1. What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets
by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio
At the movies, a sequel usually doesn’t bode well for your evening’s enjoyment. AlthoughWhat I Eat may be a follow-up to the blockbuster Hungry Planet—a coffee-table book that documented what families around the world eat—it’s just as good as the first. In What I Eat, Menzel and D’Aluisio take an even more personal approach by photographing subjects with a day’s worth of food; the pictures are accompanied by short descriptions of their lives, focusing on how they relate to their food. The authors traveled the globe searching for a wide range of people to feature, and the result is a stunning portrait of the excess, the moderation, and the want that exists today. We meet people as disparate as Millie Mitra, who lives in the south Indian city of Bangalore and, following an ancient practice believed to boost health, drinks her urine every morning, and Tiffany Whitehead of Minnesota, who is pictured with a day’s worth of fast food. (And we even meet Food Channel editor Corby Kummer, who candidly describes his daily diet.)
The authors make an interesting editorial choice by organizing the book by calories consumed. We begin in Kenya where Noolkisaruni Tarakuai, a Maasai herder who consumes a meager 800 calories, and travel all the way up to a British home where a mom who struggles with dieting eats a whopping 12,300 calories in one day.
I keep coming back to this book. I read it on my own, taking in the stories of these “normal” people. I read it with my kids—even with my three-year-old—and they pore over the photographs, studying the details, looking for similarities between their lives and those of the kids captured by the lens. And it’s this opportunity to measure your food, your life, with the rest of the world that is profound.
2. India: The Cookbook
by Pushpesh Pant
The art of Indian cooking is one best learned by hovering at the elbow of someone (likely a woman) who was taught to cook by hovering at the elbow of her own mother, or grandmother. At least this has been my experience. I’ve spent the last eight years of my marriage to a South Asian man trying to master my mother-in-law’s recipes through observation. But this method is far from foolproof. Blink and she’s measured a spice and added it to the pot. Or if I try to record the directions, they somehow don’t translate to paper. Enter Pushpesh Pant’s India.
This fulsome cookbook not only features 1000 recipes—”The only book on Indian food you’ll ever need,” boasts the cover—but also includes a handy glossary of ingredients and dishes from the subcontinent. (Now it is possible for newbies to differentiate betweenkulcha, korma, and kulthi.)
The book is divided into sections based on courses and includes a decent desserts chapter (which Indian cookbooks generally lack). Pant draws attention to the regional nature of Indian cuisine. Every town and state contains its own dishes and flavors, which he divides into 10 food regions, and two tribal categories.
This is relevant to our increasingly global food culture in North America. “India is no more a useful category,” said Krishnendu Ray, assistant professor of food studies at NYU. “You have to regionalize it. It’s Punjabi. It’s Gujarati.” This book is testimony to the fact that we are becoming more cosmopolitan
But do not let the hipster design and contemporary photographs lead you to believe that this book is solely for the tourist who needs luring in. The detailed recipes and regional specialties will satisfy even the most discerning connoisseur. If you’ve mastered Dadima’s keema, then there are plenty of mitais and curries left to explore. And the recipes work too. My father-in-law gave the matar paneer I prepared a thumbs up. Though he did say his wife’s dal was better than mine.
3. Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
by Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas
Just in case we thought our water-sucking, soil-eroding, global food system was special, a unique product of the modern age, Empires of Food reminds us that we’ve seen it all before. In Rome, in Medieval Europe, among other periods in world history, authors Fraser and Rimas recount in a deeply researched yet easy-to-read prose that mega food empires such as ours have ruled the earth before—and failed. Miserably. Good weather, new technologies, a focus on the production of monocultures and ample agricultural land (sound familiar?) fed ancient civilizations, enough to grow their towns into cities. But the good times never last as long as we think they will. As the authors note, the cracks in these ancient food empires led to fissures. Then they completely broke apart, triggering broader social collapse.
This book is written for both the proponent of industrial agriculture and the locavore. Those who believe in the strength and reach of the 21st century industrial food system might be interested to learn of the similarities between the present and the past. Local foodies, on the other hand, can read this book smugly, nodding in agreement and forecasting the end of today’s food empire. But whatever your position is at the start ofEmpires of Food, by the last chapter you’ll likely agree that we’d all better start thinking about an alternative.
4. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It)
by Jonathan Bloom
Ten minutes after author Jonathan Bloom began his new job at a supermarket, where he was to research food waste for his bookAmerican Wasteland, he was asked to throw food in the garbage. Before there was time to start his orientation, he had to sort through bagged lettuce and toss the mixes that had passed their best before date. This is just one of the many examples of extreme food waste that Bloom documents in this well-researched book. He follows the trail of waste along the food chain, from a lettuce farm in California, where perfectly good food is left behind in the fields, all the way to restaurants and our homes, where we squander even more.
But rather than being yet another industrial food system downer of a book, this is a good read that somehow inspires rather than defeats. Sure, the problem lies with the enormous scale of food production and distribution, but at least you, the reader, can stop some of the waste. Bloom’s first-person reportage draws you in and will have you promising to always bring Tupperware from home when you go out to eat (for a waste-free doggy bag) and to never, ever leave cilantro to rot in the crisper drawer.
by Nigella Lawson
Some might argue that if this book had been written by a writer named, say, Prunella Lawson, it might not have found its way onto a top books list. Sure, celebrity does play a role in today’s mega-star cookbook market, but this book is good. In Kitchen, Nigella is at her most down-to-earth and charming. The recipes are simple and cater to the modern household where every night an adult—exhausted from work, the schlep home, the swimming lessons—must whip up something healthy yet tasty to please all. Dishes such as Korean keema and Vietnamese pork noodle soup satisfy global taste buds and the family palate—and are fast to make too.
But what I liked most about Kitchen is the focus on leftovers. Nigella doesn’t want us to waste our food. She writes that she’s “genetically programmed” to avoid chucking anything edible. In a section called “Cook It Better” she writes: “This form of recycling, which is to say, turning the remnants of last week’s shopping into this week’s treat, seems to me to be at the very heart of what being a cook—as opposed to a chef—is all about.” So there are plenty of directions about what to do with, say, extra chicken or how best to freeze additional portions as well as suggestions for turning a loaf of stale bread into a pudding.
Kitchen would thus be the perfect companion to American Wasteland—the instructions for how to avoid waste in the most important room of your home.