Nominating Some of the Best Books of 2014

Every year, in the world of food, there are great cookbooks—slim volumes or glossy tomes that, at their best, not only teach us new dishes but escort us into new worlds.

But this year, unusually, was also a wonderful year for books about aspects of food policy and culture. Below, I’ve picked five that especially resonated with me, books that critically or delightfully examined things that I either wanted to know more about, or knew nothing about and needed to be educated on.

If you’re still gift-shopping—and who isn’t?—you should consider them. For yourself, even. Don’t you deserve a gift? You do.

(Disclosure note: The world of food-policy writers is a ...

Forks: From Odd Byzantine Instruments to Modern Utensils

Food isn’t just about what you eat; it’s also about how you eat it. All societies—from hunter-gatherer tribes to royal courts—have rituals of dinner.

Table manners, though they vary wildly from culture to culture, generally boil down to a couple of basic premises: mindful appreciation of food (we’re lucky to have it) and compassionate awareness of fellow eaters (we need each other). This isn’t to say that good manners can’t be put to bad use. Table manners, since time immemorial, have been perverted to enhance social status and reinforce class barriers. Manners can be the equivalent of a fraternity hazing, or at least an embarrassing stick in the eye ...

The Perfect Holiday Gift: Gin’s Herbal Essence

This is a story about agriculture.

Sure, it’s also about alcohol and how to make an excellent cocktail which, while not the most pressing food policy issue, will create a convivial atmosphere over which to discuss food policy issues.

But as wine is an agricultural product, so too are spirits—particularly gin, which derives its flavor from herbs and botanicals. One of the best, in fact, was started as a small family herb business. Without these lush, fragrant, flavorful plants—most famously, juniper—gin is merely another jug of clear and tasteless (if you’re lucky) hooch.

We can thank 18th-century England for popularizing the addition of aromatic botanicals to alcohol. Flavoring spirits with ...

Your Dinner Has a Carbon Footprint

By Erica Halvorson, The George Washington University

Every morning, I wake up, and just moments after my feet hit the floor, I’m reaching for a sports bra and tying my shoelaces. It’s time to go running.

Sometimes, I’m alone—in rhythm with only my breath and my thoughts. Other times, I’m with a friend, sharing stories and jokes as our strides fall in step with one another. In either case, this time is sacred. I’m a runner, and for me, there’s nothing better than a crisp morning, when the air is fresh, the sun is peaking over the horizon, and my legs are light.

But some days, when the smog is thick and ...

Eating Water Up: The Water “Footprint” of Food

One great accomplishment of the last 50 years is the ability to get more food to more people through improved agricultural yields, but along with that has come a huge increase in the amount of water used.

The California drought has brought the relationship between food production and water supplies into stark relief. Without adequate supplies of clean water, agriculture is impossible. Farmers know this all too well, but the average eater has no idea how much water goes into his or her diet. The hidden water, also called virtual water, behind food production makes up the majority of water that a person uses indirectly every ...

Solar Power Can Provide Hot Meals for the Masses

In every one of my restaurants, each day begins with the same routine. Chefs receive their orders, line cooks start prepping their ingredients, and the front of the house starts polishing the silverware and setting the tables. Along with all of that, someone goes into the kitchen and lights the stoves. Every burner is lit and immediately put to use.

In some of my kitchens, the ranges can span ten burners across, and they’re constantly topped with pots and pans of food simmering all day long. Without these burners, nothing would be possible. Not the food we serve, the experiences we create. This business that I have built my ...

Reorganizing U.S. Food Policy: What Would It Take?

Should the United States have a national food policy? And if it did, what else would it need to make that policy work?

A few weeks ago, an important piece ran in the Washington Post asking the first question, and answering it affirmatively. It has been a busy few news weeks in the U.S., however, and the piece, co-authored by four important figures in the national conversation about food, got less attention than it might otherwise have. So I thought it was time to revisit the idea, and ask what such a policy would look like, and how it would work.

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Bitter Berries: The Historic Battle for Cranberry Power Bars

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau had a brief financial flutter with the cranberry. Hard put to pay for his cellar full of unsold copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau came up with a scheme to work off his debt by selling cranberries to New York City. First he priced berries in Boston’s Quincy Market, with an eye to purchasing an “indefinite quantity.” This “made a slight sensation,” he later wrote in his journal, “and for aught I know raised the price of the berry for a time.” He then checked out freight costs on ships bound for New York (on deck or ...

The Problem with “Ew”

When I was a little girl there were no substitutes at the dinner table.

We didn’t have much money, but that wasn’t really the point to Mom. If I didn’t want her tahini-filled meatballs or fried liver and onions it was, she reasoned, because I wasn’t hungry enough. (more…)

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