Food Security For The Faint Of Heart by Robin Wheeler is a welcome addition to any conscious eater's bookshelf. Wheeler takes us from "10 reasons to be food secure" - including "Stuff Happens. Earthquakes, trucker strikes, who knows; in an instant our world could change. We should be better prepared" - to the power of working together, with humor and authority.
Wheeler gives a lesson in sharing.
Anthropologists are fairly certain that when ancient people brought a big hunk of dead animal home, they didn't just drag it into their cave and slam the door. They shared it. There was probably some nasty pecking order involved, with Uncle Bob getting prime rib and Jimmy getting the feet and tail, but hoarding food for oneself seems to have come along later in the game.
With tips on stockpiling, harvesting wild food, buying organic cheaply, and how to make medicine from your garden Wheeler covers everything you need to know to be prepared if the power goes out for a few days or if the shit finally does hit the fan. If you have even the slightest concern that the global food system may start to crumble, or you want to save a few bucks, this book is for you. Food Security For the Faint of Heart
More on increasing your food's safety
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Frugal Green Living: Preserving the Harvest
How To Cook Everything
The name says it all. If you want to connect with the food system you have to cook, and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything is the cookbook to get even the most culinarily challenged amongst us comfortable in the kitchen.
From the lost (simple) art of baking bread to the (not much) more complex science of sauce making this book has it all. Dubbed as the "hip Joy of Cooking", Bittman offers enough simple instructions to keep the sweat off the brow of the beginner while including enough variations to spark new ideas for the veteran home cook. I refer to my copy multiple times a week.
But, the beauty of this book is that it's more than just a collection of recipes. Bittman understands what a sustainable food system looks like and gently nudges the reader to choose ethically when sourcing ingredients. Without preaching he'll let you know how to choose sustainable fish or why you might want to choose certified organic eggs, and then he quickly movcs on to the cooking.
Bittman recently released a tenth anniversary edition with significant revisions, and there's even a vegetarian version for those averse to meat. How To Cook Everything
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
If there is one book that has inspired people in North America to take a long hard look at what they're eating this is it. Michael Pollan has become the popular voice of the sustainable agriculture movement, even finding the ear of Barack Obama. The Omnivore's Dilemma is his signature work. It's the first concise investigation into the health of the contemporary U.S. food system.
The New York Times summarizes Pollan's work in it's list of best book of 2006.
"When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety," Pollan writes in this supple and probing book. He gracefully navigates within these anxieties as he traces the origins of four meals - from a fast-food dinner to a "hunter-gatherer" feast - and makes us see, with remarkable clarity, exactly how what we eat affects both our bodies and the planet. Pollan is the perfect tour guide: his prose is incisive and alive, and pointed without being tendentious. In an uncommonly good year for American food writing, this is a book that stands out.
A friend of mine was so moved by The Omnivore's Dilemma that he quit his university teaching position and became an organic mixed vegetable farmer, along with his family. Essential reading. The Omnivore's Dilemma
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
In Defense of Food is Michael Pollan's follow-up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. This time around Pollan takes a closer look at who tells us what to eat and why. In so doing he, well, tells us what to eat and why. His succinct advice at the beginning of the book serves as a comfortable fall-back to anyone confused about making the best food choice for themselves and good ol' Mother Earth. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (By "food" Pollan means real food, whole food, minimally processed food, you know, "food".)
An intriguing look at how government policy has shaped agriculture and food in America. A favorite section describes how when margarine was first introduced it was required to be colored pink, so that consumers wouldn't be fooled into thinking it was actually butter. How times have changed.
In Defense of Food
More on Michael Pollan
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Biofuels, Food, and Sustainability Examined: Michael Pollan Interviewed by Yale Univ.
Michael Pollan: Read it and Eat!
The Oxford Companion To Food
In my house Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion To Food is called The Book. It is a comprehensive encyclopedia of food, from, no really, aardvark, to zucchini and everything, and I do mean everything, in-between. (Supposedly the second edition, published in 2006 ends with zuppa inglese, but I can't verify that.)
Peppered with illustrations and jammed with historical citations and concise explanations of physical appearance and preparation methods, I won't put any new food in my mouth until I've read what Davidson has to say about it. Expanded essays on staple products like bread, sugar, and rice just add to this book's authority. Knowing the origins of our food helps demonstrate the interconnectedness of our world and how we've all benefited from the ingenuity and hard work of our ancestors and people on the opposite side of the world. A must have for anyone with more than a passing interest in food. Oxford Companion To Food
No Nonsense Guide To World Food
The No Nonsense Guide To World Food by Wayne Roberts is an accessible read that looks at the workings of the global food system. Roberts' work with the Toronto Food Policy Council and service on the boards of the Community Food Security Coalition and Food Secure Canada show he is a champion of community based food systems.
Roberts explains the importance of food sovereignty.
When food is of, by and for the people, then food security lies in food sovereignty. When we understand the food traditions of indigenous peoples and peasants in the Global South, the ethic of community-based food systems and food sovereignty starts to become clear.
Using examples from around the world this lively book is a great introduction into how our food gets from farm to fork and what we can do to improve that system. No Nonsense Guide to World Food
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Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle For The World Food System
In Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel uncovers the reasons why 800 million people are starving in the world while a cool billion people are overweight. Setting his sights squarely at multinational corporate greed, Patel explains how our global food system has gotten so out of whack and then offers insight into how people around the world are creating alternative systems to, literally, save their lives.
Patel's book is a call to action to reclaim the food system for the people.
...there are ways to reclaim our sovereignty, to become more than just consumers, by reconfiguring the food system and rewriting the relations of power that exploit people both in growing, and in eating. There are no guarantees that the hard tasks of living differently will succeed. But unless we choose to try, we are certain to fail.
Stuffed and Starved
More on the global food system
The Future of the Global Food System
On Global Food Crisis, Bill Clinton Says "We Blew It"
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Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest To End Famine
As the title suggests, in Where Out Food Comes From Gary Paul Nabhan retraces Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov's quest to end famine. Nabhan mirrors routes that Vavilov took in the 20s and 30s on his search for drought resistant seeds that would help end years of crop failures in his homeland, with stops including Afghanistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, Lebanon, the U.S.A., and many more. The importance of Vavilov's work back then, and in Nabhan's work today, is to highlight the centers of crop diversity that have given us most of the food crops we recognize today.
One of the most important, if not the most important, issue for food security is access to climate appropriate seeds. In the western world most farmers buy their seed from seed companies that produce hybrid seeds the grow into plants with reliable characteristics. The problems with this include the fact that farmers have to buy new seeds every year, and that variations in landscape are not accounted for by the seed companies. Everyone is, for the most part, growing the same variety of crop. If the company discontinues a specific variety, too bad.
On the other hand, peasant farmers around the world have always had informal seed networks that provide them with life giving seeds if they can't secure it on their own. Barring some sort of catastrophic disaster the farmers save seed from one year to plant at the beginning of the next growing season. Simple enough.
Nabhan's book explains why Vavilov's work from almost 100 years ago is relevant in today's world.
Today, scientists take as a given what Vavilov first articulated, a message that ultimately cost him his life: Agricultural biodiversity is the cornerstone for building greater food security for humankind; without it, our food system will be crippled by pestilence and plague, drought and flood, global warming, and the economic or environmental side effects of globalization.
And wouldn't you now it, the topic of agricultural biodiversity is just getting started in the TreeHugger forums. Where Our Food Comes From
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