As 2021 draws to a close, we’ve selected some of the best books to read and share as holiday gifts. We hope they carry you through the holiday season and into the new year with newfound wisdom and inspiration.
Books We Read
This new cookbook from chef and former farmer Abra Berens is a delightful, useful guide to grains and legumes. Berens founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan, where she farmed and cooked for eight years before eventually becoming the executive chef at Michigan’s Grangor Farm. In Grist, she walks readers through how to use nearly 30 different grains, beans, and legumes. Part cookbook, part educational resource, and written like a love letter to those foods, Berens tells the story of the farmers behind the crops and offers up a practical guide to using lesser known ingredients such as amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, sorghum, and more. Berens also shares how these foods are farmed, their history, and their environmental impacts. Readers meet producers such as Carl Wagner, a farmer and seed cleaner in Niles, Michigan; Larry Gates, a wild rice forager in Cass Lake, Minnesota; and many others. With 125 recipes, there’s plenty to inspire at-home cooking—plus, Berens offers up easy ways to swap up flavor profiles like Pea Breakfast Fritters with Fried Eggs or Greens & Smoked Yogurt, which becomes a hearty lunch or dinner by swapping out ratatouille and basil for the eggs.
Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains
By Lucas Bessire
In 2016, anthropologist Lucas Bessire returned to his family’s farm in southwest Kansas and spent all night listening to the well pump 1,400 gallons of water per minute from the Ogallala aquifer deep below. The natural groundwater reservoir beneath the Great Plains—which supplies one-third of all the water used for irrigation in the U.S.—is running dry. Running Out is a chronicle of Bessire’s soul-searching journey to understand and preserve the aquifer. “Groundwater runs through my family lines like blood,” he writes. His great-grandfather, R.W., was one of the first to drill into the aquifer waters near the banks of the Cimarron River, and Bessire traces five generations of family history intertwined with the land’s “depletion.” He details the emptying of the Plains—bison, wildlife, Native people, shortgrass prairie, soil, and water—and the multibillion-dollar agribusinesses ordained “to pump the water until it’s gone.” And as he sees it, the region’s concentration of feedlots, meatpacking plants, and ethanol plants, all depend on the unregulated depletion of the water table. Like the Ogallala’s own sedimentary layers, Running Out overlays memoir with ecology, sociology, agronomy, and politics. It is also a reckoning with the profound and unsettling dimensions of the water crisis occurring in arid regions of the world from China to Chile, exacerbated by drought and climate change. A finalist for the National Book Award, Running Out is a concise and gripping depiction of the immense ecological, social, and personal costs of running out of water.
To students of the civil rights movement, the decade-long struggle that culminated in the landmark passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was fought by men: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Congressman John Lewis. But in Power Hungry, journalist and New York University professor Suzanne Cope re-centers this history on the unsung women who powered the movement. The first is Aylene “Mama” Quin, a restaurateur, beauty shop owner, and occasional bootlegger in McCombs, Mississippi, who fed the parade of protesters, organizers, and activists that passed through her doors. She did not back down even after her home was bombed with 14 sticks of dynamite thrown by local Ku Klux Klan members. The second is Cleo Silvers, an activist who became an important member of the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party, running its office and the organization’s free breakfasts and Black history lessons for hungry school kids. Women like Quin and Silvers were “bridge leaders,” who made the movement accessible to their people, and they followed in the long tradition of Black women as community spiritual leaders, Cope writes. And it was the very ordinariness of their “activist mothering” (a term coined by Dr. Françoise Hamlin) that allowed their subversive work to fly beneath the radar of law enforcement. This was no small feat, since the FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, was obsessed with destroying the Panthers through any means necessary—a vendetta that Cope describes in detail. Many other notable women activists make appearances in the book, including Fannie Lou Hamer, whose fiery speech in support of Black voting rights at the 1964 Democratic National Convention catapulted her into the spotlight and set the stage for her food sovereignty work and the launch of the Freedom Farm Cooperative.
