by Marion Nestle

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Dec 1 2023

Weekend reading: The Taste of Water

Christy Spackman.  The Taste of Water: Sensory Perception and the Making of an Industrial Beverage.  University of California Press, 2023. 289 pages.

Food Studies scholar Christy Spackman proves that, yes, an entire book—-and a riveting one at that—-can be devoted to how water tastes, thereby explaining how it can be turned into a bland commodity with its non-taste sold at exorbitant cost.

My blurb for it:

After reading this book, I now view tasting water as just the same as tasting food, and so will you.

Here is a brief excerpt:

The tasting work done by the Nestlé team, and subsequent website and print information, paints a specific form of relationship between environment and corporation. Rather than highlighting Nestlé Waters (and one might say, all bottled water producers) as operating via extractive economies that produce PET bottles that then circulate in the environment for millennia in increasingly small particles—the tasting situated Nestlé as a core protector of the environment. Teaching dégustation meant teaching consumers to prioritize terroir, rather than the entire political economy of bottled water production….the stories that emerge through dégustation prioritize attention to long-standing understandings of the relationship between earth, food, and flavor at the expense of more recent environmental impacts of water exploitation. Attending to terroir makes it is easy to miss that the systems and ways in which bottled water is produced are, like municipal water, deeply technoscientific.

Another one:

Frankly, from a flavor perspective, for many people accustomed to the taste of bottled water, or filtered tap water, the ingestible argument DPR presents is pretty exciting. DPR [Direct Potable Reuse—i.e., reclaimed] water directly from Scottsdale’s Tap 2 completely lacks the green, musty flavors that plague so many water producers in the metropolitan Phoenix region. It tastes remarkably—or eerily—similar to many mainstream bottled water brands with its lack of minerality. Current proposals for integrating DPR into municipal water sources anticipate blending the purified effluent with treated water from the regular source. Once regulatory bodies take the step of allowing DPR, in the near future water will still slightly taste of the rivers, lakes, canals, wells, and aquifers it travelled through. Just less so.

Full disclosure: Christy Spackman is a doctoral graduate of NYU’s Food Studies program and we could not be more proud of what she has accomplished.  Read her book, judge for yourself, and enjoy!

Nov 10 2023

Weekend reading: The story of Chinese food

Fuchsia Dunlop.  Invitation to a Banquet.  The Story of Chinese Food.  Norton, 2023.  420 pages.











Fuchsia Dunlop, who has lived in China, went to cooking school there, and writes Chinese cookbooks, does something different here.  She writes about the history of Chinese Food using traditional dishes (stir-fried broccoli with ginger, Shandong guofu tofu, etc)  as starting points for exploring the how and why of each of them.

Chinese food is an inescapable cultural presence all over the world…As a brand, ‘Chinese food’ has global recognition.  Yet, from another perspective, Chinese food has also been the victim of its own success.  The resounding popularity of a simplified, adapted, even bastardized form of Cantonese cuisine, first developed in North America and then scattered like confetti all over with the world, with its childish predictability and limited range, its birght colours, sweet-sour and salty flavours, deep-fried snacks and stir-fried noodles, has clouded appreciation of the diversity and sophistication of Chinese gastronomic culture. (p.5)

The book makes up for these deficits.  Dunlop relates what she found on her travels throughout China about the origins of this cuisine (cuisines, really), the basic ingredients (animal and vegetable), the techniques (chopping, steaming, stir-frying), ending with a short dissertation on Chop Suey and scholarly apparatus: chronology, notes, bibliography.

Another quotation:

When it comes to Chinese food, I see myself increasingly as a small insect scaling a great mountain of human ingenuity.  It’s paradoxical, because in many ways modern China can seem sameish.  All over the country, the same identikit modern buildings, the same brands, the same clothes…Even after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese food bounced back in a glittering kaleidoscope of colours.  All over the country, in nondescript little restaurants in concrete buildings, with nice calligraphy in a frames, people are tucking into remarkably delicious and locally distinctive foods.  At some profound level, this is how China expresses itself, from ancient times until now, from now until eternity (p.331).

As you should be able to tell from these brief excerpts, the book is an easy read.   I particularly enjoyed reading about Dunlop’s food adventures throughout China.  She now lives in the UK but used the pandemic to share them with us.

Oct 20 2023

Weekend reading: Best American Food Writing, 2023

I am totally thrilled to have one of my articles anthologized in this book, just published.

Mark Bittman, editor.  The Best American Food Writing, 2023.  Mariner Books, 2023, 181 pages.

My contribution is an article from the American Journal of Public Health, Regulating the Food Industry: An Aspirational Agenda.

This year’s editor is Mark Bittman, who has selected an unusually diverse collection of writings (which is why my academic article is in there).

I particularly liked a piece about the food writer, MFK Fisher, by David Streitfield and what is essentially an obituary of the chef, Alain Sailhac, by  Hugh Merwin, neither of which I had seen.

I had seen Ligaya Mishan’s “What we write about when we write about food,” from the New York Times Style Magazine, and have no trouble understanding why it was included; I thought it was brilliant.

