Then one day in 1995, while packing his cattle into a double-decker semi-truck bound for a slaughterhouse several states away, he recalls that something suddenly felt wrong. A Bold Return to Giving a Damn details Harris’ transition away from industrialized, commoditized, and centralized agriculture to the regenerative model he uses now, which he says prioritizes the health of the herd, the land, and the local economy of Bluffton, Georgia. Now, White Oak Pastures—a significant player in the regenerative agriculture movement—raises cows on organic pasture, allowing them to carry out their instinctual behaviors in a rotational system.
Civil Eats has reported on Harris’ operation several times—mostly recently covering a controversial study on the farm’s ability to sequester carbon—so I was excited to read his memoir. The book exceeded my expectations. It is strong in narrative, rich in description, and has a palpable sense of place. It reads as a love letter to his land, his herd, and his rural community and a manifesto on how and why to farm in a way that protects them all. Harris has a strong vision for how to manage animals more humanely and holistically than the dominant agricultural system, and his story presents living proof that a better way is possible.
Full disclosure: I have a black thumb—my husband is the campesino in the family. But Ben Hartman’s lessons in The Lean Micro Farm are not lost on me, and—encouraging people to go small intentionally and make decisions based on ease and efficiency—they apply to much more than farming. That’s not to say growing food isn’t hard work. Yet Hartman and his family manage to work less and make the same income on one third of an acre—the renowned Clay Bottom Farm—as they did on an acre. Hartman’s guide to how to downsize to fit into an urban or suburban neighborhood is like a study in farming history: pare down to seven tools, leave roots in place to nourish the soil, and “trust the compost.” Hartman maximizes many practices from the past while implementing today’s tech “on a human scale” to reap the greatest reward. The guide is especially helpful in its specifics, literally down to the baseboards used to construct the family’s functional barnhouse and greenhouse, and it details how to get the most out of popular crops in micro spaces. Mixed greens, tomatoes, snap peas, hemp, and more—even for this black thumb, Hartman makes it seem doable.
In the spring of 2017, veterinarian and environmental scientist Elizabeth Hilborn noticed that all the tadpoles had disappeared from a normally teeming swale on her North Carolina farm. That initial discovery kicked off a one-woman investigation into the cause of the disappearance, which she conducted as the contamination’s ripple effects gradually eliminated bees, worms, birds, and bats from her property.
Hilborn traced the mystery to the agricultural chemicals—neonicotinoids, fungicides, and glyphosate—used on an adjoining property. With this revelation, Restoring Eden becomes an examination of how much remains unknown about the impacts of widely-used pesticides—even within the local agencies tasked with environmental protection in farming communities. And Hilborn’s intimate, passionate connection to her land and its ecosystems demonstrates what’s at stake. Without the web of creatures that sustain her farm, Hilborn’s soil degrades; her garden, without pollinators, is stunted.
Hilborn’s story zooms in on the issues I’ve reported on at a macro level by looking at the level of a community, a farm, and a stream—where the frogs no longer serenade her to sleep and the bees no longer pollinate her blueberries. On the impacts of neonics—the chemicals that coat most corn and soy seeds in this country—especially, her experience illuminates so much. While the contamination disasters I’ve covered are extreme, what is more alarming is the fact that in farm communities all over the country, the normal annual planting of neonic-coated seed likely results in many undocumented situations just like hers. It just takes a keen observer to notice and a dogged investigator to make the connections. In the end, Restoring Eden is a story about the precarity of the biodiversity that sustains life on this planet in the face of an agricultural system that runs on chemicals that threaten it.
Jennifer Jewell, host of the Cultivating Place podcast, weaves diaristic memoir with science writing in this meditative reflection on the importance of seeds. Sparked by the author’s experience of seed shortages at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, What We Sow urges readers to engage with the supply chain and support more local, community-based practices, such as seed saving and seed libraries. For Jewell, that call to action emerges naturally from a sense of wonder at the seeds of her Northern California home—the native coffeeberry that only germinates after a fire, or the silky strands of narrowleaf milkweed seeds that allow them to sail on the wind. It’s also tied to the memory of her mother, an avid gardener who sowed a love of plants in her daughters before her untimely death due to breast cancer. “Is it inappropriate, indulgent, myopic to contextualize my understanding of seed writ large with my understanding of self and place?” Jewell asks. Her conclusion is that there’s no alternative: Seeds, she writes, are the “verdant cycling chassis of life on which our places, our pasts, and our ancestors, communities, and individual days are held.”
