Elatia Harris’s Top 10 Books 2013, on Cooking, Food History & Food Politics
by Elatia Harris
For this list to be coherent, I have to have actually read and truly admired the books on it. Check! If they are cookbooks, I have to have cooked from them with great results. Check! I want to hear what your entries would be – it was a great year for books about food and cooking, and I’ve had to leave many good ones out.
1. Cuisine and Empire, by Rachel Laudan
20,000 years of the great movements of history, written with the kitchen at the center. If you want to take a very long view, and think hard about power – getting it, keeping it, getting it back – then the intimate and often surprising relationship between food and power, in Laudan’s telling, will astonish you. The historical counterpart to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, this is a supremely important book that is a great pleasure to read. Don’t be afraid of its bigness, for it’s a truly manageable length. Read it fast, think about it forever.
2. Three Squares, by Abigail Carroll
How did the American Diet evolve? We’re not eating like they did at Plimouth Plantation, or like Thomas Jefferson ate – what ARE we eating like? For a fresh view of what’s uniquely American about our foodways, this book is a treasure.
3. Foodopoly, by Wenonah Hauter
The activist Wenonah Hauter has written Foodopoly to take on, and urge readers to take on, the dark side of our food systems, and it’s a very dark side indeed. Can there be reclamation? Can the trend towards domination by fewer and bigger companies ever be reversed? “Yes, but…” Hauter tells us, and then she tells us what that would take.
4. Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman
The author is a labor organizer who believes that the maltreatment of food service workers need not be the ugly secret of the US restaurant industry. But right now, it is. What would have to happen, for food service workers to be paid a living wage and given paid sick days? One in every twelve people in the USA works in food service – how should they be treated? In its way, this is a companion volume to Foodopoly, asking all the right questions, answering not a few.
5. Raising Dough, by Elizabeth U
A guide to using other people’s money to finance your socially responsible food business, this is a hard-headed book for mostly young idealists. Brilliantly thorough, if you are on a mission but lack for practical knowledge of the business world. Especially valuable are the ideas for working around a financier’s natural unwillingness to lend money to anyone hoping to do good.
6. Arribes: Everything Else is Noise, by Zev Robinson
Film maker and painter Zev Robinson could turn Arribes, a DVD, into a commanding book, so I’m counting it in. Arribes is a rural area in northwestern Spain where people are 80% self-sufficient. One of those places where life is both simple and difficult – and movingly sustainable. Robinson’s eye for Spanish classical painting serves beautifully here. If by magic Zurbaran and Murillo could see Arribes, they would recognize their own lineages instantly and with pleasure.
7. Mushroom, by Cynthia D. Bertelsen
Confused about the world history of mushrooms? Wondering about foraging for them or choosing them or storing them? And what about a few recipes? Culinary historian Cynthia D. Bertelsen has solved all your problems in this tiny, indispensible book, a delight from beginning to end. You will read it in a snowy evening, you will consult it forever after. And if you’re still not satisfied with the mushrooms in your life, you’ll have instructions for growing your own.
8. Celebraciones Mexicanas, by Andrea Lawson Gray and Adriana Almazan Lahl
Andrea Gray and Adriana Lahl have a winner in this charmingly beautiful cookbook that focuses on the food of Mexico’s festivals. As well as recipes, there is abundant material about history and folklore, much of it highly visual and appealing to children – it’s a perfect family gift. Professional cooks as well as writers, Gray and Lahl know their way around the Mexican kitchen. It’s a labor-intensive cuisine, and the streamlining here is as intelligent as any I have ever seen – no false notes, some truly helpful simplifications. If you want the best ever recipe for Nogada Sauce, one of the signature paradisal items in Like Water for Chocolate, buy the book and turn to page 257.
9. Spice and Kosher, by Dr. Essie Sassoon, Bala Menon, and Kenny Salem
The Jewish community in Cochin, in the South Indian state of Kerala, was intensely lively for 2000 years. It has dwindled now to a few souls, but its culinary traditions belong to the world, many having partaken of, and been absorbed into, mainstream Indian cooking. Knowing that, soon, the cuisine will have outlived its people, the three authors, all originally Jews of Cochin, wrote this excellent cookbook — full of fascinating history, good recipes and directions for good practice — as a testament.
10. Paris to the Pyrenees, by David Downie, with photos by Alison Harris
Travel and food writer nonpareil, David Downie, mounts an interior and a physical struggle against middle age and fading health by walking 750 miles across France – the famous Way of St. James. Well, it’s no saunter. Even the companionship of his wife, the wonderful photographer Alison Harris, whose photos here are a revelation, cannot inure him to the hardships of the pilgrimage route. Readers will ponder how much in this volume is deeply spiritual – to my reading, seeking something you cannot define, yet seeking it body and soul, is a spiritual journey. One that is intermitted, David Downie being David Downie, by some of the most gorgeous repasts I’ve heard tell of.