There are lots of other superb pieces on all kinds of topics.

I feel greatly honored to be included.  Thanks Mark!

Sep 22 2023

Weekend reading: Food Security Handbook

Martin Caraher, John Coveney, Mickey Chopra, editors.  Handbook of Food Security and Society.  Edward Elgar Publishing, 2023.  

I did a blurb for the back cover:

This Handbook argues convincingly that ending hunger means far more than providing food to those in deed.  It means transforming society to one that is more equitable, socially as well as economically.  The chapters here are a rich source of data, analysis, and inspiration about how to work toward that transformation—and the sooner, the better.

The 24 chapters by many authors cover case studies (Ireland, South Africa), measurement and naming of hunger and food insecurity, the right-to-food movement, lived experiences, gender issues, policy approaches (successful and not), financialization, charitable and philanthropic approaches, and the effects of COVID-19 and the Ukraine war.

They also include critical theoretical and practical discussions of what can be done, from food banks to cooperatives to economic policies.

On this last point, Tim Lang’s concluding chapter on “The intransigence of food insecurity: questioning the realities,” makes the book worth reading on its own.

This chapter began with the argument that food insecurity is a material reality and almost entirely located in low-income countries with food deficits.  Instead, it has suggested that we should see food insecurity as both an absolute and a relative phenomenon, as socially determined, therefore socially resolved.  If we so wish, we could shift entire populations across the FAO’s food insecurity continuum.  This would require multiple points of intervention.  There is no single policy lever to right food wrongs.

I particularly like his table summarizing what food industries could do for food insecurity—lots, as it happens, not least paying workers higher wages.

Sep 8 2023

Weekend reading: The Politics of SNAP

Christopher Bosso.  Why SNAP Works: A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program.  University of California Press,  2023. 

I did a blurb for this book:

Why SNAP Works is a lively, up-to-the-minute account of the history of thie program formerly known as Food Stamps, and contested from its onset.  Bosso’s compelling explanation of the reasons SNAP survived—and deserves to–in the face of so much opposition, makes his book a must read.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, not least because Bosso is such an entertaining writer.

The book makes a strong case for his take-home message::

Yes, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can be better.  But without it, millions of Americans would be worse off.  And if that sounds like faint praise, so be it.  The paradox of want among plenty has not disappeared.  Short of a system solution to poverty—the root cause of food insecurity—and in a land of so much food, often bordering on the obscene, SNAP at least ensures that all Americans get a better chance at a decent diet, a minimum element for a decent life, without sacrificing all personal autonomy and pride.

At a time when the Farm Bill is up for renewal and SNAP is under siege (again), the is book could not be more timely.

I hope everyone in Congress gets a copy and reads it.

Hey, I can dream.

Sep 1 2023

Weekend (all year?) reading: An Italian Feast

I just bought a copy of this book, mainly because I like reading everything Cliff Wright writes.  One of his previous books about Italian Cooking, A Mediterranean Feast, won two James Beard awards in 2000, one of them Cookbook of the Year, deservedly.

This one is a doorstop at 1191 pages and 5.6 pounds.

But no need to be intimidated.  The structure is quite straightforward.

The book takes each region of Italy, in alphabetical order from Abruzzo to Veneto, and takes those regions province by province to discuss and provide recipes for characteristic dishes.

Take Emilia-Romagna, for example.  First comes a history of the region, a discussion of its cuisine and questions about them, followed by characteristic recipes from the region and discussions and recipes of each of the provinces, also in alphabetical order, from Bologna to Rimini.

Wright introduces the book with a summary of how the history of Italy has influenced its food.  For example:

In terms of what people at in Italy in the last fifteen hundred years, there is so much for which one must account, from the diffusion of Islamic agriculture between the seventh and twelfth centuries; the Black Death of the fourteenth century; the transition of the world economy from feudalism to capitalism and the wealth created as a result of the trade in, mostly, food products; the discovery of the New World in the late fifteenth century and the introduction of its new foods in the following century; and the changes in the consciousness of people themselves due to the Renaissance, humanism, and the nascent stirrings of modern science.  This is a complex story, and it all has to be told so we can appreciate why Italian food is what it is today.

Hence, 1200 pages.

Interspersed throughout the book are boxed discussions of fasciinating details.  On eggplant parmesan from the Regional Cuisine of Campania, for example, he says (among other things):

Let us dig a little deeper here.  The first mention of something resembling eggplant Parmesan is from the rhyming poem Il saporetto by Simone Prudenzani (1387-1440).  Prudenzani was from Orvieto, and Il saporetto, while not a cookbook, is about food, where a dish mentioned refers to well-grated parmigiano cheese being stuffed inside (Dentro nel parmiscian ben gratusgiato)….I believe the version we know today, with its Parmesan cheese and tomato ragoût, first appears in print in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Cucina teorico-practica, published in Naples in 1837….

The recipes come with similar dicussions.

You either love this kind of thing or not.  I tend to be for it.

