On Books 📚
and not letting the 16-year-old 'Omnivore's Dilemma' guide food-system conversations.
If everyone eats, then everyone is an expert on food—or so it can sometimes seem. In other cultural spheres, where criticism doesn’t so markedly overlap with class and culture (or where these issues are easier to ignore), taste doesn’t get so personal. But the very weird, to me, cultural understanding of a coherent “food movement” from the 2000s led by Alice Waters, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, etc., where everyone was told to go to the farmers’ market and that would solve the issues of the food system, means that many people hate aesthetes or “agrarian foodies.” This focus on local food has been perceived as somehow oppressive, lumped in entirely with a viewpoint that’s too individual rather than systemic.
The bigger cultural conversation about food hasn’t really moved beyond a backlash to that. It feels, to me, like a lot of writers (myself included) are saying, Please, let’s move on, there are very pressing issues to discuss and no one listens. For the most part, mainstream food coverage doesn’t prioritize local farmers’ markets or hunting one’s own kill, though it did in the aftermath of The Omnivore’s Dilemma’s release; those are well-worn clichés by now. It’s a comfortable space to stay, though, believing this text is the last important book about food to have come out. That joke isn’t funny anymore.
I’m thinking about this because I listened to the hosts of the podcast “Maintenance Phase” last week discuss Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and mention Italian peasants getting sick from eating too much polenta, because it was all they had, as a sign that the industrial food system we’ve built has had good impacts by delivering people more baseline nutrition; then they say that it’s ok to admit McDonald’s is delicious, a fabulously valid consumer choice. This struck me, of course, because you could make a clear comparison between peasants eating polenta and being deficient in B vitamins to the modern problems of diet-related disease correlated to high consumption of fast food. Poverty, at any point in history, doesn’t make for the most robust and diverse eating patterns.
We could talk about fast food as a meaningless treat if it were regarded as such, if it were not, for upwards of a third of people in the U.S., a daily part of their diet, and this isn’t even getting into sourcing and labor issues. But it’s not meaningless, unless you ignore sourcing, labor, health impacts, and the purposeful concentration of these restaurants in low-income areas. Saying, “I love McDonald’s!” when you can afford and have access to a farmers’ market (between 2006 and 2016, the number of them in the U.S. increased 180 percent; more than 3,200 of them accept SNAP benefits) is posturing; it’s as virtue-signaling as Pollan’s performative distaste. (A more interesting book to discuss could’ve been Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by historian Marcia Chatelaine.)
In my neighborhood, there is a fast-food restaurant on every block, from Wendy’s to Kentucky Fried Chicken to Popeye’s to Little Caesar’s Pizza. Now drugstores are popping up on every corner, too. So you have the fast-food restaurants that of course cause the diet-related diseases, and you have the pharmaceutical companies there to fix it. They go hand in hand. The fact is, if you do prevention, someone is going to lose money. If you give people access to really good food and a living-wage job, someone is going to lose money. As long as people are poor and as long as people are sick, there are jobs to be made. Follow the money.
Where the original mavens of the modern conception of “the food movement” (because, as I discussed with Sandor Katz, there were and are many food movements) went wrong, as commonly understood, is not having an intersectional lens around class and race; we also found, in response, people will defend their god-given right to the products of industrial agriculture to the bitter end. That food movement, in the popular imagination, stopped short of doing what someone like Washington does with ease, which is to name “a living-wage job” as a food issue. Which is why I think we should be focusing our energy on people such as Washington, who is continually doing relevant work, rather than take easy shots at a book from 2006. We should be looking at Alice Driver’s reporting on meat-processing and fast food workers in protest.
When discussing this episode with folks on Twitter who have been fans of the show but also know quite a bit about the food system, they expressed disappointment that it didn’t tackle where we are now. What are the new ideas governing food? Who are the new people to listen to on food-system issues? Have any new books been influential, or are there books that have been overlooked and should have been? (As a person who puts out an essay every week, I understand that it’s sometimes nice to pick the low-hanging fruit, so this isn’t meant as an indictment so much as a desire to see newer thinking on food-systems be as deeply engaged with as Pollan’s book.)
What we can certainly say is that Omnivore’s Dilemma began a trend of food system books. Tove Danovich, a writer whose book Under the Henfluence will be out next year, points that out to me in an email following up on our Twitter conversation. “A lot of my favorite food systems books really did come out in the five years following,” she says. “I think that really speaks to its influence both in getting people to think about these things and in the publishing industry which we all know loves to jump on a trend.” She even credits it with sending her on her own specific food writing path. This might be the most enduring legacy of the text: showing people the food system could be written about in a way that got people interested in it.
Danovich notes her views have “moved beyond” Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, and she sent along a few of her favorites that followed, including Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland, to understand how much modern slavery exists in U.S. agriculture; Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish, on “the absolute chaos that is the fishery industry and why it’s so difficult to regulate what happens in the oceans thanks to fish not exactly respecting national borders”; and Tracie McMillan’s American Way of Eating, which Danovich describes as “basically Nickel and Dimed for low wage food workers and follows her working in fields, a Walmart, and Applebee’s all while trying to actually feed herself on poverty wages.”
Here are my favorite food-system books that have come out since 2006, in no particular order: Farming While Black by Leah Penniman; Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity by Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra; Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement by Monica White; Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation by Sunaura Taylor; Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese; Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal by Hanna Garth; Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America by Joshua Specht; Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5 Million Year Obsession With Meat by Marta Zaraska; Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel; Messy Eating: Conversations on Animals As Food edited by Samantha King, R. Scott Carey, Isabel Macquarrie, Victoria Niva Millious and Elaine M. Power; Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi.
I understand regarding Omnivore’s Dilemma as the most significant book on How We Eat—it was a cultural milestone in the conversation. But to do so without acknowledging all the other texts that have come since does a disservice to those who are still writing, protesting, and changing the narrative.
Last Wednesday’s podcast featured cocktail writer Robert Simonson, discussing his work and new newsletter, The Mix. This week will feature Daniela Galarza, the author of Eat Voraciously newsletter from The Washington Post, talking about writing recipes for variations and substitutions, walking around Walmart to see what’s available, and why she always orders dessert. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch will feature a white bean-fennel dip perfect for picnics or hangs. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Programming note: I’ll be off from the newsletter next week for the Easter holiday and will return on April 25. That week’s podcast guest will be Anna Jones, author of One Pot, One Pan, One Planet and the recipe for paid subscribers will be a guava barbecue sauce.
A vegan cheese primer for Foodprint! What more can I say about vegan cheese? Of course, more knowledge equals a lot more skepticism: This, like a lot of things calling themselves vegan or plant-based these days, can be very un-sustainable at scale. Staying local, whether going vegan or non, can side-step some issues (to put it far too simply).
Laurie Colwin, Silvia Federici, old Lucky Peach, and more for an essay on cooking, gender, and labor that I will hopefully return with on the 25th, if all goes according to plan! Give me your reading suggestions on these subjects, if you like.
I’m working on a lot of aperitivo-type recipes, such as the white bean–fennel dip that will come out when I’m back from a week break, so that we can all plan to nosh the summer away! Above is the tomato, eggplant, and tahini dish from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love.