Ten of the Greatest Books in Food Studies

pakistani desi chicken manchurian
Chicken manchurian, desi style

In addition to taking over America’s public imagination – isn’t everyone a “foodie” these days? – Food Studies has firmly established itself as a serious academic discipline over the past decade. While the majority of popular food studies books fall into one of three categories (single commodity histories; explorations of individual ethnic foodways; and often problematically universalist and racially and class- biased works of food politics), many of the best critical works view the study of food as offering the possibility of a radically cross-disciplinary and trans-national re-engagement of key topics in studies of the Americas. This list offers some of the most important texts that examine food through the lens of topics that are central to disciplines such as History, English, Cultural Studies and American Studies: race, class, gender and identity, immigration, community and diaspora, social and labor history, empire, globalization and state formation.

M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating (1954)

An early preeminent writer on food and eating in America, whose works explore the intersections of eating, literature, culture and memoir. This is a collection of Fisher’s most important gastronomical works, including Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.

sweetness and power

Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985)

Mintz’s now seminal work traces the rise of sugar as a curiously important, precious, and ubiquitous commodity in the modern world. After extensive research in the Caribbean, Mintz goes to great lengths to link food production with food consumption, examining the role of sugar in the growth of plantation-style slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas as well as its role in the industrialization and the rise of the working class in Europe.

Warren James Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took On the Food Industry (1989)

Originally published in 1989, Belasco’s work examines the role of counterculture and the revolutionary movements of the 1960s on American food culture. It explores the rise of “countercuisine,” the subsequent corporate co-opting of foods like granola, herbal tea, and other “revolutionary” foodstuffs, and their transition from fringe foodstuffs into profitable products. Belasco also examines the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets and the increasing availability of organic foods throughout the late twentieth century.

Jeffery Pilcher, Que Vivan Los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998)

Pilcher offers a cultural history of food in Mexico, tracing the influence of race, class and gender on food preferences from pre-European colonization to the present. Pilcher’s key contribution is that he correlates food preparation and consumption to the development of nationalism, in this particular context Mexican nationalism. This text is a must for anyone interested in the history of Mexican cuisine.

Elspeth Probyn, Carnal Appetites: Food Sex Identities (2000)

Probyn’s text utilizes feminist, gay, lesbian, and queer theory to examine the relationship between eating, the body, and the fluidity of identity. In six chapters, Probyn tackles complex topics like disgust, caring, sensuality, colonialism, racism, and global capitalism in a new and exciting way. This text laid the groundwork for further explorations on food and the body to be done across many disciplines, such as anthropology, philosophy, affect theory, queer theory and food studies.

Judith Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2001)

Black Rice examines rice production in both West Africa and the Americas. Few Americans identify slavery with the production of rice, and many assume that Americans or Europeans brought rice to West Africa. Carney corrects this common narrative, arguing that slaves brought seeds, crops, foodstuffs and agricultural knowledge from West Africa to the Americas. She makes key interventions by arguing that agricultural knowledge was crucial to the development of the New World and the diasporic continuation of West African cultural life.

Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Soul Food in America (2004)

Witt examines the debates surrounding soul food since the 1960s to examine the complex racial hierarchies that exist between black and white Americans over the last 50 years. She examines complex sources such as literature, film, vaudeville, and visual art to explore the complex role that soul food has played in driving American race relations.

building houses out of chicken legs

Psyche Williams-Forson, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2006)

Williams-Forson uses a range of materials from the comedy of Chris Rock, the art of Kara Walker, commercials, vaudeville, and minstrel performance to cookbooks and novels to examine how black women utilized “chicken” as a tool of self-determination and self-reliance. Not only did the cooking and sale of chicken provide a source of income, but it helped women assert themselves in racist and hostile environments. She also tackles the importance of this single food product to representations of blackness and racism in the contemporary era.

John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (2006)

Soluri’s text is important in that it merges environmental history, biology, cultural studies and agricultural history to trace the rapid growth in popularity of American’s most popular fruit. In his history of banana production in Honduras and consumption in the United States, Soluri shows us that key players were not just large companies like United Fruit, but also plant pathogens, workers’ rights movements, and American film and music industries. This work adds a great deal on the history globalization and its effects on indigenous and rural peoples, local economies and labor conditions, and regional biodiversity.

Kyla Wazana Thompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (2013)

In this innovative and important text, Tompkins examines the linkages between food and literary and visual culture to examine how the acts of eating and ingestion have been utilized to articulate and alter racial and gendered positionalities and biopolitical subjecthood in the United States during the nineteenth century. Tompkins calls for a radical turn in the study of food towards what she labels “critical eating studies,” which posits an analytical exploration of the charged cultural act of food ingestion and the ways by which that act of ingestion is represented, and in this case racialized. Much like Probyn’s Carnal Appetites, this book is of great important for those interested in queer and affect theory.

I'll have what she's having
I’ll have what she’s having

Honorable Mentions:

Lisa Heldke, Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer (2003)

Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (2003)

Anita Mannur, Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture (2009)

Essential Collections:

While this list focused on monographs, there are many great collections that contain some of the best food writing in essay form. Highlights include:

The Cultural Politics of Food Eating, James L. Watson (Editor), Melissa L. Caldwell (Editor), (2004)

The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink (Sensory Formations), Carolyn Korsmeyer (Editor), David Howes (Series Editor), (2005)

Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, Alison Hope Alkon (Editor), Julian Agyeman (editor), (2011)

Food and Culture: A Reader Paperback, Carole Counihan (Editor), Penny Van Esterik (Editor), (2012)

Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, Martin Manalansan (Author), Anita Mannur (Author), Robert Ku (Editor) (2013)

Gastropolis: Food and New York City (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History), Annie Hauck-Lawson (Author), Jonathan Deutsch (Author), Michael Lomonaco, (2013)

John M. Burdick is a doctoral candidate and instructor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is currently completing his dissertation, “Eating the Other: Ethnic Food, Racial Encounters and Cosmopolitan Whiteness, 1964 To Present,” which critically examines the widespread rise in the popularity of “ethnic food” in the United States from 1964 to present and its impact on American race relations.

Food studies is inevitably linked to sensory history — check out our friends at Matters of Sense after enjoying this fine blog post.