In the immortal words of Shrek: Onions have layers. So too does The Core of an Onion, Mark Kurlansky’s encyclopedic exploration of the ubiquitous allium and its culinary legacy. The author ranges widely across time and space in search of fascinating onion facts to fill the first half of the book, from ancient Mesopotamia—source of the first written recipes involving the vegetable—to early 20th-century Britain, where French onion salesmen known as Johnnies peddled their bulbs while pedaling bicycles. After touching on the onion’s botany, the chemistry of its tear-inducing powers, and the origins of renowned varieties such as the Vidalia and Walla Walla, Kurlansky drills into the diversity of its uses in the kitchen. Adventurous cooks will find recipes for historical curiosities such as an onion custard from 1860, an onion ceviche that dates to colonial Peru, and the onion soup favored by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.
Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education
By Stephanie Land
In Land’s first book, Maid, she told the story of supporting herself as a housecleaner; the book became a Netflix series and has been described as a “memoir for the poor.” This book picks up where Maid left off and is an intimate portrait of single motherhood and the hunger that Land and her daughter faced as she finished college. Many of the social support systems she tried to access as a student, such as food stamps and student loans, didn’t fit inside the constraints created by the higher education system, or her particular academic schedule.
Though Land was effectively “bootstrapping” as the American ethos prescribes, and seeking entrance to the middle class through higher education, she faced systemic barriers to resources. These proved to be as insurmountable as the social barriers of the university. Syncing her duties to her child and her classes was tough, and the head of the MFA program she desperately wanted to attend didn’t believe that kids and grad school belonged together. Despite being blocked from that program, Land has gone on to write potent books and has built a successful writing career, one that finds her simultaneously advocating for the visibility of people living in poverty, and for change.
Endangered Eating: America’s Vanishing Foods
By Sarah Lohman
In 1996, Slow Food launched the Ark of Taste to catalog roughly 5,000 foods from 150 countries that are in danger of going extinct. Since these plants, animals, traditional foods, and techniques hold cultural significance, Slow Food wanted to ensure their survival by creating awareness and boosting demand for them. Its motto: “Eat it to save it.”
Four years ago, Sarah Lohman embarked on a mission to study Ark of Taste entries from eight U.S. regions, including the Navajo-Churro sheep nearly eradicated by the U.S. government; the unique American dates grown only in California’s Coachella Valley; the heirloom sugar cane still cultivated in Hawaii; and the Carolina African runner peanut, which was thought to be extinct since the 1930s. In Endangered Eating, Lohman goes deep into the backstories of these iconic foods to surface how they came to become part of the cultural fabric of local communities and why they’re so threatened today.
For example, we learn about how sassafras trees, whose leaves are dried and ground into filé powder, are at risk of becoming extinct in Louisiana due to disease. We also learn how the Choctaw people introduced filé powder to African cooks, who added it to a West African stew that became known as gumbo. And we meet Lionel Key, revered for grinding filé powder by hand on his mortar and “pedestal” until his death in 2017. As a fun bonus, Lohman provides recipes throughout the book, including one for gumbo that was inspired by three cookbooks dating back to 1903. This particularly resonated with me and my love of old cookbooks, especially junior league cookbooks, which provide a fascinating snapshot in time of a region’s most beloved recipes.
Beyond the Kitchen Table: Black Women and Global Food Systems
Edited by Priscilla McCutcheon, Latrica E. Best, and Theresa Ann Rajack-Talley
As in so many other parts of contemporary life, the contributions of Black women have been largely unsung in the last decade’s rising scholarship at the intersection of race, equity, and food. Beyond the Kitchen helps right that wrong. The book ultimately works to replace the narrative of Black women as victims of exploitative food systems with a more accurate one anchored in their myriad global impacts as activists, scientists, and overall agents of transformative change.
