Food books, a feast of ideas

Special to the Los Angeles Times

There’s a Calvinist streak marbling the fat of any good American eater: One hand giveth and the other taketh away. I should. I shouldn’t. Pleasure and pain. I want it but I shouldn’t have it. This is a good time to reflect on just how American our obsession with food really is. And unlike television shows about food, which are for the most part fun and entertaining, and, yes, even informative, books about food cross a wide array of emotion, from memoirs dripping with nostalgia about Mom’s kitchen to impassioned manifestoes about changing the way we, the world, eat.

Look at the shelves at your local bookstore: There are relaxing volumes by foodies, amateur and professional, which are pure pleasure. Others, gently and not so gently, suggest other ways of eating, other lifestyles. Some draw out in more detail than you ever dreamed possible the myriad facets of an artisanal process. Then there are the books that make you feel scared and bad. Wrong living, bad for you, bad for the planet. Must…change…evil…ways. Terroir to terror.

While the season’s crop of food books has a little bit of everything, it tilts heavy toward the personal: One man’s search for the perfect loaf of bread to another’s fascination for Barolo; a memoir in which the yearning for pushcarts of the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century sends a reader running to the corner taco truck. Books by veteran chefs like Anthony Bourdain and books for rank beginners and picky kids. The message is: You can have whatever you want. Never has the variety been greater, the bounty more plentiful. Food grown organically and locally is easily available, if a bit pricier.

Wait a minute. It was too good to be true.


This season’s books also include two that paint a less delicious picture: Anna Lappé is the author of “Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It,” a wake-up call to happy, complacent eaters, not unlike Rachel Carson’s iconic “Silent Spring.” Lappé shows how modern agriculture contributes to global warming and how we can and should work to adapt it but also eat around it. Like her mother, food activist and writer Frances Moore Lappé, Anna Lappé's scope is global. This is not a book about where to get the best goat cheese. It’s about how to keep people around the world from starving while we in the Western world die of diabetes.

Maria Rodale, granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, the man who started Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine in 1942 and the publishing-research empire that grew from it, has written her “Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe.” She tells us that just when you thought it was safe to step into the field, you learn that in spite of the menu at your local restaurant featuring all organic, grass-fed, hormone- and pesticide-free ingredients, agribusiness is alive and well. Genetically modified foods enjoy a wide and profitable distribution even as Rodale offers research that shows that the chemicals that keep them afloat cause asthma, diabetes and are linked to various cancers.

Rodale just about comes out and accuses chemical companies of a kind of genocide. “I am not accusing these companies of willfully exterminating the entire human race,” she writes. “But they have worked hard to quash research that suggests their products are harmful.” Rodale reminds us that eating organic is not all about deliciousness, beauty and vitality. Organic farming, she explains, more efficiently traps carbon dioxide, helping to offset global warming through carbon sequestration in the soil. It is possible and even more practical, she argues, to feed the world’s hungry people using organic farming methods. Governments must stop subsidizing chemical farming. Rodale interviewed many farmers dependent on chemicals. It was their testimonies that truly inspired her to write this book.

Traditionally, the thou-shalt-nots have come in the form of the diet-of-the-week, and in “The Hundred Year Diet: America’s Voracious Appetite for Losing Weight,” Susan Yager reveals just how long we’ve been indulging our diet addiction, how deeply this puritanical strain runs in our blood and how badly it has backfired. We are an overfed nation, she writes, “but it’s undeniable that in America today, there are vocal and articulate leaders with a large following that demand a purer food supply —- a plant-based diet of pesticide- and additive-free fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”


Anthony Bourdain, with his eat-first, think-later attitude, is our very own food cowboy. He hates to be told what to do. In “Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook,” Bourdain sings a love song to food and the people who live for it. Eating ortolans, endangered little birds, would not go over big on the menu at, say, Planet Raw in Santa Monica, but Bourdain closes his eyes and swoons. The fat. The skin. “So hot that I’m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out — like a high speed trumpet player, breathing around the Ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I don’t burn myself.” Sounds like something else altogether, huh?

“Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food From Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid” doesn’t quite hit the same high note, but it is also, in its way, a reminder to get out there and savor your food. Melanie Rehak admits that when she started reading the manifestoes (by the likes of Michael Pollan — whose “Food Rules” is No. 3 on this week’s paperback bestsellers list — and others) she felt confused. On top of that, having a child shifted her focus away from personal pleasure when it came to eating. At first, she found this annoying, but the more she learned about cooking and feeding children and where food comes from, the more she enjoyed eating organically. It’s the being-told part, the being lectured, as any kid will tell you, that takes the fun out of things. Learning on your own, deciding what you are willing to jettison for political and health reasons and what you are willing to keep eating because you simply cannot live without it doesn’t feel so much like punishment.

In “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement,” Jane Ziegelman describes the variety of flavors, the mix of traditions that flourished in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Less money meant greater creativity, more improvisation — breweries in the Bowery, Romanian pastrami, Russian blintzes, German strudel, Italian cheese and tomato pies — this is where the pedal hits the metal, where people far from home without much money create unforgettable cuisines and pass them on.

“Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life” by Kim Severson is, much like Bourdain’s memoir, a hymn to the blessed cooks. Severson, a food writer at the New York Times, gives thanks to the likes of Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Marcella Hazan, Rachael Ray and her mother, Anne Marie Severson. Each cook taught her something different, some invaluable survival skill.


And it’s true — the one thing all these books have in common, no matter how strident or pleasure-seeking, is survival. Survival of the palate, of the culture, of traditions, of the soil, of people who are starving, of the planet. Just a few years ago, a similar crop contained more books on whether or not to eat animals; where to buy your food and how to best spend your food dollars. There were a lot of decisions to make. This group seems more determined, entitled even, to the idea of pure food and as much variety as possible. You can have it all. There’s enough to go around.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.