Food and Fable: You Are What You Read | The Reader’s Shelf

Is the old adage in fact true? Are we really what we eat? The authors featured here are likely to say “yes,” and their books serve up heartwarming, edifying, delectable, and occasionally steamy insights into the multitude of ways that food informs our identities and daily lives.

Arguably the quintessential work of food fiction, Like Water for Chocolate (Anchor: Random. 1995. ISBN 9780385420174. pap. $15) is Laura Esquivel’s enchanting debut novel recounting the life of Tita de la Garza and her family during the Mexican Revolution. Tita, the youngest daughter of the tyrannical matriarch Mama Elena, falls deeply in love with Pedro Muzquiz. Owing to an age-old family custom, she is forced to forgo love to care for Mama Elena. Distraught and heart broken, Tita finds companionship, solace, and meaning in her culinary toils, and her emotions mysteriously begin to season the food she prepares. As fantasy mingles with reality, Esquivel seamlessly melds mouthwatering family recipes with a timeless tale of food and love.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life(HarperPerennial: HarperCollins. 2008. ISBN 9780060852566. pap. $15.99) is at once an “eat local” manifesto and a love letter to food and family. Uprooting her family’s comfortable, air-conditioned lives in Arizona, the author heads eastward to take up residence permanently in their Appalachian summer cottage. In her customary lyricism, Kingsolver tells the story of their communal journey and the ups and downs (though mostly ups) of subsistence living‚ from accounts of perennial asparagus hunts to adventures in mail-order chicks. Her discoveries about what it means to reconnect with the cycle of nature, family, and community make this memoir a splendid read.

Margaret Atwood uses food as metaphor to an amusing extreme in her 1969 debut novel, The Edible Woman (Anchor: Random. 1998. ISBN 9780385491068. pap. $14.95). Newly engaged, modest and pragmatic Marian McAlpin is befuddled as she loses interest in eating and begins to identify with the food around her‚ a steak evokes a disturbing train of thought on the cow’s ill-fated death. Eggs, cake, and pumpkin seeds soon fall off the menu, too. Even more worrisome, Marian begins to feel as though she herself is being devoured‚ by her fiancé. Atwood’s wry and richly textured writing brings her entertaining cast of characters to life in this provocative and still germane tale of gender, identity politics, and, of course, food.

In The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans (Beacon, dist. by Random. 2007. ISBN 9780807085714. pap. $18; o.p. but widely held), Patricia Klindienst tells the captivating stories of eight gardeners and gardening communities as she traverses the United States. A master gardener, scholar, and teacher, the author beautifully interweaves her historical and cultural knowledge into each gardener’s story. Readers are introduced to three Cambodian refugees from Pol Pot’s brutal regime for whom their garden in western Massachusetts offers sanctuary and renewal. We meet two Gullah elders from South Carolina’s Sea Islands, where we learn about their struggle to retain the lands of their West African slave ancestors and to preserve Gullah culture through food and farming traditions.

Combining mystery, romance, and travel with tantalizing descriptions of Chinese cuisine, Nicole Mones’s novel, The Last Chinese Chef (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2008. ISBN 9780547053738. pap. $13.95), does not fail to entertain, Food reporter Maggie McElroy retraces her late husband’s steps to China, where a family has filed a paternity claim against his estate. Devastated and needing distraction, Maggie accepts an assignment to profile Sam Liang, a rising culinary star who practices imperial-style haute cuisine in Beijing and who is currently under the tutelage of his three overbearing yet charming uncles. Her work with Sam and her discovery of ancient culinary and cultural traditions allow Maggie to come to terms with the truth about her husband.

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random. 2002. ISBN 9780375760396. pap. $16) challenges the prevalent anthropocentric perspective that humans are in the evolutionary driver’s seat when it comes to plant domestication. In four elegant, engaging, and accessible chapters, Pollan adeptly explores the human desire for sweetness by chronicling the life story of the apple; beauty through the tulip’s ubiquity; intoxication through the charms and controversy of marijuana; and control through the potato’s many natural‚ and unnatural‚ incarnations.

This column was contributed by Andrea Hermanson, MLIS candidate at the University of Washington (UW) Information School and Institutional Giving Officer for the UW World Series at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at