“Bread is the warmest,
kindest of words.
Write it always with a capital letter,
like your own name.”
-from a Russian café sign (excerpted from In Praise of Fertile Land)
On scorching summer afternoons when it’s too hot to garden or eat, there is nothing better than sipping iced tea, dipping your toes in the creek and reading a good book. In the last few years I have amassed a library of foodie obsession. From the lyric to the didactic, I have a few favorites…
David Mas Masumoto’s classic Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on my Family Farm is as sensual as its lodestone fruit, artfully and lovingly relaying consumers’ declining interest in the Sun Crest peach, which “tastes like a peach is supposed to,” and the farmers’ work that “remains unrewarded.”
The lesser known, similarly lyric anthology, In Praise of Fertile Land, is a beautifully arranged book published by Whit Press. The book’s poetry and short stories about the land, the work and food of agriculture provide engaging snippets, and all royalties from the sale of the book provide financial support to farmland protection programs.
For fiction lovers, Mildred Walker’s supple and elegant Winter Wheat is a quiet story in the style of Willa Cather’s, My Ántonia, but with a starker and much more modern representation of the land and people living on Montana’s eastern plains in the early part of the twentieth century.
The nonfiction of that time period is elegantly narrated in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of those who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, a book that won the 2006 National Book Award. Retelling the stories of those who lived through the dust bowl, Egan adeptly explores the sheer terror and total disbelief that a forty foot wall of dust could create, and the hesitant national response that has in effect perpetuated episodes of the dust bowl today.
Another revealing, and rather dour but critical work, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, has shaped the way our nation regulates food. Based on research of Chicago’s meat packing industry, it was enough to make me a vegetarian at the age of 11. (Although Montana winters and a friend’s elk meat led me to rethink this idea.) The book lead to legislation that would protect consumers, but did not protect those working in the meat packing industry who were often maimed on the job. As Sinclair wrote once, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
In similar style, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal is a classic that puts the movie to shame. In it, Schlosser maps the popularity of fast food’s tasty, heart-gobbing grease and the way the industry changed food production and our culture.
If you’d rather eat a steak than read about it, I am partial to Eat our Words: The Montana Writer’s Cookbook as it mixes the love of language with the love of food.
For locally based recipes, you might want to get creative and write your own regional cookbook as there aren’t many on the bookshelves. The Minnesota Homegrown Cookbook: Local Food, Local Restaurants, Local Recipes by Tim King is a good example.
Finally, the short tome Consider the Oyster by MFK Fisher is a poetic treatise connecting recipes with the pleasure and meaning of food. Through careful prose she identifies our tethered, mysterious and playful relationship to food. And in doing so, she savors the world.
There is, it seems, no better reason to read of food and agriculture.