As 2011 came to an end, my three favorite food books of last year all present food within the context of bigger ideas and possibilities than just a meal — not that a meal isn’t enough. I wish I’d written these books, done the research, lived in the spine of each book’s thesis. These books talk about food in the context of community. They inspired me.
Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic” (Knopf 2011) is a novel, but still, in its way, is about food. In eight poetic sections of narratives, we follow a whole generation of young, beautiful, Japanese women who have come to San Francisco by boat and been promised beautiful gardens and rich lives on farms with young Japanese/American husbands. Instead, these women find themselves betrothed to older working-class men, farm laborers or servants. As the women settle down with their husbands in rooms on the edge of predominantly white towns, they move further and further from the grace of their homelands, and their food traditions, and deeper into the dirt of farms where they now work as field hands, their beautiful white skin burning, their smooth fingers and hands growing rough with wear.
They become self-reliant but disappointed, their husbands taking them for granted. They work hard, with children in mind — children who will end up ignoring them and being ashamed of their broken English and homely ways. On Sundays the women rest, sitting under the trees with their inkstones and brushes, writing letters home. And then the war comes, and they are shuttled off to internment camps.
Throughout the book, the spare but poignant descriptions of both their work in the fields and their food remind me that nothing we get on our plates arrives without the toil of farmers and their workers.
Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin Press) was first released in 2009 as a small paperback that could fit in your back pocket. The book is a simple distillation of the heavier points in Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” His first sentence in “Rules” reminds us how complicated our understanding of food has become. And most of us who have been listening have to admit that sometimes we’re overwhelmed trying to define the new vocabulary: antioxidants, organic, biodynamic and GMOs.
But then, almost immediately, Pollan boils all of his books and his theses down to one simple concept, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These are the answers to the three sections in the book: What Should I Eat? What Kinds of Food Should I Eat? How Should I Eat?
“Rules” has just been re-released in hardcover with illustrations by Maira Kalman, whose bright, witty, humorous drawings are known both from her children’s books and her New Yorker covers. They lighten even the toughest truth. The book is now enticing for kids of all ages.
And last but not least, “The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food,” by Adam Gopnik (Knopf, 2011) is a kind of history of food. It covers all aspects of the restaurant, how it came to be and why we eat out; why we write about food; and what food tells us about ourselves. I haven’t finished the book yet; I’m reading it slowly, savoring every word. I have underlined and written in the margin every three or four sentences, dog-earing every other page.
My partner said in disgust he’s going to have to buy his own copy. He frowns on turned-down corners. The book’s chapters seems to be organized in the same way we experience a restaurant meal: first, choosing a table, then sitting down, reading the menu, ordering the first course, main course, and then the sweet ending, or dessert.
Gopnik fills in with enlivening information about “the recipe” and how it has evolved, little-known facts about the history of food and historical (1890s) cooks such as Elizabeth Pennell who seem to have been born in the wrong century; the physiology of taste; and the history of food writing.
He lets us in on his personal reading habits:
A man and a woman lie in bed at night in the short hour between kid sleep and parent sleep, turning the page corners as they read. She is leafing through a fashion magazine, he through a cookbook. Why they read these things mystifies even the readers. The closet and the cupboard are both about as full as they’re going to get, and though we can credit the magazine reader with at least wanting to know what is in fashion when she sees it, what can the recipe reader possibly be reading for? The shelf of cookbooks long ago overflowed …
And yet he continues to buy, read and stack. He claims that from each cookbook we might learn one piece of useful information but mostly it’s the hands-on learning that teaches us. What thrills me and seems to be at the heart of Gopnik’s book is not what’s on the table, but what goes on around the table that matters most: community, and what we talk about while we eat. Great food is surely a delicacy, but sitting down at the table with friends and family is really what counts.
Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, “Digging Out” (Penguin). Her most recent book, “Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists” won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Katherine’s next novel is due this year.
Photo: “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual”, “The Table Comes First” and “The Buddha in the Attic.” Credit: Katherine Leiner.