Here’s a list of “essential” reading for anyone interested in learning more about the global food system and the environmental and social issues facing farmers and eaters alike–and a few good cookbooks thrown in for good measure. Not everyone will share the same opinion on each of these resources, but almost everyone should agree that they are worthwhile reading.

Corey’s picks

Raj Patel, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System
Patel’s engaging first book looks at the global food system from two perspectives–that of the rural poor and the urban consumer–and seeks to explain why about a billion people worldwide are malnourished and another billion suffer from obesity and diseases caused by overfeeding. He places the blame on the global industrial food chain, in which a handful of corporations have entirely too much say and gain entirely too much profit. A great counterpoint to Paarlberg’s Food Politics.

Robert Paarlberg, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

Paarlberg, a political science professor at Wellesley College, writes in support of the Green Revolution, factory farming, and genetically modified foods to help developing nations. Although this outlook doesn’t fit with the Via Gusta mission, his discussion of food shortages and safety, hunger and obesity, and organic agriculture are deep and wide-ranging and supported by much compelling evidence. You may not agree with him, but if you’re interested in food policy, you should read him.

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Pollan lays out the case that food is under attack by nutritionism, which is the product of a $32 billion marketing machine tied to nutritional scientists and the processed food manufacturers that fund them. This humanistic follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma questions how and what we’re told to eat, including the premise that we need experts to tell us how to be healthy, and empowers us to reclaim our diet through simple advice (eat food, not too much, mostly plants; don’t eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food). A very good read.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

Nestle gets deeper into public policy and the influence of different parties driving the marketing machine Pollan describes in In Defense of Food. Unlike Pollan’s writing, Nestle’s style is academic and somewhat dry as she goes into great detail picking apart the messages we hear from the government, attacking the marketing of junk food to children (even in the form of school lunches), and showing us how industry has prevented efforts to protect consumers. It’s a damning criticism that was highly influential when it came out in 2002 and has since been updated to include recent battles in the war against bad food.

Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

This is the book that got me started cooking authentic Italian food. I still recommend it for learning basic techniques (with a northern Italian bias), from making risotto and rolling your own egg pasta to understanding how flavors combine and knowing when to break certain rules. My copy is well-spotted from lasagna, homemade brodo, and puttanesca sauce–a good sign, in my opinion.

Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner

This is one of my favorite food books of all time. Margaret Visser is a food historian obsessed with the tradition and sociology behind how and what we eat. She dives into a very boring, traditional meal and devotes a chapter to each of its elements (corn, salt, butter, chicken, rice, lettuce, olive oil, lemon juice, ice cream). The stories and history she recounts are anything but boring.

Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge, Intercourses: an Aphrodisiac Cookbook

Adding this one for a happy Valentine’s Day celebration. All the recipes in here are designed for two; they’re well researched and delicious, and lovers cooking together will be titillated by the book’s beautiful and provocative photography. Some of my favorite every day recipes are from this cookbook.

Maddie’s picks

Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino, The Italian Farmer’s Table: Authentic Recipes and Local Lore from Northern Italy

A young Italian-speaking American couple went to culinary school in Florence, spent a year traveling to different agriturismi around northern Italy for a year, and collected their favorite recipes. It starts off with them describing their trip as a whole and what they were hoping to accomplish; they divide the agriturismi by regions, and describe the climate, cultural influences, and terrain of each region and how it affects culinary trends. Within each region it is divided into at least three different agriturismi, with descriptions of the land and people that make each one special. I’ve tried many of the recipes, and so far they have been soulful and delicious. The pictures are beautiful as well and truly transport you to these homey Italian kitchens.

Nina Planck, Real Food: What to Eat and Why

Farmers-market maven Nina Planck describes how her health improved after reverting to her childhood diet of traditional whole foods, after years of a vegan diet during which her health suffered. She backs up her assertion that her change in diet improved her health with an abundance of research supporting benefits of traditional foods, even ones that are demonized by health experts, including lard, butter, raw milk, eggs, and (grass-fed) beef. She also describes the benefits fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and whole grains, however shows clear disdain for any sort of low-fat products, processed vegetable oils, and highly processed soy products. This book gave me the confidence to enjoy certain foods that had long been taboo (though always in moderation). I do disagree with her on some fronts, however. I certainly don’t condemn vegans or vegetarians (especially those that eat non-processed whole foods), and where there isn’t much access to pastured meat, a vegetarian diet may be a wise health and environmental choice.

Gualtiero Marchesi, Oltre il fornello

Innovative Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi describes the techniques that make up the foundation of his cooking, which he deems are more important for young chefs to understand than memorizing any number of recipes. If you don’t have the techniques down and understand each individual ingredient and how to treat it properly, you will never be able to create your own style and recipes. Reading this book transports me back to the classrooms of Alma. It is a good way for me to review different techniques that have helped me become a more successful experimental cook. I don’t believe there is an English translation for this book, but Tom Colicchio has a similar book about techniques called Think Like a Chef.

Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap

Winne discusses the nutritional divide between the rich and the poor in the United States and different ways we can work to improve this situation. The book serves to remind people that there are major social concerns to work on in regard to food policy, and not just environmental and health concerns, the issues that most upper-middle class people seem to focus on. Local and organic foods will not be able to radically change our food systems and help the environment on a major scale unless these foods are accessible to the poorer half of our country.

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Vegetable Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Chronicles a year of local eating for author Barbara Kingsolver and her family at their farm in Appalachia. The book combines a great combination of personal reflections on the joy of growing and cooking one’s own food, tempting recipes, gardening tips, animal rearing tips, and heart-wrenching facts about issues in America’s food systems and how these affect our health and the environment. The book reads like a novel while also being very informative.

Michael Pollan, Food Rules

Michael Pollen lays out simple recommendations for how to eat better, with information gathered primarily from In Defense of Food. It only takes an hour to read, and it’s a useful tool for introducing a friend or family member to a healthier diet. That said, it’s not preachy: one rule is that it is important to break the rules every once in a while, to help people feel comfortable changing their diets for the better instead of feeling criticized or limited.

Novella Carpenter, Farm City

Novella Carpenter and her husband move to a dilapidated neighborhood in Oakland and create a functioning urban farm. The author is hilarious. It is a really fun read and can serve as example as an alternative route for those who wish to be more active in the production of their own foods and decrease their carbon footprint while enjoying the social and cultural aspects of city life.

Williams and Sonoma, Cooking Essentials

Beautiful pictures, technique tips, rare ingredient descriptions, and classic and delicious recipes from around the world. One of my favorite cookbooks. It is really important for me that a cookbook have a lot of beautiful pictures, and every single recipe in this book is accompanied by a photograph. I have used these recipes in order to have a foundation of different classic flavor combinations from around the world.

Anne Mendelson, Milk

Milk gives a comprehensive overview of the history of milk and various milk products. She also includes many milk-centered recipes such as homemade yogurt, fresh cream cheese, and crème fraiche. A good mix of recipes and information.

Food, Inc. (film)

Food, Inc. discusses different issues concerning the industrialized food system in America. I think it is a very well-rounded film. It doesn’t go into any great detail of any particular topic, but it can serve as an overview, so people can pick their battles and further inform themselves on whatever issue might interest them the most.