By the Book
The chef and restaurateur, whose new book is “We Are What We Eat,” was heavily influenced by Elizabeth David’s book “French Country Cooking”: ‘All I wanted to do was live like the French.’
What books are on your night stand?
Next to my bed right now I have “Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart,” by Andrea O’Reilly; “All the Little Live Things,” by Wallace Stegner; “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community,” by Wendell Berry; a book of quotes from Gandhi; “Self-Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; “Devotion,” by Patti Smith; and a Lapham’s Quarterly on memory. There’s also Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior,” “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, and a copy of “My Old Home,” by Orville Schell. And Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Jefferson biography. And Mary Oliver’s “Upstream.” And “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, which I’m trying to read right now. Oh! And “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death,” by Caitlin Doughty. That last one is another one I’m reading now, and it’s really fascinating. That’s a lot of books! There are stacks here waiting to be read, it’s really bad.
What’s the last great book you read?
I loved “We Are the Weather,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I can really identify with what he’s saying — like he’s talking to me in person, trying to get down to very basic questions about why we eat what we eat. There’s an intimacy and directness and honesty to his writing. I also recently read “For a Delicious Revolution,” by Olivier Roellinger. It’s a memoir, very easy to read, but beautifully written and heartfelt. He grew up in France and talks about food there, and he echoes everything we know about the degradation of our culture in the United States after the advent of fast food. I bought 50 copies to give to people, and I’m down to only four now! I’m also listening to the audiobook of “The Water Dancer,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He is an amazing writer; I feel like I’m right there in it with him. I want to feel that way the moment I open a book, that I need to go to the next page. If I don’t feel that, I put it aside, even if I love the writer. I might go back to it later, though — I’m not a linear reader. But then, I’m not a linear thinker either.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I’m really more of a film person, and not a good reader. But I have roomfuls of books in my house, because I might read some short passage and it will fascinate me; and then I need to have that book in my library. When I look at all these books, I don’t think I’ve read a tenth of them cover to cover. But they’re so valuable to me, because they’re my friends. This is my ideal reading experience: wandering through the rooms of my house, pulling out one book or another as it speaks to me. I might see Carlo Petrini’s book, pull it out, read a passage, put it back. Or I might pick up one of Maria Montessori’s books and read a few lines. Books are a huge reference tool for me. And what people wrote back in the 1960s and 1970s about food and art and politics and agriculture are so important to what I’m thinking about right now. All I need is a sentence and it all comes back to me.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The One-Straw Revolution,” by Masanobu Fukuoka. My friend Steve Crumley gave me the book in the 1970s, and I read it cover to cover. Fukuoka was so important in his time: He influenced all the radical thinkers about food. He talked about his way of farming as “do-nothing farming,” and I loved that revolutionary idea that we can let nature take its course instead of bending it to our will — and also that we cannot isolate agriculture from the rest of our lives.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
There are so many, and I’ll never be able to name them all. But here are a few that have made a big impression on me: Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Maira Kalman, Raj Patel, Patti Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kim Severson, Ruth Reichl, Natalie Baszile, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ayad Akhtar, Robert Scheer, Hilton Als, Dan Barber, Mark Danner, Hamilton Fish, Samin Nosrat, Matthew Raiford, Adam Gopnik, Robert Hass, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Madhur Jaffrey, Jonathan Kozol, Corby Kummer, David Mas Masumoto, Gary Nabhan, Robert Reich, Orville Schell, David Tanis, Calvin Trillin. I’m sure I’ve got at least another 20 people that I could name.
What book, if any, most influenced your approach to food?
It’s really hard to pin it down to just one book. It might be a tossup between Richard Olney and Elizabeth David — but I think it’s probably Elizabeth David’s “French Country Cooking.” I got it in my early 20s, shortly after I came back from studying in France in 1965. When I returned home to Berkeley all I wanted to do was live like the French. Elizabeth David had also gone to France, and also fallen in love with the markets and the way that the French lived to eat. It’s a big cultural picture that Elizabeth David presents in her books; it’s not simply about food. Food is culture, and she revealed that. She also influenced me aesthetically — I loved the gracefulness and simplicity of her recipes and her cooking.
