It’s hard for me to find non-fiction books that I love. Sure, I’ve read a bunch of Michael Pollen, Bill McKibben, and Bill Bryson, but sometimes it’s just too dense for the moment. I need a story line, a voice I relate with – not just facts. After Born to Run and Eat and Run I experienced a bit of a lull, but then this year I found several gems – so here they are, with my thoughts:
1. The Third Plate by Dan Barber
I first heard about Chef Dan Barber from a friend who interned at Stone Barns, a farm partner to the restaurant, Blue Hill, that he owns in New York. For a while I avoided reading his book, partially because I was worried it would bore me, and partially because I was re-reading Harry Potter… But don’t wait. It was by far the best book I’ve read all year. Better taste is always listed as a benefit of eating locally, but until now I have never encountered a piece of work that actually investigated it. In this beautifully narrated novel, Barber takes you all over the world, looking at historic farming methods as well as current technological methods, that prove sustainable food tastes better. From free-range geese in Spain to wheat research in Washington state to true barbecue in the south. I got hungry every time I sat down to read. If there’s anything I would recommend you sit down to read, right now, it’s The Third Plate. You’ll emerge with a greater understanding of food system sustainability and a heightened appreciation for truly good food.
2. Farmacology by Daphne Miller
A friend recommended this to me. Nutrition has always, to a certain extent, overwhelmed me. Mostly, I think, because of how complicated it is. I believe in ensuring diversity of diet, choosing foods that are clean and whole, and eating only when you’re hungry more than counting calories, vitamins, and minerals. Daphne Miller, a family physician, thought much the same way. She recognized similarities between how we quantitatively treat humans (through medications) and soil for farming (through synthetic fertilizers) – and the declining health of both patients. She embarked on an investigative journey to discover the connections between what we eat and how we care for our bodies. Her book pairs our farming practices with our medication solutions and finds comparisons, lessons learned, and areas for improvement. The questions she investigates include: how does our treatment of the soil compare to how we medicate ourselves? What lessons can grazing practices provide for how we raise our children? What can laying-hens teach us about stress management? How does pest-management relate to cancer treatment? How can urban agriculture transform community health? And even how can an herb farm teach us sustainable beauty? This book successfully shows how health issues, environmental issues, and sustainability issues are intricately linked – a must read for any health or food nuts out there.
3. Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes
This is the second time I’ve read this book*. I saw Hayes at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Conference a few years ago – she was the keynote address. Her speech unveiled a view of the mid-century feminist movement that I had never considered before… it was truly radical. Her argument is that suburbia and the admittance of women into the workforce outsourced many homemaking projects that allowed consumer culture to flourish the way it has. She cites many reasons why this was a negative shift, focusing on historic proof and research. Then, she offers advice for how women and men should reclaim some forms of domesticity to increase security, happiness, and sense of self-purpose. Her book is based on interviews with numerous acting homemakers with their successes, failures, and advice strewn throughout the pages. These are people who, in her words, “focus on home and hearth as political and ecological act; who center their lives around family and community for personal fulfillment and cultural change.” This book shifted my thoughts on homemaking, feminism, and consumer culture in ways that no other piece of work in the last few years has. I don’t know how to give it better praise. While the cover and title might deter you, please resist – the lessons in this book are so important.
* I rarely re-read, unless it’s Harry Potter, of course.