As a child, I did not read much more that what was required of me. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens were memorable exceptions. Summer reading lists weren’t a thing or at least my parents did not make me aware of any. My summer reading consisted of a few comic books on the front porch swing during dreadfully hot and humid Eastern Shore days. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read, it was more like I didn’t have time for it. I would rather be outside, helping my father fix things, cooking with my mother or riding bikes with friends than dig into a book. In school, I had very average scores in reading comprehension and that suited me just fine. I had no desire to improve. I did, however, have a desire to build with Legos, swim, sail, and play softball. While in high school, I learned early on what Cliff Notes were and how to use them. They really saved me from a lot of sitting, which was an activity I did not enjoy at all.
I had a similar attitude in college and grad school and saw reading only as a means to an end and read what was required. By then, some maturity had developed within me, and I had moved on from Cliff Notes and vowed to read whole books that were required, even if it meant sitting longer than I wanted to. However, I did not long for endless hours in the library or in my dormitory reading every last word but, begrudgingly, I did.
Then, in my twenties, something changed. When I began having children, I decided I should keep up with the world around me, so I signed up for a daily subscription to the local newspaper. That marked the beginning of choosing what to read all on my own, perhaps since it wasn’t an “assignment,” there was some appeal in that. I could breeze through a paper pretty quickly by perusing the headlines and only reading what was interesting to me. This freedom of a daily decision of what to read was liberating and continues today with my local newspaper that is still faithfully delivered in the morning. Yes, I enjoy print copies so much more than a screen. Over the next decade or so, I gradually transitioned into periodicals and books and now I love to read. I believe I was in my late thirties when I finally declared out loud, “I love reading!”
I’ve enjoyed many Jules Verne novels and I’ve revisited Charles Dickens in the novella, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and have recently purchased Oliver Twist. To which it rests on my bookshelf and stares at me. I read the first page and was hooked. However, I put it away because I know once I picked it up again, I would have to allot ample time to finish it quickly. Some books are what I call “barn burners” in that once the fire catches, there’s no stopping it. I’ve got to see it through even if that means skipping dinner and ignoring family and friends.
If this story seems like it should be titled “Confessions of a Late Blooming Reader,” you would be correct. I felt it important to disclose my gradual rise to my reading addiction as it is one of the elements that led me to want to write this monthly “Food For Thought” column. One of my favorite subjects to read about just happens to be food, and all things related to food, which turns out casts a very wide net. You see, along the way, I’ve read some “barn burner,” books that were like dark full roast espresso for my brain, books that woke me up, books that have changed my world view on food, family, culture, nature and how they are all interrelated in ways I never thought possible. While I’ve included these “barn burners” in my list of resources and readings over the years, there are some books I feel like I haven’t given the platform they deserve.
So, if you’re into all things related to food, nature, family, culture and climate change, here are some eye opening, amazing, life changing, hair raising “barn burners” for you. If you are a tepid reader as I once was, consider these as a gift recommendation for the foodie, gardener, cook, or nature lover in your life.
Eating to Extinction, The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them,
by Dan Saladino
This book takes the reader on a journey around the world to visit the rare and unique origins of some of our most ancient and arguably some of the earth’s most important genetic plant resources. The book takes readers from the last man on earth to make Ship-Katsura, a salted tuna weaved with rice grains that takes months to complete its exquisite detailing, to another man in Nottingham, England, who carries on the distinctive British culture of Stichelton cheese. It is an origin story in a world where the origin of a plant means everything for understanding what nature and time does to the genetics of living things. A loss of genetic diversity and vast tracks of monoculture promotes a weak earth system and as climate change makes the planet only hotter it is becoming quickly apparent that biodiversity is going to be the key to plant and animal survival. Without plants, there will be no animals. While I’m painting a grim picture, the book does not leave you with dread, but rather, optimism, “ a slower, more contemplative approach to food,” and “a core belief that saving diversity gives us options.”
by Henry D. Thoreau
The modern world scatters our brains and bombards us with information. Rushed and overwhelmed, it would do us all good to sit in the woods and observe and write for a lengthy amount of time. This kind of setting is where epiphanies are born.
Our Changing Menu – Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need,
by Michael P. Hoffman, Carrie Koplink-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman
Organized to read like a menu, each chapter focuses on the elements of courses and where the ingredients come from. Eye opening facts to stretch your mind include: most of the grass fed beef Americans eat comes from Australia. Americans eat an average of 115 pounds of potatoes a year. Coffee production is expected to plummet 50% by 2050. Why does it matter? Importing beef to a country that can produce enough beef for its citizens only adds to the giant carbon footprint beef already stamps on the planet. When night temperatures stay above 77 degrees, potato crop yields decline. In Washington state, potato yields could drop as much as 22% by 2080. Potatoes are a staple for 1.3 billion people. Remember the Irish potato famine of 1845-1849? One million people died of starvation. People love their coffee but, more than that, in Tanzania, 2.5 million people depend on growing coffee for their livelihood, and that’s just one country. The final chapters, entitled “Farmers, Businesses, and Scientists,” and “What We Can Do?” explore mitigation strategies that make sense.
The Way We Eat Now – Strategies for Eating in a World of Change,
by Bee Wilson
This book tells the story of how we arrived at our modern food system, beginning with hunting and gathering. A very enjoyable and engaging book, I highlighted every other page. Favorite quotes: “Many of us to our own annoyance, are trapped in routines in which eating well seems all but impossible. Yet this is partly because we live in a world that places a higher premium on time than it does on food.” Also, “The rise of expensive trendy foods widens the gap between affluent eaters and everyone else because it reinforces the idea that good food is an expensive pursuit.” And, “It’s becoming abundantly clear that the way most of us eat is unsustainable.” Strategies to navigate our complex food system not only abound but make complete sense.
Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us,
by Michael Moss
This read is an eye-opening peek into the controlling world of large food corporations and how they use human biology to hijack our tastebuds and keep us coming back for more. Best Chapter? “That Gooey, Sticky Mouthfeel.”
Botany of Desire – A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan
A must read for gardeners. The author bends your eye view from our own selfish angle to that of the plants. It’s refreshing to switch perspectives and follow his connections to the very end. It leaves the reader to wonder, are we in charge, or are the plants?
The Fate of Food – What We Will Eat in a Bigger Hotter Smarter World,
by Amanda Little
The author explores all the agricultural options for our future. Amanda Little dives into the complex spectrum of food production, distribution and waste and contrasts the alter opposites of food movements, big agriculture versus the small organic farmer, GMOs, scientific innovations and timeless old world sustainability practices. Ultimately, it will take a combination of all of the above to feed and preserve the earth.
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City,
by Mona Hanna-Attisha
This book is a doctor’s first-hand account of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. The tap water was not fine.
The Nature Fix – Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative,
by Florence Williams
This book is so good, I read it twice. After reading this, you’ll never take a walk in the woods for granted ever again. Nature is a stimulant to the brain – perhaps much better than a coffee, really.
by Rachel Carson
This title led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I truly have saved the best for last. Can one book change the course of history? Yes.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.