10 Nonfiction Books That’ll Tell You Where Your Food Comes From, Because You Should Know What You’re Eating

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 15: Atmosphere at Jin Ramen during the Dine In Harlem Dinner Series - Harlem EatUp! Festival on May 15, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Harlem EatUp!)
Source: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

I remember reading Fast Food Nation in junior high… and being utterly traumatized. Fingers in nuggets. Chemical flavoring. Sad cows. It was all there, and my young heart was broken and disgusted. That is, until I got hungry. This was, to be honest, at the height of the KFC Twister era (don’t act like you don’t remember it), and this girl couldn’t be stopped from getting a snack after school. Gigantic sandwiches, frosty drinks, fried chicken buckets (sometimes wrapped around hot dogs) — I think you get what I’m going for here.

These were my habits until a few years ago, when I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. The news changed everything: I started really paying attention to what I put in my body, and it was only a short leap from there to wanting to know more about where my food was coming from.

You guys, food is delicious. We #foodstagram it. We think about it. We talk about it. We review every bite that goes in our mouths. We are attempting crazier dishes at home. Yes, yes, yes, we love it. But I promise that caring about food doesn’t have to be the Portlandia skit in which you learn the names of each animal on your plate, visit the farm, commune with the soil, and meet each farmer before returning to your plate. It can be as simple as making small changes in what you eat and where it comes from. Or at least just learning something more about the food you’re putting into your body. At the risk of my earth-child showing, I think it’s time for all of us to learn more about food policy, the restaurant industry, and what we can do for ourselves and for our communities to keep everyone well-fed and -cared for.

These 10 books will get your stomach rumbling while simultaneously jump starting your nonfiction brain, and will inspire you to give a second thought to that third CroissTwinkie, and think more like…

Generation Yum by Eve Turow

Last time I checked my hashtag search on Instagram there were more than 20 million uses of #foodie and more than 60 million #foodporn images, the Millennial set has brought food obsession to a whole new level — a topic Eve Turow explores in Generation Yum. Turow is like anyone of us who grew up on Clarissa Explains It All, made our parents stand in absurd lines for Tamagotchis, hid under the blankets during Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and binged on junk food. What I’m saying is that she’s a Millennial through and through. Generation Yum breaks down where our generation’s obsession with food stems from to get a better understanding of the “why” behind your cousin’s fourth hot dog picture this past Fourth of July weekend.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

The granddaddy of food policy books, Fast Food Nation looks at the “dark side of the all-American meal,” as it says in its subtitle. From the financial implications of fast food, to our nation’s obesity epidemic, to the invasion of American eating habits abroad, and more, this book will scare the shenanigans out of you… but in a good way. I promise you won’t ever look at a trip to the drive-thru in the same way again. 

A Bone to Pick by Mark Bittman

Bittman’s most recent book, A Bone to Pick, is going to make you that super-annoying person whom your friends can’t take anywhere. Why? Because between telling everyone about the facts from this book on the bus, or spouting off figures to your friends and family, your world is going to be rocked. The book is a culminations of Bittman’s best of the best articles from his ongoing column at The New York Times. Essentially, he takes on distilling massive amounts of information to make the food policy world approachable and interesting. The best part? Bittman doesn’t create some complicated mess that you have to untangle in order to make a difference. Instead, it all boils down to: Eat less meat. Eat more vegetables. Eat more whole food. Support human and animal rights. Sounds doable. 

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan follows the food chain from ground to table, and ties the whole thing back to a meal at the end of each of the book’s three sections — industrialized food, alternative/organic food, and hunter gatherer style food — which can be traced from start to finish to reveal the hidden environmental and physical consequences. Pollan’s anecdotes are supported by the kind of facts and figures that can scare the extra-foamy double tall Slurm right out of your hands. 

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

To me, Blood, Bones & Butter is the perfect marriage of inadvertent food commentary, memoir, and food porn. The book chronicles Gabrielle Hamilton's path from bar slangin' teen to renowned chef and owner of New York City restaurant Prune, mother, and soon-to-be divorcée. Although, unlike many of the others on this list, this book doesn’t rely heavily on hard data, what it does do is make you step back and think about your relationship with food, where it comes from, and how we enjoy it. I love thinking that Hamilton would have made a great addition to Generation Yum because, in a way, she had the mentality of a Millennial before that was even a thing — fetishizing local, handmade goods; dreaming of a simpler life; and eating the heck out of some delicious food. 
Salt Sugar Fat is the O.G. of books on gluttony. Try this fact, straight from the book, on for size: “Every year, the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and 70 pounds of sugar (about 22 teaspoons a day).” Yes, you read that right — and the book is full of plenty more Fast Food Nation-style facts just like it. Although we have learned a lot more about the food industry and its atrocities since this book was published in 2013, the book is still a must-read for anyone scared to open another bag of cookies. 

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

To eat or not to eat, that is the question. Personally, I’ve always struggled with the idea of eating meat, so I can wholeheartedly relate to Jonathan Safran Foer, who explores the question: Why do we eat animals? And would we eat them if we knew how they got to our dinner plates? A cross-section between philosophy, science, undercover sleuthing and internal debate, Eating Animals is really more of a reckoning that we all have to come to terms with.  

Like many of these books, Tomatoland started with an article that, once written, wouldn’t die. If you’ve watched Food Chains, you know how one-sided the power structure of the farmworker’s relationship with farms is and how, especially in the tomato industry, exploitation has been an engrained principle. Tomatoland delves further into the $4 billion industry to take a look behind the curtain by reporting on the agribusiness and environmental issues of the beloved fruit. The book reads more like a whodunit than a dry, preachy piece (which it easily could have been under a less-seasoned pen). If I can be so bold, watch the documentary and read the book close together for full mind-blowing effect. 

Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

Although many of the books on this list contain great theoretical knowledge, some are hard to apply to everyday life. Eve O. Schaub wanted something a little more practical. Not only did the author attempt to eliminate sugar from her own diet for a year, but also from the diet of her husband, and 2-year-old daughter. Through stories, recipes, and commentary, Schaub shares more about the real cost of our sugar-laden diets both in the short and long term, ways to eat out while maintaining a low-sugar diet, and how to go grocery shopping. Although many readers are wary of Schaub’s disdain of the veggie world, the book is a good introduction to how changes can be applied practically and to get readers thinking about daily food choices. 
Regardless of how you feel about Anthony Bourdain and his no B.S.-style, the chef was one of the forefathers in bringing attention to the restaurant industry and making cooking “cool.” Would we care about our locally sourced, organically farmed, happy-go-lucky whosiwhatzits if it hadn’t been for this book? Would I have taken a third Instagram of the farm feed at the local dairy farm? Would we even know what umami is? Either way, Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s exploration of the trade, is witty, passionate and goes down smooth.

Images: Buzzfeed; Giphy (1, 2, 3)

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