Bookmarks–January 3, 2023
For my first bookmarks post of the new year, I’m going in a slightly different direction than in the past. Instead of links to articles, I’m sharing the names of some books I’ve read recently and highly recommend. They’re not new releases, but they all pertain to topics I enjoy discussing on this site–culinary history and legacy and issues of sustainability. I’ve included links and an excerpt from the introduction or first chapter of each book to whet your appetite.
Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal by Mark Bittman
In the author’s words, this book invites us to view human history through the lens of food, while also advocating for a “just” food system. Bittman traces the incredible changes and destruction wrought by industrialized agriculture and “Big Food,” the large food processing companies that create and market garbage food–the junk in the book’s title–and promote unsustainable land use practices. It is a timely book and hard to put down.
“With the development of agriculture…came the birth of societies and the invention of knives, axes, canoes, wheels, and more, each with profound effects on history. Humans built entire industries–entire civilizations–around their ability to bend the land and its fruits to their will. Land became the foundation of wealth…But agriculture has a dark side: It’s sparked disputes over land ownership, water use, and the extraction of resources. It’s driven exploitation and injustice, slavery and war. It’s even, paradoxically enough, created disease and famine.” (p. xii)
High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica B. Harris
I watched the excellent Netflix series based on this book before reading it, but sought it out because I wanted to hear more of Jessica B. Harris’ voice. A cookbook author and culinary historian, Ms. Harris writes beautifully as she traces the prejudices against and influence of African American foods.
“The history of African Americans in this country is a lengthy one that begins virtually at the time of exploration. Our often-hyphenated name, in all its complexity, hints at the intricate mixings of our past. We are a race that never before existed: a cobbled-together admixture of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. We are like no others before us or after us. Involuntarily taken from a homeland, molded in the crucible of enslavement, forged in the fire of disenfranchisement, and tempered by migration, we all too often remain strangers in the only land that is ours. Despite all this, we have created a culinary tradition that has marked the food of this country more than any other.” (p. 1)
Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro
I have included three books by Laura Shapiro on this list, but this is actually the second that I read. After finishing her book Something from the Oven, which documents the mid-century period, I was inspired to seek out this book that looks back a little further to the turn of the last century and the rise of the domestic science movement. In Perfection Salad, Ms. Shapiro looks at the moral imperative behind this movement and its lasting influence on both women and the North American diet.
“The women who founded and led the domestic-science movement were deeply interested in food, not because they admitted to any particularly intense appetite for it, but because it offered the easiest and most immediate access to the homes of the nation. If they could reform American eating habits, they could reform Americans; and so, with the zeal so often found in educated, middle-class women born with more brains and energy than they were supposed to possess, they set about changing what Americans ate and why they ate it.” (p. 5)
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro
As noted above, Something from the Oven picks up a short time after Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad. It discusses the efforts of “Big Food,” as Mark Bittman calls it, to shift people’s appetites toward convenience foods and away from traditional home cooking. While you can read these two companion books in reverse order, as I did, I’d recommend reading Perfection Salad first, for better chronological flow.
“During the last decades of the nineteenth century, factory-made foods began forging their way into homes across the country as rapidly as transportation and income levels permitted…But not until the end of World War II did the food industry take aim at home cooking per se, rapturously envisioning a day when virtually all contact between the cook and the raw makings of dinner would be obsolete. By the 1950s, magazines and newspapers were conjuring scenes in which traditional, kitchen-centered home life was being carried out in perfectly delightful fashion without a trace of traditional, kitchen-centered home cooking. The table was set, the smiling family was gathered, the mother wore a pretty apron, and the food was frozen. Or dehydrated. Or canned. Or prepared from what women were calling a ‘ready-mix.’” (p. xvi-xvii)
Julia Child: A Life by Laura Shapiro
The third in my set of books by Laura Shapiro, Julia Child is a brief but very engaging biography of the legendary chef, documenting her early life and marriage, the colossal effort behind the publication of her landmark book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her TV stardom.
“Her talent was cooking and her medium was food, but all the signals radiating from Julia as she sliced potatoes or carefully unmolded a dessert had to do with character. All of her fans understood this. They responded to her generous nature and abundant skills, maybe even tried to make their own puff pastry, because they knew they could believe in her. She wasn’t selling them anything; on the contrary, she was giving them everything.” (p. xix-xx)
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
This book was so much fun to read. Food writer Bee Wilson traces the history of everyday kitchen tools we take for granted, like pots and pans, measuring cups, refrigerators, and, yes, forks. Within each chapter, she has a sidebar for other tools, like tongs, toasters, and one of my favourites, the mezzaluna. But she starts by asking us to consider one of the most basic kitchen implements: the wooden spoon.
“A wooden spoon–most trusty and lovable of kitchen implements–looks like the opposite of ‘technology,’ as the word is normally understood. It does not switch on and off or make funny noises. It has no patent or guarantee. There is nothing futuristic or shiny or clever about it. But look closer at one of your wooden spoons…Countless decisions–economic and social as well as those pertaining to design and applied engineering–will have gone into the making of this object. And these in turn will affect the way this device enables you to cook. The wooden spoon is a quiet ensemble player in so many meals that we take it for granted.” (p. ix)
Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano
I can’t remember where I first saw a reference to Eat My Words–likely in the endnotes of another book–but its premise immediately intrigued me. As someone who likes to consider the culinary legacy left by mothers and grandmothers, I loved seeing so much importance attributed to historic cookery books which, in the author’s words, serve as “kitchen windows” into women’s lives.
“The themes found in cookbooks are timeless: life and death, youth and age, faithfulness and betrayal, memory and forgetfulness. Yet cookbooks also tell us how to make beauty and meaning in the midst of the mundane–a concept especially important for women, whose lives often are punctuated by the demands of feeding others. Despite or perhaps because of their ordinariness, because cooking is so basic to and so entangled in daily life, cookbooks have thus served women as meditations, memoirs, diaries, journals, scrapbooks, and guides…There is much to be learned from reading a cookbook besides how to prepare food–discovering the stories told in the spaces between the recipes or within the recipes themselves.” (p. 6)
Photo of books by Crystal Smith.