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34 Noteworthy Food and Farming Books for the Summer of 2021

Books We Read

We Are the Land: A History of Native California
By Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.

An ambitious attempt to unpack the obvious and hidden meanings of California as a place and as an idea, We are the Land challenges the prevailing colonial history of the state. By expanding a compressed history of the 170 years since California became a state, William Bauer, an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Northern California’s Mendocino County, and historian Damon Akins delineate the enduring and adaptive cultures of many Indigenous peoples, highlighting the mutual influences and trade that characterized inter-tribal relationships. Their writing combines lyrical storytelling with academic narration to foreground Indigenous oral stories. The effect is both whimsical and authoritative: creation stories open up new understandings of California’s geological formations and Indigenous ways of relating to nature. The harvest of acorns, for example, happens as part of controlled-burn land management practices, showcasing the holistic integration of ecological and cultural practices that is central to many tribal traditions. Through spatial vignettes of tribal communities throughout the state, the authors decisively reject tired narratives of victimization and point out how Indigenous people have survived violent policies created to marginalize them. The book’s well-researched micro-histories coalesce to create a necessary rewriting of Californian history.
— Hannah Ricker

We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy
By Natalie Baszile

we are each other's harvest book cover

Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel Queen Sugar brought a story of African American land and agricultural legacy to readers (and viewers, when Ava DuVernay turned it into a television series for OWN) through a fictionalized account. Now, with We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Baszile shares the true stories of a number of Black farmers, scholars, and artists. The book is an anthology accompanied by essays, poems, and historical accounts from Black food and farming leaders such as Michael Twitty and Leah Penniman. It includes important historical accounts of the factors that have driven land loss, including broken government promises during Reconstruction, heirs’ property laws, and discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Evocative poems like Tim Seibles’ “Fearless” weave in imagery—“the green fire bounding back”—that simultaneously taps into the practical challenges of farming and metaphors of resilience and rebirth. The stories celebrate African American agricultural knowledge and innovation, from Booker T. Whatley’s pioneering of community-supported agriculture as well as mini-profiles of today’s Black farmers who, against long odds, are doing everything from raising goats and cows in North Carolina to tending to vineyards in Northern California. Baszile writes that her intention is to shine a light on systems that continue to oppress Black and brown people but also to reset the narrative around labor, “inspiring communities of color to reimagine what it means to be connected to the soil.”
— Lisa Held

The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora: Recipes and Techniques for Edible Plants from Garden, Field, and Forest
By Alan Bergo

Flora book cover

This lusciously photographed treatise in four chapters explores the many culinary uses and old-timey homesteader appeal of plants found almost everywhere an eagle-eyed forager turns: dandelions from the backyard, roadside lilies, tree nuts growing in nearby forests. Although recipes are the main focus of the book, Chef Bergo, known as the “forager chef,” is more concerned with “normaliz[ing] wild plants,” as he writes in the introduction, as well as helping readers comprehend how the foods they gather will function in various dishes, in order to make them seem less foreign and intimidating. He also provides examples of substitutes in the event that a wild food is unavailable or too tricky to identify. Bergo makes no pretense of helping his readers identify plants, so if you’re new to foraging this may not be the book for you. Or, better yet, take an excursion with a master forager before you hit the kitchen.
— Lela Nargi

Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal
By Mark Bittman

animal vegetable junk cover

In this comprehensive, encyclopedic recounting of the history of food, cookbook author and columnist Mark Bittman poses a timely question: What would a just food system look like? His answer unfolds through a 1.8-million-year history of food production, beginning with the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture, emphasizing the profound consequences imparted through this millennia-long process, from increased crop failures and malnourishment to the rise of hierarchical societies and legal systems to protect private crop lands. Beyond a strict archeological recounting of how technology gave way to more populous, urban centers, Bittman’s brilliant storytelling is supported by his critical historical analysis. He questions his readers’ assumptions about gendered roles of food production and challenges us to see famines and malnutrition not as ecological failures, but as decisive political maneuvers of capitalist logic. Bittman boldly asserts that the pressure to feed the growing population is the foundation for imperialism and colonization, providing case after case to demonstrate how state revenues that relied on trading agricultural surplus could only be achieved by overworking bodies and soils. Bittman encourages a more radical political rethinking: Chronic global hunger won’t be solved by our fertilizer addiction but by addressing the abuse of power and wealth in our globalized trade system. For readers looking to understand how we’ve winnowed what we grow to a handful of crops, depleted our soils of vital nutrients, and made hunger an endemic part of our food system, this book lays bare agriculture as a political project—and suggests a new way forward.
— Hannah Ricker