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
By Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh’s comprehensive book begins with the Dutch East India Company’s near-total destruction of the Banda islands in modern-day Indonesia in 1621, a move meant to ensure the company’s monopoly over an item easily found in any supermarket today: nutmeg. Ghosh chose this moment as the starting point for his story because he sees numerous versions of this conflict throughout history as colonial powers moved across the world, decimating Indigenous populations in order to control edible plants they saw simply as commodities. The Nutmeg’s Curse contrasts colonial ideas of extraction—which connect to today’s numerous environmental crises—with Indigenous stories about foods such as nutmeg, sugarcane, and cloves. In the Indigenous view, humanity is completely intertwined with, indeed related to, these products of nature rather than separate from them. After reading Ghosh’s extensively-researched and engaging book, his readers will likely find it difficult to go back to seeing spices like nutmeg as simple flavorings. Instead, we are reminded that food and plants can either lock us into a battle for control or connect us more intimately to the earth.
Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family
By Hannah Howard
In Plenty, Hannah Howard writes: “My love for food was profound and profoundly complicated”—a simple sentence that’s also instantly relatable to women everywhere. The book examines women and food from all angles, meditating on everything from anorexia and miscarriage to female chefs striving for success in a misogynistic industry. Howard’s readers encounter a range of characters, to her pesto-obsessed coworker and her own mother, to a chef who helps refugees make traditional meals from their home countries. The book wanders at times, with some hard-to-track stories taking place across the globe, but Howard’s vivid storytelling remains constant throughout. (Reader be warned: Her descriptions of food will leave your stomach growling.) Ultimately, Howard produces an ode to women in the food industry while uncovering a new way to appreciate food, her body, and the role both play in her quest for a healthy and nourished life.
From the way common seed treatments threaten pollinators to the fact that various pesticides harm earthworms and beetles that help build healthy soil, it is becoming increasingly clear that the planet’s bug population is under threat. Rebugging the Planet is insect-lover Vicki Hird’s call to action. While the subject matter extends far beyond food, Hird dedicates a chapter to how insects are both integral to ecosystems that our food production depends on and threatened by current farm practices and food choices. In fascinating snapshots, she describes how the sea strider, the world’s only ocean-dwelling insect, provides a food source for certain fish, and how the apple snail’s South American habitat is being destroyed to clear space for cattle and soy production. The book aims to inspire reverence for bugs while compelling more of us to protect them, and offers plentiful recommendations for how every person can “rebug” on a personal, political, and economic level—such as by eating less meat that relies on corn and soybeans produced in monocultures that destroy insect habitat.
One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America
By Saru Jayaraman
Saru Jayaraman’s One Fair Wage examines how the subminimum wage —federally set at just $2.13 for tipped workers (but higher in a number of states)—perpetuates racial, gender, and economic injustices. Drawing on government data, more than 500 interviews with workers across industries, and more than 10,000 surveys of restaurant workers, Jayaraman builds a critically important and comprehensive case for abolishing the subminimum wage, which she sees as a legacy of slavery that dehumanizes many immigrants, women, and people of color. President of the advocacy group also called One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, Jayaraman has spent the last 20 years advocating to raise workers’ wages and has penned two prior books on restaurant labor. Building on the group’s organizing, One Fair Wage tells the stories of the many workers, including nail salon technicians and gig workers, who struggle with low, unpredictable wages in working conditions that are often unsafe. And while the book aims to get readers thinking beyond their own actions to affect policy, one immediate takeaway from this book may be to tip extremely well this holiday season, since tips represent the bulk of many workers’ incomes.
