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.