Edited by scholars of geography, sociology, and Latin American and Latino Studies, the book focuses on women of the African diaspora in particular. By sharing the stories of women who live in regions that historically made up the transatlantic slave trade—including one about three generations of Cuban entrepreneurs and another about the history of mothering across the Black agrarian movement—Beyond the Kitchen makes a compelling case that the path to food justice, food security, health, and poverty reduction must be paved with the generational knowledge and expertise of Black women.
Grocery stories—whether they’re about supermarkets, corner stores, or, in this case, gas stations—are among my favorite food-system topics to cover, so I was immediately drawn to Kate Medley’s new photo book, Thank You Please Come Again. The simple reason I find these compelling is that groceries are so very complex. Take a close look at a single food retailer and you will find a microcosm of interwoven issues, including labor, policy, nutrition, supply chains, climate change, economics, community investment and development, and almost any other topic you find interesting. In Thank You Please Come Again, Medley brings a keen eye and a broad perspective to how gas stations that have restaurants—or, as writer Kiese Laymon writes in his compelling foreword, “restaurants that serve gas”—are central to community, economy, and culture across the South, especially in rural areas, where food and fuel services can be many miles apart.
Across the hundreds of photos that Medley uses to document gas station restaurants, she shows how these businesses, and the people who run and frequent them, reflect the past, present, and future of life in the southern U.S. Medley documents the Fred Eaton Service Station in Prichard, Alabama, for instance, which has been in operation since the early 1960s and is one of fewer than 50 Black-owned gas stations in the entire country. She visits Betty’s Place in Indianola, Mississippi, which opened in 2008 in the same location on the town’s Main Street where a whites-only gas station had once existed. And she spotlights a number of immigrant-run restaurants serving foods from home—including, in Louisiana alone, Peter Nguyen’s Banh Mi Boys in Metairie; Abbas Alsherees’ Shawarma-on-the-Go in Uptown New Orleans; and Gurpreet Singh’s Punjabi Dhaba in Hammond.
It’s not always a pretty picture, but Medley’s photos offer a revealing, beautiful glimpse into one facet of life in the Deep South that even folks who have spent time on the roads through those states may not have witnessed or fully embraced.
Corn Dance: Inspired First American Cuisine
By Loretta Barrett Oden with Beth Dooley
Emmy-winning chef, ethnobotanist, and food sovereignty activist Loretta Barrett Oden (Potawatomi) is regarded as a Native American culinary trailblazer, whose work predates today’s robust Indigenous foodways revitalization efforts. When she and her son opened Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1993, it was the first restaurant in the United States to shine a spotlight on local, Indigenous ingredients. Oden’s debut book is equal parts memoir and cookbook, sharing the stories of her upbringing in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and showcasing Native recipes geared toward home cooks. She explains that as a child she “learned to walk in two worlds,” referring to the contrasting lives she led with her mom’s Potawatomi family—gardening, foraging, and cooking alongside grandmothers, great- grandmothers, and aunties—and her dad’s European family, whose ancestors came to America aboard the Mayflower.
At 48, she realized she wanted to explore the world and better understand her place in it. Thus began a cross-country journey learning from cooks, elders, and knowledge keepers, which ultimately landed her in Santa Fe. During its 10-year run, Corn Dance Café drew national attention for its hybrid cuisine—reflecting her own ancestry—and featured pre-colonial ingredients like bison, elk, rabbit, wild rice, corn, beans, and squash. These simple yet satiating foods factor heavily into her book, which offers easy recipes spanning from the plains to the forests to the oceans. With this tome, Oden encourages everyone to embrace local Indigenous flavors. “I believe we are connected to life when we sit down together over a good meal,” she writes. “If we can come together at the table, we can come together in peace.”
The Farmer’s Wife: My Life in Days
By Helen Rebanks
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Author: The Civil Eats Editors