The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes and Tips for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet
By Anne-Marie Bonneau

zero waste chef

By now, you probably that know food waste is a problem. From unharvested crops to forgotten bags of spinach in the fridge, up to 40 percent of food in America goes to waste annually, polluting the environment and emptying our wallets. But reducing personal food waste can be overwhelming. (We meant to use that spinach, really, but forgot it was there.) Anne Maire Bonneau, who has been documenting her near-decade-long mission to live while using as little plastic and wasting as little food as possible on the website Zero Waste Chef, seeks to make it easier in the new book with the same name. The book includes 75 recipes—including Mexican Hot Chocolate Bread Pudding, Black-Eyed Pea and Mushroom Burgers, and many others—designed to help you use up all your groceries. In addition to the recipes, the book includes simple, actionable tips for how to banish plastic wrap, how to best store your food, and more. Whether you’re looking to start working toward a zero-waste kitchen or need some additional tips to get you further along on the journey, you’re sure to find a strategy you can implement or a recipe worth experimenting with in Zero Waste Chef.
— Bridget Shirvell

Why Food Matters: Critical Debates in Food Studies
By Melissa Caldwell

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If critical thought on contemporary food systems is your thing, Why Food Matters is the book for you. Caldwell’s collection identifies emerging trends and offers challenges to commonly held ideas within the quickly growing realm of food studies. From the juxtaposed value of immigrant farmworkers and mostly white WWOOFers to “guerrilla gardening” as a sovereignty strategy for Palestinians in Israel, this book will keep its readers’ brains churning through new ways of thinking about what food means and why it matters. Tying food studies to anthropology and weaving in threads of social justice throughout, some of the contributions skew deeply academic. However, Caldwell’s clear and accessible introductions to each of the book’s four parts set them up to be digestible for readers of all types. Though it may have been written with students and teachers in mind, Why FoodMatters‘ cutting-edge interpretations of what food studies entails—topics range from the fringe like microbiopolitics (a microbe-focused food ethics idea that focuses on the human relationship with microbes, they impacts they have on our lives, and what we decide to do about them) to more well-worn subjects such as animal welfare and Fair Trade—offer thought-provoking value beyond the classroom.
— Cinnamon Janzer

The Perennial Kitchen: Simple Recipes for a Healthy Future
by Beth Dooley

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The Perennial Kitchen is a cookbook that manages to be both universal and forward-looking. It lauds local farms and includes detailed instructions for those interested in learning how to bake bread, make stock, roast a chicken, and preserve fresh fruit. But author Beth Dooley wants to do more than help her readers master the basics; she also wants to introduce them to regenerative agriculture, a set of practices used to improve soil health, restore rural ecosystems, and capture carbon to help reverse climate change. The recipes and stories highlight regenerative farmers in the Midwest—a region usually associated with corn and soy monocultures—and ingredients grown on farms that use minimum tillage, cover crops, and managed grazing, among other regenerative practices. Dooley, who has authored or co-authored more than a dozen cookbooks, including a James Beard Award winner, advocates eating more perennials such as hazelnuts and berries because they don’t require tilling or replanting. She also gives special attention and multiple recipes to the new perennial wheat variety Kernza, an ingredient with big environmental benefits. And her recipes also champion artisan grains—from older wheat varieties such as emmer, spelt, and kamut to oats, barley, rye, and sorghum—as well as heritage beans, perennial vegetables, and pastured meats. The recipes are accompanied by cooking tips, resources for finding regenerative ingredients, and earthy photographs that will make you want to immediately put down the book and start cooking.
— Gosia Wozniacka

The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live
By Danielle Dreilinger

