4 oldie-but-goodie books about food and farming to read this Thanksgiving

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image source: picjumbo.com

I love cooking, good food, and that peculiar quiet that happens when most stores and offices are closed (don’t get me started on Black Friday creep), so Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s also a holiday based on over-simplified feel-good fibs, and can also stir up unpleasantness about everything from eating disorder recovery to acrid family politics.

In other words, it’s complicated, kind of like our national relationship with food on the whole. To celebrate–or at least commemorate–the upcoming food frenzy, I’m sharing four of my favorite food and farming books that would be perfect for savoring over the long weekend.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (with Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp

9780060852566Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Troubled by the ecological toll of modern agriculture, particularly the fossil fuel expenditures involved in transporting food from farm to grocery store to table, Barbara Kingsolver and family moved to Appalachia and embark on a year of local eating. The result is this book, which is adventurous, funny, alarming, warm, and also a love letter to Appalachia.

If you’re a fan of Kingsolver’s fiction, you know that she is deeply concerned with themes of family and sustainability, making this memoir–peppered with nonfiction reporting on food issues and environmentalism–even more charming. The window into Kingsolver and her family’s life is as precious as the window she opens onto our alienating modern food system.

Hit By a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

9781569242988Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Certified city girl Catherine Friend fell in love with a woman who dreamed of farming, so the two picked up and moved to southeastern Minnesota to raise sheep and wine grapes. In Hit By a Farm, Friend explores the steep learning curves of both farming and long-term relationships, and it’s as much a book about her partnership with her now-wife Melissa as it is a book about farming.

Still, there’s plenty of farming and food commentary to be had, accompanied by a glimpse of the swath of writing life that exists between unpublished nobody and runaway bestseller–Friend is a moderately successful technical writer and romance author as well as farmer. This book is laugh-out-loud, bust-a-gut funny, and Friend’s no-nonsense approach to her relationship with Melissa makes this one of the great lesbian memoirs–if such a sub-genre exists–too.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

9781416551614Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Dirty Life is another fish-out-of-water memoir, recounting formerly-of-NYC writer Kristin Kimball’s whirlwind romance with a sustainability-minded farmer, and their move to a plot of land in Vermont that they slowly transform into a thriving CSA (a weekly share-based community-supported agriculture business). Kimball’s book is honest and gritty, featuring more of farming’s bitter disappointments than most books in the sustainable agriculture sub-genre, making it more credible and complex than the typical feel-good, permaculture-will-save-the-world story.

I spent my teens living on my mom’s failed hobby farm, and The Dirty Life came closest to capturing what that’s like (even though Kimball’s farm eventually does succeed). If you’re looking for an emotional rollercoaster and sensory feast of a farm memoir, this is it. (There’s also a memorable scene where she recounts eating a heart–if memory serves, a venison heart–stuffed with breadcrumbs. It’s a lot to take if you’re squeamish, but it’s certainly evocative.)

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

9780385420174Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

It’s a classic “food book” to the point of cliché, but for a reason–Like Water for Chocolate is one of the most sensual and lovely books about the power of food that there is. Esquivel’s novel follows the life of Tita, the youngest daughter in a wealthy Mexican family who is prohibited from marrying in order to devote her full attention to her aging mother. Tita’s heart breaks early when she has a forbidden fling with a man named Pedro, who eventually marries her sister. The story of Tita’s fight for independence is told through her cooking, which imparts whatever emotions Tita is experiencing upon whomever eats it.

Is it over-the-top? Absolutely. Is it gorgeous and memorable? Absolutely, again. I especially love the glimpse into family life during the Mexican Revolution and into a food tradition that’s very different from my German-Scandinavian-American family’s food traditions. The book is relatively short if memory serves, but if you’re in the mood for a three-hour drama fest, the film has its own sort of joy and magic. It’s in Spanish, but English subtitles are available, and the ridiculous image of Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, riding naked on horseback through the wilderness with a rebel soldier, is well worth it.


What are your favorite books about food? I’m always looking for good food journalism, food and farm memoirs, food-centric fiction, cookbooks, and more, so please leave your recommendations in the comments, especially if it’s a more obscure title than these four.

Because of the holiday, I’m skipping Friday Bookbag this week. I’ll be back on Monday with a review of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng!

MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent: A musical short story collection

MASSEDUCTION cover

Amazon | iTunes | Spotify

label: Loma Vista Recordings

release date: October 13, 2017

This is not a music blog since I am not cool enough to have a music blog I lack the vocabulary to write coherently about music: I still don’t get the difference between a chorus and a bridge, and I’m fuzzy on what distinguishes a guitar from bass.

That’s why I’m delighted when I can describe an album I love in words instead of vague handwaving, and MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent is that kind of album.

St. Vincent’s previous work has often been described as “literate,” which strikes me as a code word for an artist who’s too smart and uncompromising to be appreciated by the teeming masses. As an ardent defender of the teeming masses, however, I’d much rather describe her as “literary”: someone who turns each song into an opportunity to tell a story and play with language.

Interestingly enough, St. Vincent–whose real name is Annie Clark–did a song for the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack back in 2009, which must have been my first introduction to her music, though the track doesn’t stand out in my memory. For all people love to hate on Twilight, I always appreciated the forum it provided for the freaks and fangirls of the world (myself included) to talk about power, kink, and beautiful people.

