Four Books that Changed the Way I Eat

People often write about how books have changed their lives, given them new ways of looking at the world, a new philosophy of life. That's the power of the written word. But books also have a practical influence: They can tell you how to do things. This past year, four books about food have changed the way my family and I eat. Here they are, in the order I read them:

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. Pollan begins the book with his credo: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In other words, forget the "edible foodlike substances" that fill the middle aisles of grocery stores, keep tabs on when you are full and embrace fruits and vegetables. Pollan, a writer for whom the word "engaging" seems to have been invented, breaks down the reasons why you should eat simply. But, really, all you need to remember as you mull your next meal are those three short sentences.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Novelist Kingsolver and her family (Hopp is her husband; Camille is her older daughter) moved from Arizona to rural Virginia and decided to see if they could feed themselves for an entire year with food grown within a 100-mile radius. That meant no bananas, mangoes or any other exotic foods. Demonstrating impressive skills as gardeners, canners and poultry raisers, they managed to pull it off. My family isn't nearly so hardy, but we did buy a share in a local farm, which has been providing us with a bounty of vegetables: peppers, squash, potatoes and tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes!

Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, by Deborah Madison. But how to cook all that bounty? Kingsolver recommends this recipe book from vegetarian guru Deborah Madison. Filled with evocative essays and gorgeous pictures of food and farmers' markets, it's a little hard to navigate at first because the recipes are organized by what sort of plant the main ingredient comes from. So, you find cucumbers, squashes and melons sharing a chapter called "Vining Fruits and Vegetables." But stick with it: It'll make you see your food as part of a whole plant, which somehow makes everything taste better.

A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen: Easy Seasonal Dishes for Family and Friends, by Jack Bishop. Bishop, the executive editor of Cook's Illustrated, organizes his recipes by season, which makes it easier to choose meals that aren't composed of hothouse foods grown off season somewhere far, far away. He developed a lot of these recipes while cooking for his young family, which means they are simple enough for weeknights. And they are amazingly good. Try, for example, the twice-baked sweet potatoes with spinach and coconut milk. Yum!

What books have whetted your appetite?

--Rachel Hartigan Shea

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  October 30, 2008; 7:01 AM ET Nonfiction , Rachel Hartigan Shea
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Fast Food Nation - I am rarely in a fast food restaurant anymore (only when there is no other option).

Omnivore's Dilemma - Trying to get the hidden corn out of my diet through grass-fed beef and less processed food.

Posted by: mdem929 | October 30, 2008 9:23 AM

The End of Food, by Paul Roberts. I haven't exactly changed my diet yet -- it's tough with a family of really picky eaters -- but it has at least made me rethink our emphasis on meat and poultry and convinced me of the wisdom of incorporating organic and locally grown food in my diet.

Posted by: kleewrite | October 30, 2008 1:08 PM

Eater's Choice: A Food Lover's Guide to Lower Cholesterol. It was recommended by my husband's doctor and so far I've only read it vicariously through chatting as he flips the pages (my turn next).

I had thought of our largely home-cooked diet as very healthy, but this book is helping to identify some of the high-cholesterol foods that can be a problem. Like cheese -- not just a tasty, vegetarian source of protein, unfortunately!

Any other recommendations for books about nutrition, especially for those already inclined toward 'real' food?

Posted by: mailergoat | October 30, 2008 2:09 PM

Ate food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Got stomach pangs from hunger. When wife wasn't in the room, called and ordered a pizza. Pepperoni.

Posted by: cts1 | October 30, 2008 2:41 PM

I think no other book made me appreciate america, and meat, more than Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts. Page after page, chapter after chapter, one learns of the ultimate sacrifice our brave soldiers make not only for their country, but for their stomachs. our boys (and in some cases women) must eat dry MRE's, bugs, and whatever local fare is offered. Hamburgers are hard to find in Basra. But not in our great land.

Posted by: PatriotChef | October 30, 2008 4:17 PM

Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall.

Posted by: paymogo | November 2, 2008 11:15 AM

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