For that reason, I do have a quibble with the book.  It does not come with an Index of anything except the recipes.

The scholarly apparatus is limited to brief endnotes, a lengthy bibliography of what he read for this (17 pages of small type), and an index of the recipes by category, and by region and province.  But the recipes are only a fraction of what is in this book.

The lack of an index is a serious omission.

Wright self-published this tome.

Still, I’m glad to have it.

Aug 11 2023

Weekend reading: National Dish

Anya Von Bremzen. History, and the Meaning of Home. Penguin, 2023.

I can never get over how many superb books are now published on food themes, on after another.

Consider—and you definitely should—this one, for example.

For starters, there’s the fabulous cover by Roz Chast, no less (I want one for my next book!).

For another, there’s its brilliant structure and what Von Bremzen does with it.  She is a cookbook author, best known to me for her memoir, Masterian the Art of Soviet Cooking, an account of what food was like for a child growing up in Moscow in the former Soviet Union.

National Dish uses what are assumed to be foods representing entire cultures to reflect on the meaning of food for personal identity and larger issues of gastronationalism.  Von Bremzen spent at least a month in each country examining how its particular dish did and did not represent the culture of Japan (Ramen noodles), France (Pot-au-Feu), Spain (tapas), and Mexico (mole), and others, necessarily ending with the most poignant, Ukraine (borsch).

Von Bremzen is great company on these explorations, delving into language, history, anthropology, and whatever else it takes to understsand the role of that particular food in that particular society.  A couple of excerpts:

Neopolitans were not Italy’s original mangiamaccheroni, however; the Sicilians were.  A twelfth-century Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, was first to report that people near Palermo were making strings of dough called itriyya–-from the Arabic? Greek?  Hebrew?—which they traded “by the shipload” to Calabria and “other Christian lands.”  The Neopolitans?  They were called mangiofoglie (leaf eaters), or, more quaintly, cacafoglie (leaf shitters) for their massive intake of dark leafy greens—a forerunner of the Brooklyn dream diet.  (p. 52)

This, on “washoku—fuzzily defined as “the traditionally dietary cultures of the Japanese” and modeled on the equally fuzzy but successful “gastronomic meal of the French.”

But it was the UNESCO listing that produced a washoku explosion.  A word only faintly known before to the Japanese public was now everywhere, celebrated in cookbooks, media articles, gastronomic guides, and scholarly studies.  And the government—mixing bunka gaikō (cultural diplomacy and Brand Japan building—promoted washoku abroad as the nation’s ancient and healthy tradition.  An upscale pizza effect swung into action.  International recognition boosted washoku’s domestic cachet, swelling the pride that Japanest home cooks now took, according to polls, in their own intangible food heritage.

Intangible indeed. (p.103)

This is one terrific book, erudite but fun to read and a great contribution to the literature of food studies.  Enjoy!

Jun 9 2023

Weekend Reading: Ultraprocessed People!

This absolutely superb—informative, eminently readable, compelling—book makes the strongest possible case for the benefits of not eating ultra-processed foods.

These, you may recall, are produced by industrial means, loaded with unfamiliar and questionable food additives, unable to be made in home kitchens, and designed deliberately to be irresistibly delicious, if not addictive, so as to make profits for food companies.

They also encourage people to eat more than they realize, and are consistently associated with poor health.

Van Tulleken is a British physician, scientist, and television star with his twin brother Xand.

Although I am thoroughly familiar with just about everything in this book having written extensively about these topics myself, I still found it to be a great read.

Van Tulleken tells stories really well.  I was hooked on page 30 with the description of Lyra, his 3-year-old daughter’s first encounter with a breakfast cereal aimed at kids.  He had decided to do a Morgan Spurlock  (Super Size Me!) experiment on himself and eat mainly ultra-processed foods for as long as he could stand it.  He began with a breakfast of Coco Pops cereal.

I had assumed that, having never tried Coco Pops, she [Lyra] wouldn’t have any interest in them.  But Kellogg’s had got her hooked before she’d had a mouthful.  She knew that here was a product designed with a three-year-old in mind.  Again, I told her no, so she collapsed on the floor crying and screaming with rage…My lingering doubts [about this cereal] were irrelevant ….Lyra had crawled out from under the table, filled her bowl and started to eat great fistfuls of dry Coco Pops, wide-eyed and ecstatic.  Defeated, I poured out the milk, and read the ingredients…Lyra put her ear to the bowl and shut her eyes, entranced. She then began to eat again.

And eat.  And eat.  As I watched her, it seemed she wasn’t fully in control…Lyra had hardly taken a breath.  I normally have to do a little cajoling at mealtimes, but the first bowl of Coco Pops had simply disappeared.  When I tried to suggest that one bowl was enough, the idea was immediately dismissed.  It felt like advising a smoker to stick to one cigarette.  Her eating wasn’t just mindless: it was trancelike.

This is just what ultra-processed foods are supposed to do.

Van Tulleken calls for government policies to be made without food company involvement, and for policies to restrict the marketing of such foods.


The book is published today by Norton. I thought it was a great read.