So, it seems fitting that MASSEDUCTION is similarly freaky, kinky, and beautiful, and thankfully, Annie Clark is a lot better at words than Stephenie Meyer.

MASSEDUCTION rockets from a breathy song about a drunk-dial (“Hang On Me”) to manic odes–or laments–to fame like “Los Ageless.” A throbbing sadness creeps in at the midpoint–“Happy Birthday, Johnny” recounts the pain of a friend’s addiction–that is jolted but never fully banished by erotic, frantic romps like “Savior” and “Young Lover.” The closing track, “Smoking Section,” captures the experience of mental illness as perfectly as I’ve ever heard, especially as Clark repeats depression’s favorite taunt over and over: “let it happen, let it happen.”

Clark’s narrative control is striking. Each song is a self-contained capsule of emotion–most often, manic anxiety or dreamy melancholy–while still forwarding an overarching story. A lot has been made of the fact that Clark wrote this album on the heels of her break-up with supermodel Cara Delevingne, and pangs of lost love are definitely present here alongside the glitz and terror of superstardom. But to reduce this album to autobiography or tell-all would be a mistake.

The story collection is a fraught format. No matter how good your stories are on their own, juxtaposing them threatens to expose your weak points, your repetitions, your idiosyncrasies, your weird and boring obsessions. Clark sidesteps these pitfalls admirably by excelling at several things: one, by choosing interesting obsessions–fame, sex, and love are rabbit holes we’re eager to fall down–and two, by maintaining a tone that is both edgy and vulnerable.

It takes a certain amount of guts to pose for your album cover in a leopard-print onesie, and it takes even more to shriek “I can’t turn off what turns me on” (“MASSEDUCTION”) for an audience of millions. Most of us have felt it; Clark is brave enough to say it. It also takes a certain self-awareness to conclude your album by singing “it’s not the end” over and over through a lump in your throat (“Smoking Section”), and it’s exactly what Clark does.

MASSEDUCTION taunted me with an honesty truer than truth. I don’t care whether the events Clark describes really happened or not; I do care that this web of music and stories have captured me for weeks.  If we were ever to see a St. Vincent-penned book, I’d be first in line to buy it. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening.

I first heard this album on Spotify and was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

Monday Reviews

All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan (translated by Jessica Cohen)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Random House

publication date: April 25, 2017

9780375508295There is a difference between stories that end unhappily and stories for which there can be no happy ending. All the Rivers falls in the latter category. It is the story of an Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian man she falls in love with, Hilmi, while both are living in New York City in 2002. If that seems like a simple setup, it’s because it is; charged politics do the heavy lifting here, and Liat and Hilmi aren’t so much characters as sketches.

At first, this grates. I’m not fond of mouthpiece books, and from the beginning this book has all the tell-tale signs. But there’s a subtler undercurrent here too, a promise of the thing that made me pick up the book in the first place: a love story that is at once tender and sweet, visceral and scathing.

Liat narrates, and narrate is the appropriate word here, since we don’t get much of a sense of Liat other than that she’s Israeli, and that she’s telling the story. Ostensibly she’s working in New York as a Hebrew/English translator; I’m not totally sure, since the details are breezed over and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is lust, and love, and being Middle Eastern in New York City in 2002.

All the Rivers is at its best when it is describing sensation. Rabinyan (with the aid of translator Jessica Cohen) seems to have infinite new combinations of words to describe homesickness, good food, and erotic encounters; she adds less fresh fuel to political conversations, which is perhaps the point: the conflict between Israel and Palestine drags on and on without changes or answers. It’s not that I didn’t care about those politics; I did while I was reading, and still do. It’s that every moment between Liat and Hilmi was so searing that  arguments over borders and binational identity–and there are many of these, between Liat and Hilmi, and between Liat and other characters as well–seemed ponderous in comparison.

I’m not sure if All the Rivers left me feeling particularly enlightened, although that’s the book’s marketing angle in the United States. It did leave me deeply sad in a way I can’t fully explain. This book ends (almost) how you’d expect, but Liat’s narrative folds in on itself so often that I found myself second-guessing my conclusions, my dread and disappointment so intense that I felt shaky after turning the last page.

It’s funny how much we love stories about people in love who aren’t supposed to be in love, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic. It’s also funny how being in love can make reading about love so painful that it’s almost unbearable. I can confidently say that my own partner is nothing like Hilmi, and I am fairly certain I’m nothing like Liat, but I found myself casting my real-life relationship into the mold of this fictional one over and over. Every bitter fight between Liat and Hilmi was a fight I’ve experienced, or fear I will experience. And every threat of loss, of an ending for this couple, felt like it was threatening me, my own ability to love and be loved. It hurt in the way that I go to literature to be hurt: a hurt that expands, purges, and understands.

Rabinyan has accomplished something that, to me, is more complex and powerful than All the Rivers’s Very Important Book marketing can get at. Love is messy, love stories are messy, and attempting to impose politics upon lovers is impossible; it’s not surprising that Rabinyan doesn’t fully succeed. But in a way, that failure is its own success. I set this book down wishing that its unhappiness sprang only from the careless way people sometimes love each other, and not from a terrible political mess bigger than all of us: these characters, this author, and myself as a reader.

“How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point,” Liat laments. She is describing how the prosperity of Israel looks to Palestinians on the other side of the fence, but I felt something else. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful, indeed, to love without restriction or complication. Someday we should all be so lucky. 4/5 stars.

 My copy of All the Rivers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.