by Marion Nestle

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Feb 2 2024

Weekend reading: Ethical Eating

Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A Goldthwaite, eds.  Good Eats: 32 Writers on Eating Ethically.  New York University Press, 2024.

I did a blurb for the back cover:

In Ethical Eating, authors from all walks of life relate their daily struggles—moral as well as economic—to eat diets that promote human and environmental health and meet deeply held principles of food equity and social justice.  Their accounts of these struggles are sometimes funny, always moving, and entirely recognizable by anyone trying to eat ethically.

This book contains several dozen short-to-medium length essays describing authors’ struggles—I use the word advisedly—to figure out how to eat in today’s impossibly complicated food system.

The book is designed to be used in food literature courses, and I can see why.

Each essay raises subject-to-debate issues about the costs and consequences of making principled dietary choices on a day-to-day basis while living with the usual complexities of life.

The writers are almost all unknown to me, so the book is an introduction to the concerns of people who care about the same issues I do, although often in very different ways.

Amazon has examples from the text and the Table of Contents .  Here’s a sample of the TOC—there’s much more in the book:


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Dec 15 2023

Weekend reading: Food for the Future

John Brueggemann.  Food for the Future: Beautiful Stories from the Alternative Agro-Food Movement.  Lexington Books, 2023.

I did a blurb for this book:

Sociologist John Brueggemann examines the stories of people actively engaged in today’s small-scale food and farming movement toward healthier and more sustainable food systems.  Their commitment, passion, and pragmatism is so inspiring that we will all want to join or support this movement in every way we can.

This brief excerpt explains at a glance why these stories matter.

A central claim of this book, however, is that there is also a Beautiful Story.  Against this vast, execrable current, there is a dramatic countertrend, a trickle of clean, life-giving freshness that is rapidly gaining strength…This includes, most importantly, farms.  From the people I spoke to directly, others they mention, and secondary research, it seems clear to me that many farmers care deeply about the land, what they produce how they produce it, and its consequences for consumers.

I love food and through this research have come to revere those who make it available.  I find this movement to be stirring, both in terms of what it is doing for our food system, but more importantly for all the lessons it offers for how neighbors can live together.  I think this story is both credible and wondrous….We’ve got to have faith in each other.

Dec 8 2023

Weekend reading: The Upstairs Delicatessen

Dwight Garner.  The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading about Eating, & Eating While Reading.  Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2023. 244 pages.

This book was given to me by my editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux (which is publishing the new edition of What to Eat in 2025).

And what a fun read it is.

For one thing, the title describes exactly how this book is constructed.

Garner (who I don’t know but wish I did) reviews books for the New York Times (his most recent is a review of Fuchcia Dunlop’s history of Chinese food).

He, as it turns out, is one serious foodie.

In this memoir of sorts, he notes what everyone he reads—and he reads everything—has to say about food.  The name-dropping result takes getting used to.  Here is an example from the chapter on shopping for food.

I push past the onions and put two leeks into my cart.  I like to slice off the tops, when cooking with them, and set them on the windowsill, where the crazy tendrils wave like Struwwelpeter’s hair in the children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann…I take some arugula.  In Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, a failed academic named Chip eats arugula that’s “so strong it made his eyes water, like a paragraph of Thoreau.”  Arugula wasn’t well-known in America before the eighties.  When farmers began to grow it in California, they didn’t know how much to charge.  Cree’s [Garner’s wife’s] father, Bruce explained that in Europe the cost was roughtly equal to a pack of cigarettes.  According to Joyce Goldstein, in her book Insie the California Food Revolution, farmers listened to him and initially pegged arugula prices to the cost of Bruce’s Lucky Strikes.

This is all a great introduction to who is writing what about food, and wonderfully gossipy about people I’ve read too (and occasionally have met).

But wait.  How come he’s not quoting me?

I went right to the Index’s pages and pages of names.

Bingo!  There I am on page 93.

By now we’ve all read our Eric Schlosser, our Alice Waters, our Marion Nestle, our Michael Pollan.  These are first-rate writers and thinkers, and God bless them, but they can’t help, at times, sounding sanctimonious.

I am deeply honored by—and adore —being grouped with Schlosser, Waters, and Pollan.

But, ouch.  Sanctimonious?  Moi?

Oh well.  I enjoyed reading the book.  A lot.

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.