The $16 Taco: Contested Geographies of Food, Ethnicity, and Gentrification
By Pascale Joassart-Marcelli
If you live in a city, or visit one regularly, you know that “the hottest new neighborhoods” are often defined by their food scenes. For Pascale Joassart-Marcelli, a professor of geography at San Diego State University, the lure of unusual or well-considered food is also an early step on the path to gentrification and all the social ills that come with it. In The $16 Taco, Joassart-Marcelli explores high-level theories about race, ethnicity, economics, systemic racism, and other factors that shape the food system, and then situates those theories within the city of San Diego. The author looks at three “hot” or “up-and-coming” neighborhoods—currently among the most diverse neighborhoods in the city—and explores their evolution over the past 120-plus years, while also detailing the lives of the people who live and work in these rapidly changing communities today. Joassart-Marcelli weaves together social, economic, and political forces to paint a picture of “gastrodevelopment”—a term she coined to describe the way “urban elites [are] shaping their city’s food scene in an effort to attract the creative class.” The goal of this development, however, is not typically to support the food industry or its marginalized workers, but “to promote urban growth and capital accumulation.” And part of the power of this book comes from the reality that every city is home to the same kinds of stories that Joassart-Marcelli uncovered in San Diego. Although it is at times heavy on the academic terminology and theory, The $16 Taco might have you looking at the menu of the latest trendy restaurant with a new perspective.
There is perhaps nobody more broadly knowledgeable and contagiously curious about the world’s fermentation traditions than the effervescent Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and the James Beard Award-winning The Art of Fermentation. Of course, his knowledge didn’t arise out of thin air; as we learn in his new book, Fermentation Journeys, it’s the result of years of learning from experts who have carried on unique intergenerational relationships with the microbial world. Here, Katz offers a peek into the staggering array of resourceful and imaginative fermentation practices around the globe through spirited stories about his travels and recipes generously shared by people who have invited Katz into their kitchens. The recipes are so approachable that you might find yourself experimenting with everything from natto to pulque to pao cai—or even dig into your family’s culture for recipes to revive. As Fermentation Journeys makes clear, travel is welcomed but not required to enjoy the best fermented food and drink.
All That She Carried is a sobering study of a single object. At the center of the story is a cloth sack that was traced to South Carolina, where in the 1850s it was made to hold pecans or seeds. An enslaved woman named Rose filled the artifact with three handfuls of pecans and a braid of her hair to give to her daughter Ashley on the eve of her sale, shortly after the death of the family’s owner. In All That She Carried, a recent winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Miles explores the broader history surrounding this family memento and helps frame the 19th-century foundations of contemporary eating. The ways in which enslaved people and the crops they tended were treated as commodities—and the food circumstances of enslavement—reveal painful truths. Underfed enslaved people, for example, had to routinely forage for pecans, like those Rose placed in Ashley’s sack, to supplement their diets. Pecans—the largest nuts native to America—were difficult to tame into marketability, but an enslaved man only remembered as Antoine was the first to successfully work with the trees to make them more uniform. This skilled cultivator grafted pecans for the trees that would become the Centennial variety, after winning awards in the 1876 Exposition held in Philadelphia. Antoine’s innovation underscores the hidden labor involved in the standardization of plants, which led to the mechanization of farming and the food system we have today. While the book is not written through an agricultural or foodie lens, the way it opens up history beyond dominant narratives lends great insights to readers who have food and farming at the front of their minds.
Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland
By Kristy Nabhan-Warren
As immigrants acclimate to their new lives in Iowa and the native-born see their towns grow more diverse, no one in rural America seems to feel completely at home. In Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, author Kristy Nabhan-Warren argues that if we are to understand rural and middle-class America—as well as the immigrant experience—we need to study the meatpacking industry. “We must walk in their shoes—in this case, steel-toed, company-issued rubber boots,” she writes. “We need to get a little bloody.” Nabhan-Warren, a professor in the departments of religious studies and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa, gives readers a look at a day in the life of meatpacking plant workers who are universally driven to work hard for their families. Many find comfort in their religious faiths, which are simultaneously tested in workplaces where animals are slaughtered and processed for sale. Based on interviews with more than 100 native Iowans and immigrants from nations including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Honduras, Nabhan-Warren presents a nuanced view of citizen–immigrant relations that challenges the common narrative and prompts readers to consider a more complex narrative.