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The last half-decade has seen an explosion of many wonderful books about food, from celebrations of small-scale farming—I wanted the journey in Michael Ableman's Fields of Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2005) never to end—to thoughtful critiques of "factory food," like Food Inc., the book. I'm eagerly anticipating Anne Lappé's forthcoming Diet for a Hot Planet (Bloomsbury, 2010), and I rarely miss a week venturing into my colleague's office, which doubles as a cookbook library. (Gerald Hirigoyen's Pintxos—Ten Speed Press, 2009—is my current kitchen companion.) I've devoured many tomes seeking knowledge about great tasting and sustainably produced food.
Sometimes, though, my best insights and ideas come from works that aren't strictly about food. Three books—a text about American history, an ethnography of the art world, and a memoir about acting out other people's lives—have recently allowed me to think about food, and food systems, in new ways.
Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth (Oxford, 2009) is an extremely well-written academic history of American as viewed through the lens of natural resources. I highly recommend the three chapters about food, but a reader would miss too much by opening only those chapters. Steinberg's lucid but detailed discussions of water and land rights, non-food agricultural mono-cultures (especially cotton and tobacco), and forest management roundly inform anyone contemplating how our food system ought to be redirected.
I asked for this book to be required reading for my guest lectures at Berkeley, Duke, and the University of San Francisco. Every academic to whom I introduced it valued the suggestion, and the students seemed to like it as well. One of the lasting lessons of the book is that the roots of our industrial food system are a lot older than 60 years. The Midwest developed grain-growing on a massive scale to feed New England before 1840. The history of small fishermen losing their livelihoods to "economic progress" like mills and dams and big agricultural interests has been repeated with frightening regularity over 200 years.
Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World (W. W. Norton, 2009) never mentions food except in passing. Her work is a delightfully articulated ethnography of subcultures in the art world. I read it for a complete diversion from work—but, throughout, I kept thinking about the different interests, powerful and weak, moneyed and poor, who inhabit the world of food. Ultimately it inspired me to seek an ethnographic assignment I am pursuing next month—four days in a commercial kitchen observing and participating in the rhythms of what "really goes on" to produce massive numbers of meals in limited space, high temperatures, and little time for error.
Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, who writes funny but often depressing narratives on the plight of women and the less fortunate, is familiar to many readers. Nickel and Dimed (Henry Holt, 2001) is a decade old but still timely. Undertaking an odyssey to find out how anyone can actually live on the wages available to unskilled workers, Ehrenreich moved to unfamiliar towns, took jobs that required few formal skills, found housing that was barely accommodating, and ate what she could afford. I expected to read about customers' discourteous behavior toward waiters and similar indignities, but the book also gave me more reasons to think about why fast food is so popular. If your "stove" is a hot pot in a low-rent hotel, or non-existent in the van that serves as your transportation, storage, and sleeping quarters, how can a farmers' market that takes food stamps help you eat fresh vegetables?
There are probably thousands of books that could have directed my attention back to food issues without making me feel like my living room loveseat was actually in my office, but these three helped me draw inspiration from other fields and sharpened my perspective on food issues without discussing farming or fishing in any detail. For all of us whose work or interests focus on large-scale sustainable food issues, I recommend peppering the list of "must-reads" with other works. Here's to inspiration, from whatever source. Suggestions?