Who writes especially well about farming or restaurants, or both?
Wendell Berry writes beautifully about farming, for sure. And Ruth Reichl always writes so evocatively about restaurants and cooking. And while this isn’t strictly restaurants or farming, I love Michael Pollan’s edition of “Food Rules” that’s illustrated by Maira Kalman — two of my all-time favorites, collaborating together.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
Maira Kalman always makes me laugh. Her children’s books are incredible, like “Ooh-La-La (Max in Love).” The illustrations are unlike any others, and her own incredible imagination just comes out in them.
The last book you read that made you cry?
“The Water Dancer.” It’s heartbreaking.
The last book you read that made you furious?
Marion Nestle’s “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.” That made me absolutely furious. The title of the book says it all. And I’m so grateful to Marion for telling the truth. We need her book more than ever right now.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Education, without any question. Public education. Jonathan Kozol is one of the few people who have really exposed the desperate state of our education system. But no one that I know of has written a true present-day manifesto about the industrialization of our schools. Maybe there’s something out there I should read, but it hasn’t come to me yet. And I’m really waiting for it. Just in the way we’ve been indoctrinated by fast-food culture, we’ve been indoctrinated by the United States’ industrial education model. Education is entirely out of perspective now — what’s important, and what’s not. I want Jonathan Kozol to republish “The Shame of the Nation.” What a great title. And it is a shame on the nation. I can’t stop thinking about the schools he described.
How do you organize your books?
That’s an interesting one. I order my cookbooks by country, and then within that I try to keep them together by author. I’m not so successful at that, but that’s what I try to do. For other books, I organize them by subject, so I have all my education books together, all my books about gardening together, all my art books together. But the ones that I love the most I stack horizontally, because I’m grabbing them so much. I am always referring to “The Book of Symbols,” published by Taschen; it has symbols in it from around the world, from all different civilizations. I’m always trying to think of classic ways we can design a menu or a poster, and I sometimes steal ideas from there. Another book I use all the time and keep out on my table is “Sacred Food,” by Elisabeth Luard. I have so many little Post-its tagged throughout its pages. Whenever I’m trying to figure out how to throw an event, I’ll flip through it, try to reach back in history to figure out how best to think about rituals and beauty and celebrations. That book I always keep handy.
And then I do have a little special section of my library that’s for old and rare cookbooks, where I have my copy of Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste” — the first edition of the English translation from 1854, before the M.F.K. Fisher translation in the 1940s. Here is the first line of it: “The universe would be nothing were it not for life, and all that lives must be fed.”
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a lot of books about architecture. Architecture is my love, and it fits together so well with food. Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” is enormously important to me; I love the universality of that book. Edward R. Tufte’s “Visual Explanations” is another one of my favorites, and Raymond Meier’s book about Louis Kahn is one of my most treasured books. Louis Kahn is one of my favorite architects ever.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Early on, before I could actually read, my parents read to me a lot — books like “The Golden Book of Nursery Rhymes” and “The Little Engine That Could.” I loved those nursery rhymes. And “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” It’s incredible the things that can be embedded into children’s minds before the age of 5. But my parents didn’t have very many books in our house when I was growing up, because they weren’t big readers themselves. The one book that I would look at all the time was “Kon-Tiki.” I couldn’t believe that little raft going across the Pacific Ocean, and that I could see pictures of it. I always liked books with pictures in them. I liked to look through the Encyclopaedia Britannica, too.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Well, I gave “The Man Who Planted Trees” to Barack Obama when he entered office.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet? What do you plan to read next?
I’m embarrassed that I haven’t read every book in my library! And I promised Jane Fonda that I would read “Braiding Sweetgrass” next. I’m just starting it, but I love the emerging thesis that we’ve been told the wrong stories about our relationship to nature.