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I was lucky enough to take home ec in middle school—though I certainly didn’t think myself lucky at the time. The class aimed to fill young teenagers’ heads with the importance of not just cooking and sewing, but also budgeting, nutrition, and many other functional domestic skills. Although I didn’t acknowledge until much later how useful the class was, I only just learned how the practice of home economics built on nothing short of a radical, 200-year history of work to liberate women through scientific education. In The Secret History of Home Economics, Danielle Dreilinger has woven together the histories of the women who built home economics from an idea of “women’s work” into a department of the federal government, with the 1923 establishment of the Bureau of Home Economics within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As should be the case with any study of U.S. history, Dreilinger examines the role that racism played in shaping the course of home ec—through the sidelining of pioneering Black home economics advocate Margaret Murray Washington, how discrimination and prejudice at the USDA hamstrung the earliest efforts to bring home ec education to communities of color, and even persistent segregation within some national home-ec advocacy groups during the civil rights era. Dreilinger brings the history of home economics up to the present day—although an unfortunate 1993 name change to “family and consumer sciences” only “rendered the field invisible,” according to professor Hazel Taylor Spitze—and closes out this eye-opening history with five suggestions for bringing back home ec. For a home ec alum, Dreilinger’s book was a great reminder of the value of the field, and the importance of these skills for anyone at any age.
— Matthew Wheeland

Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen That Works
By Barry Estabrook

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“There are only three diets,” writes veteran food journalist Barry Estabrook in Just Eat—and over the course of the book, he proceeds to explore the myriad permutations of low-fat, low-carb, and calorie-limited diets that have given us Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, keto, South Beach, and so many more. Driven by his own urgent health needs—Estabrook aims to lose weight quickly to reduce his risk of heart attack—he surveys everything from the truly horrible Master Cleanse to the Seventh-Day Adventist diets practiced by the community in Loma Linda, California. What he finds is a truism for anyone who’s been on the diet merry-go-round: Fad diets often provide quick results, but over the long term the diet that works is the one that you can maintain. Just Eat offers a much easier read than a book like Gary Taubes’ epic Good Calories, Bad Calories. Although Estabrook does touch on the science underlying nutrition and weight loss for many of these diets, his goal is to take readers along on his journey to find a healthier way to eat for the long term. So whether you’re low-carb, low-fat, paleo, CRON, or diet-agnostic, Just Eat is an engaging way to learn that what you eat may not be as important as how: Estabrook argues that conscientious, mindful eating is the diet for the ages.
— Matthew Wheeland

Why We Cook: Women On Food, Identity, And Connection
By Lindsay Gardner

why we cook book cover

Part cookbook, part collection of essays, Why We Cook is a bit like eavesdropping on a really cool dinner party. Through interviews, recipes, and profiles, the book features 112 women in food: restaurateurs, activists, food writers, home cooks, and professional chefs, including Leah Penniman, Ruth Reichl, and Julia Turshen, among others. Penniman, for instance, gives readers a glimpse of a day in her life at Soul Fire Farm, while Reichl shares the meals that left the most significant impressions on her. Others, such as restaurateur Nicole Ponseca, share favorite recipes and the stories behind them. Gardner includes watercolor illustrations alongside each woman’s profile. Reading this book had me recalling the women and dishes that tell the story of my own life and looking forward to asking them about the stories behind the foods they share. You’ll want to return to it again and again.
— Bridget Shirvell

What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients
By Peter Hoffman

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Peter Hoffman is one of a handful of chefs who have directly influenced my life path. When I read his first book, What’s Good? A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients, I was instantly reminded what a farm-to-table pioneer he truly is, and how influential his iconic New York City restaurants, Savoy, Back Forty, and Back Forty West, were. Hoffman, who left the restaurant world in 2016, has collected wonderful personal stories from moments inside his restaurants and from the field. He shares those stories alongside a farmers’ market guide and exploration of the foods we eat—including his “chloroholic” fondness for spring’s “green foods” (English peas, fava beans, string beans, sugar snap peas, green garlic, asparagus) to alliums (onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and ramps) and autumn’s brassicas (kale, rabe, mustard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts). His recipes and the botanical backstories on seasonal, greenmarket favorites (see: entire chapters on garlic, strawberries, and Grenada peppers) will inspire even the most burned-out home cook.
— Naomi Starkman

Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need
By Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman