From blogs to many popular books, food writing is now among America’s favorite forms of leisure reading. Gaining usage as a term in the early 1990s, food writing is now composed of a range of genres—non-fiction, literature, recipes, journalism, memoir, and travelogues among them—that explore the fundamental relationship between people, culture and food. In the past decade alone, the number of books that touch on food in some form have rapidly proliferated, not only in quantity and but also in quality, as many of our nation’s most skilled writers are now taking food as their topic of choice.
Plenty of food enthusiasts can reiterate the arguments of Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, have been delighted by the hyper-witty, alcohol-fueled global musings of Anthony Bourdain, or are aware that Eddie Huang’s hip hop-themed culinary memoir Fresh Off the Boat was adapted into a sitcom on ABC. Despite the importance and popularity of these books and subsequent media empires, much of the best writing on food goes unnoticed by the likes of television producers and Oprah’s Book Club. What about the great food texts that do not reach a widespread audience, but truly give us a new way to examine our basic relationship with food in the broadest sense?
Below is a list of the best books that have remained below the mainstream, in order of publication.
1. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – The Physiology of Taste (1825)
Written by famed French Gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and subtitled Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, this now seminal text is essential reading for budding epicureans. Translated in 1945 by MFK Fisher (see below), this text offers eloquent and philosophical examinations of not just food and eating, but examines foods role in everything from our dreams to our death. In this book, Brillat-Savarin famously proclaims, “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.”
2. MFK Fisher – The Art of Eating (1954)
The first preeminent American food writer, Fisher believed that eating was one of the “arts of life,” describing it here with beautiful delicate prose. This collection of essays contains her musings on food, eating and its role in culture, on our bodies and our search for the pleasure of artistic fulfillment. The 50th Anniversary Edition contains several works previously published in other spaces, including “Serve it Forth,” “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Alphabet for Gourmets” and perhaps the most influential “The Gastronomical Me.”
3. Sidney Mintz – Sweetness and Power (1986)
Mintz’s traces the rise of sugar as a curiously important, precious, and ubiquitous commodity in the modern world. After extensive research in the Caribbean, Mintz goes to great lengths to link food production with food consumption, examining the role of sugar in the growth of plantation-style slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas as well as its role in the industrialization and the rise of the working class in Europe.
4. Cara De Silva – In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin (1996)
The starving women in the Czechoslovakian ghetto/concentration camp of Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt) wrote the heart of this gripping yet tragic book during World War II. Decades later, De Silva collected their recipes, originally pieced together on tattered scraps of paper, for making beloved dishes in the rich, robust Czech tradition. The gaps in the recipes and text that were lost in the brutality of Hitler’s death camp are filled with delicate illustrations and photos of the women and families who composed the recipes. The book speaks to the power of food to maintain culture, tradition and love even in the most violent of contexts.
5. John Thorne – Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots (1996)
In this of essays, Thorne traces his identity as a chef. The book is divided into three sections: “here” (Maine, where the author spent his childhood), “there” (Southern Louisiana, where he learned Creole cooking), and “everywhere” (where he considers national culinary icons like the hamburger and American cheese). In bringing the reader to each location, Thorne uses passion and intelligence to question the role of food in our relationship with our identities and the places we inhabit.
6. Mike Davis – Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001)
Late Victorian Holocausts looks not at food, but the lack thereof. In this gripping yet tragic work, Davis discloses the intimate relationship between European imperialism and the natural disaster that caused some of the worst famines in human history. Late Victorian Holocausts focuses on three zones of drought and subsequent famine: India, Northern China; and Northeastern Brazil to explore the relationship between environmental destruction, capitalistic modernization and the subsequent famines that impacted millions of peasants lives in what would later become known as the “third world.”
7. Lisa Heldke – Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer (2003)
Heldke, in reflecting on her own experiences with food, examines the role of “food adventuring”, or the explorations of foodies into the world of ethnic food. Thinking critically about people who search for new, authentic and exotic food, Heldke asks serious questions about the role of food in colonization, race, gender and the changing ethnic landscape of the United States. Although this was intended as an academic work, it is sprinkled with personal anecdotes and references from popular culture.
8. Psyche Williams-Forson – Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2004)
Williams-Forson uses a range of materials from the comedy of Chris Rock, the art of Kara Walker, commercials, vaudeville, and minstrel performance to cookbooks and novels to examine how black women utilized “chicken” as a tool of self-determination and self-reliance. Not only did the cooking and sale of chicken provide a source of income, but it also helped women assert themselves in racist and hostile environments. Williams-Forson also tackles the importance of this single food product to representations of blackness and racism in the contemporary era.
9. Bill Buford – Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (2007)
Written by former New Yorker writer Bill Buford, Heat gives us the firsthand account of Buford asking the question: what would it be like for a simple home cook to attempt to make it in a professional kitchen? Buford finds a job in Mario Batali’s famous New York Restaurant Babbo and is met with physical abuse, humiliation and personal struggle as he attempts to understand the secrets of restaurant work and Italian cuisine. It’s a less popular and at times more authentic version of Bourdain’s work, which the New York Times describes as “it is every bit as revealing as Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ with less of the bombast and posturing.”
10. Jennifer 8 Lee – The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (2009)
Lee, a former New York Times journalist, examines the rise and spread of Chinese food in the United States. Pointing humorously to many of the myths about Chinese food, Lee clearly shows Chinese foods’ importance to American culinary culture, especially since there are “more Chinese restaurants in the United States than Burger King, McDonalds and KFCs combined.” This book was the inspiration for (and Lee was a producer of) the award winning 2015 documentary In Search of General Tso.
11. Kyla Tompkins – Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (2012)
In this innovative and important text has made great impact on the academic study of food. Tompkins examines the linkages between food and literary and visual culture to examine how the acts of eating and ingestion have been utilized to articulate and alter racial and gendered positionalities and biopolitical subjecthood in the United States during the 19th century. Tompkins calls for a radical turn in the study of food towards what she labels “critical eating studies,” which posits an analytical exploration of the charged cultural act of food ingestion and the ways by which that act of ingestion is represented, and in this case racialized. This book is of great important for those interested in queer and affect theory. This text is very dense and really best suited for those interested in the academic study of food.
12. Jessica B. Harris – High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2012)
A respected cookbook author, Harris traces the role of African food in the American culinary world. Beginning far before slavery, this text traces the importance of West African foods and cooking technique and traces the diasporic spread of African culinary staples in the United States and Caribbean. In writing a detailed history of Black cuisine from pre-slavery to present, Harris challenges the notion of Black food as “unhealthy, inelegant and hopelessly out of sync with the culinary canons that define healthy eating today.”
13. Jeffrey Pilcher – Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (2012)
From New York’s famed Empellón Taqueria to the countless fast food taco chains, Mexican cuisine has now spread to the far reaches of the globe and has fascinated even those mildly interested in food and culinary arts. Pilcher explores the rise in popularity of the taco but also traces it to its roots, showing us that it is a relative newcomer within Mexican cuisine. In his fascinating examination, Pilcher tackles everything from the invention of the hard-shell taco to the global spread of Corona. Like Pilcher’s other fantastic books that explore the history and importance of Mexican cuisine both in Mexico and abroad, Planet Taco exposes how authenticity, neoliberalism, globalization all impact Mexican cuisine and its global spread.
14. Bee Wilson – Consider The Fork (2013)
Famed food writer Bee Wilson examines an often-unexplored aspect of our food and culinary world: the tools that we use to transform raw ingredients into delicious meals. In this fascinating and innovative approach to food writing, Wilson ponders the impact and history of both the modern technologically advanced kitchen and more humble culinary tools such as the wooden spoon, the skillet and (obviously) the fork, all of which have radically reshaped the way we eat today.
John Burdick is a writer, educator and scholar located in Brooklyn. Inspired by years of working as a bartender, John began studying and writing about American food culture nearly a decade ago. He is completing a PhD in American Studies where his research focuses on the rising popularity of ethnic food in the United States and its impact on American race relations post 1965.
Main photo by Camera Eye Photography CC BY