Someone recently asked me how my journey into food started. I found myself talking about some of the books I’d read, and realised how much of an influence a few books have had over my relationship with farming and the food I eat. I found the more I read, the more I wanted to read; the more I learnt, the more I realised how much there was to learn.
There are hundreds of books around the topic of food, not to mention documentaries, articles and TV shows. But for me, it was the books that left the most significant transformation, and mark the key turning points in my journey.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollen
In this book, Michael Pollen takes you on a food journey, tracing the steps to produce three different meals; one through our conventional industrial food system, one from organic food (well, this actually turns into two meals), and one sourced in a hunter/gatherer manner. He goes back to the origins of the ingredients in each case; a journey that takes him to cornfields and feedlots, large-scale organic farms and Joel Salatin’s land, and out hunting wild pigs and foraging for mushrooms.
This book is part story and part education. It’s about connecting with food in a society where we don’t need to think or question where our food comes from. From understanding the history of corn subsidies in the USA and how this has impacted our modern diet, to the emotional response of taking an animal’s life, this book actually changed my life. It was a cornerstone moment when I realised that the decisions I make when buying and eating food are significant and have impacts beyond just what ends up on my plate. As a result I stepped even further away from the industrialised food system, and understood the importance of directly supporting local farms rather than trusting a label.
One of the best things for me is the journey the book takes you on. It’s never preachy or judgemental - it’s about a journey that Pollen is on, and he’s simply letting you observe and witness what he learns along the way. A great follow up to this is Cooked, his homage to the importance and wonder of cooking.
If you are only going to read one book off this list, please make it this one. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran-Foer
I read this book back in 2012 and it almost turned me into a vegetarian. Almost. Safran-Foer takes you on a personal journey into the morals and realities of meat eating. Looking at the dark side of industrial meat production, it takes you into the places hidden from view such as feed lots and abattoirs. It considers the environmental impact and cultural attitude towards meat eating and confronts you with the kind of information that is hard to hide from, but essential to know. It’s never preachy, never judgemental; simply educational and well written.
I finished the book still a meat eater (I like the phrase ‘honourable omnivore’ that he uses in the book), believing there is still a place for meat eating in sustainable food production. But my views on large scale meat production, the amount and type of meat we eat, and the way in which animals are treated were irrevocably changed; a transformation that can never be undone. Before, I could plead ignorance about the meat I was eating, but after reading the book there was no going back. It was one of the inspirations behind me spending a few years farming; to have a real and genuine connection with the meat I ate and the very real stages necessary for that meat to end up on my plate.
Not an easy read, but a very important one.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite writers (I heartily recommend checking out her fiction books too), so when I found out she’d written a book about her year of eating seasonally, I hunted down a copy and it didn’t disappoint. She (and her partner and daughter) tell the tales of the highs and lows of the family’s efforts to eat a local and seasonal diet for 12 months, much of which comes from their own garden.
I read this book in winter, living on a farm where we were almost completely self sufficient. Reading someone else’s tales of the pangs of indecision over unseasonal but delicious fruit comforted me as I tucked into yet another kale and carrot salad. And I laughed deeply as she told her stories of perilous zucchini gluts and her turkeys’ disastrous attempts at mating. Her honesty about the ups and downs of the journey make it easy to relate to, and helped to confirm my views on the importance of a primarily local and seasonal diet. Essentially, it was a significant influence on how and why I’ve ended up writing about my Locavore journey.
Both thought provoking and challenging, but in a way that feels accessible and relevant to everyday life.
Wild Fermentation – Sandor Ellix Katz
Until a few years ago, I didn’t understand why people ate fermented food, figuring it was a load of hippy nonsense. Then a friend told me about the health benefits and lent me this book, forever changing my view on the role of fermented food in our diet. Our gut flora is an integral part of our body, and wild and fermented foods help bring a diversity of these microbial cultures into our body. Helping with digestion as well as wider health issues, it helps to counter the ultra-pasteurised and antibacterial world we live in, and especially in countering the adverse side effects of taking medication such as antibiotics.
This book is the bible for the home fermenter, full of recipes and advice alongside information and stories from Sandor’s own life. His passion for the subject is infectious (he describes himself as a ‘fermentation revivalist’), and it wasn’t long before I found myself looking differently at the cabbages and carrots that dominated my winter diet.
Unlike other books on the subject, this book is very accessible. It captivated me, educated me, inspired me, and then persuaded me that I could do it myself. Over the last few year’s I’ve made kombucha and kefir, sauerkraut and pickles, and there’s usually always some jar of something fermented in my fridge.
An essential for your bookshelf that you’ll read, then refer to again and again.