Browsing for good books about food is difficult, not because such books don’t exist, but because bookstores make it easy to browse for one particular kind of food book at the expense of all others.
If you’re looking for a cook book, you’ve got all the choice in the world. A typical bookshop has a section devoted to recipe-packed books that will hold your hand through making just about any dish you can imagine. Tagine? Bruschetta? Oxtail soup? Not to worry. If you can dream it, someone in New York, London or Toronto has published it.
But what if you don’t want recipes? What if you want to read writing about food itself? If you’re looking for a book about a particular corner of the food business, how the grocery industry works, or the history of a particular ingredient, you’ll have a harder time finding what you’re looking for.
And so, in keeping with this site’s unfortunate insistence on doing food differently (thanks again for reading, kindred spirit), I’d like to pass along a couple of good book suggestions for folks looking for food reading that isn’t full of glam shots of perfectly flour-dusted artisanal loaves or bright green spears of grilled asparagus. No, these are books about food for people who care deeply about food, not just tomes of aspirational recipes you’ll never actually get around to cooking.
I found the following two books in the lovingly curated food-writing section at Munro’s Books in downtown Victoria. I’ve also provided links to where you can get them through Indigo, Canada’s largest book retailer. (NEAROF gets a tiny cut from any sales through these links, which will no doubt help pay our hosting costs for the year.)
I’ll try to post reviews of interesting food books when I come across them, though I’m always interested in suggestions from readers. Drop me a line or leave a comment if you’d like to suggest a title.
The Bad Food Bible, by Aaron Carroll, MD
Telling subtitle: Why You Can (and Maybe Should) Eat Everything You Thought You Couldn’t
Publisher: Mariner Books
$20.99 (Canada), 234 pages
If you’ve read a newspaper, watched the news or consulted the internet’s glorious content factories, you’ll know that stories about newly released research into food health and safety are pure clickbait gold. “Don’t eat this one fruit, scientists warn!” “New study shows that people who enjoy coffee daily will eventually die!” “Does chocolate cure baldness? Find out after the break!”
Thing is, journalists (and content creators, assignment editors, etc.) are lazy and/or overworked. They don’t have the time or qualifications to look at the studies they’re writing about to judge if they’re not much more than junk science sponsored by an obviously vested interest. But once the story is out there, promoted by a gaggle of dim influencers and retweeted/shared by their army of equally misinformed followers, what started as a press release from a company that wants to sell more chocolate bars becomes internet fact. Which, in 2020, is the only kind of fact most people care about.
The Bad Food Bible cuts through this glut of noise not by conducting new research into contentious health claims, but by carefully looking through the body of credible research around each of the food topics, and assigning an appropriate level of weight and merit to studies that deserve it based on their size and scientific rigour. Hot-button topics covered include butter, meat, eggs, salt, gluten, GMOs, alcohol, coffee, diet soda, MSG and non-organic food, so you can see how this could get fun.
A big complaint from people who follow media is how contradictory so much health reporting can be. Last year, if the paper said that a glass of red wine with supper every night is good for you, you can bet that this year, the same paper will quote a study that says that even one glass of wine a month will lead to an early death.
I’m just as baffled as most people by this conflicting information. Which version of the truth am I supposed to believe? I worked in newspapers long enough to know that reporters rarely have the time to thoroughly verify the methodology of a study or consider whether the margin of error passes a smell test. Enter physician Aaron Carroll, who has access to the studies in question and knows what separates a good study from a bad one.
For the reader’s benefit, Carroll first explains the differences between various types of scientific studies, noting why some are more believable than others, and why others are mostly useless. He then proceeds to present the available scientific evidence in the subsequent chapters, pointing out where there may be gaps in credibility.
In the end, the reader is provided with enough of an understanding of the research in each of the areas to know roughly where the scientific consensus sits. Knowing the difference between good research and bad is the difference between getting a stock tip from your thrice-bankrupt day-trading uncle Dave and, say, Warren Buffett. I know which one I’d turn to for financial advice.
A Matter of Taste, by Rebecca Tucker
Telling subtitle: A Farmers’ Market Devotee’s Semi-Reluctant Argument for Inviting Scientific Innovation to the Dinner Table
Publisher: Coach House Books
$14.95 (Canada), 136 pages
Think of this short, svelte book as a long-form essay that makes the case that the idyllic utopia of farmers’ markets isn’t doing the planet, or diners, any favours. In a nutshell, Tucker’s argument is that farmers’ markets are not the solution to issues of global food security. In fact, they’re a dangerous distraction from looking for and supporting more realistic ways to get fresh, high-quality food to the people who need it most.
Anyone who thinks that the future of sustainable agriculture is all about morally virtuous $8 bags of multihued heirloom carrots, hand-sold from a wicker basket, is out of touch with the reality of lower-income parents trying to feed their families something healthy while also making rent. The farmers’ market idealists, like so many well-meaning souls, want a perfect solution; the real world involves carefully choosing the lesser of evils. And no surprise here: sometimes the lesser of evils requires using the scale and science of modern agriculture to grow more and better food for a price that more people can afford. And we shouldn’t feel guilty about that.
I kept waiting for a great reveal or “a-ha!” moment in the book, but none came. I can’t say I learned much I didn’t already know, though I appreciated the journey through Tucker’s reasoning. If you’re looking for a quick, easy read that will make you rethink your blind devotion to inefficient agriculture of the sake of old-timey quaintness and aw-shucks feelgoods, A Matter of Taste is worth a read. (And yes, I still love my farmers’ market. It’s OK to be complicated.)