CINCINNATI -- With Christmas behind us and short days ahead, it’s a perfect time to curl up with a book – or Nook – and contemplate the new year.
We’ve given some thought to what has inspired farm-to-table chefs and sustainable farmers – in particular what they’ve been reading amid the burgeoning body of literature on food, cooking and the environment.
Here are a few titles recommended by food folks in the area, with a couple of my own favorites thrown in for good measure:
• Published in 2006, Michael Pollan’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," is now a classic – and was the first book mentioned by Meghan Hill Gambrill, crops manager at Turner Farm in Indian Hill. Pollan takes a historical look at food chains, concluding that first-world eaters are overwhelmed with choices as a result of global distribution, preservatives and refrigeration, and industrial agricultural practices.
Gambrill said she also was particularly inspired by Mark Shepard’s "Restoration Agriculture," though, she said, “I have not yet been able to put any of his ideas into practice. … From the eater’s perspective, I feel that (chef and writer) Dan Barber’s 'The Third Plate’ approaches consumption in a similar vein as Shepard’s book approaches production. Shepard speaks to how we can grow food in a way that repairs our environment; Barber speaks to how we can eat food in a way that repairs our environment.”
• Poet Wendell Berry of New Castle, Kentucky, has long studied and advocated – through The Berry Center – simpler, sustainable practices in agriculture. His 1997 collection of essays, "The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture," is a pleasure to read in its own right. This is a book not just about farming but about life, by a major American writer.
• Some farm-to-table chefs are influenced by the books of other chefs. José Salazar, chef-proprietor of Salazar and Mita restaurants, said he drew inspiration from Michel Bras’ book. “ 'Essential Cuisine' really inspired me as a young cook,” Salazar responded by email. “Also, like many other chefs, the 'French Laundry Cookbook' was something special” when he was younger.
• As for vegetarianism – or not – novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Eating Animals" from 2009 takes a thorough look at all aspects of meat production. Another classic.
• On the farm-business side of things, some books that were mentioned by a publicity-shy area farm-to-table professional: "Elliot Coleman's Four Season growing books; Richard Wiswall's books on the business side of farming; Joel Salatin's books on livestock farming, such as 'Folks, This Ain’t Normal' and 'Farms with a Future,' profiles of farmers across the country, their struggles and their successes.”
• Another business-shelf volume, "Natural Prophets," by Joe Dobrow, focuses on entrepreneurial leaders who introduced big-business organics via companies like Whole Foods.
• One of my own favorites is "The One Straw Revolution," by Japanese philosopher-farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. Written in 1978, this memoir, which is also a how-to on Fukuoka’s no-tilling practice of agriculture, was ahead of its time, and it’s a quiet joy to read.
• Finally, Dana Gunders’ "Waste Free Kitchen: A Guide To Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food," published in 2015, is compact and full of information on things such as which foods go bad first and, even more importantly, why.