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Good Food Writing; Crazy People

May 20, 2011 | by

Since being diagnosed with various health and digestive problems, I’ve had to change my diet and lifestyle drastically. In order to feel more as if it’s my decision and not my doctor’s, I have read various books on diet and nutrition, like Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet and Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories. But diet and nutrition books are one thing. Now I’ve discovered the amazing thing that is food writing, through my reading of Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat. Who needs to eat bad food when you can read delicious descriptions of good food? I’m officially converted, but I don’t know enough about food writing to know where to turn next. Can you recommend some good food books? —Hannah Gómez

Dear Hannah,

To answer your question, we enlisted Gena Hamshaw, who for years maintained a double life as a brilliant book editor and a plant-based nutritionist. She kindly sent us the following:

Isn’t it amazing to discover how much nutrition writing pales in comparison to really wonderful food writing?

If you’re just getting into the world of gastronomical prose, you should probably begin by reading everything M. F. K. Fisher ever wrote. And if that’s too much, do at least read The Gastronomical Me, How to Cook a Wolf, and An Alphabet for Gourmets. They’re all exquisitely written, brilliant, and sumptuous, but never precious (which is a rare balance in the world of food writing).

When you’ve finished devouring the Fisher oeuvre, you may want to explore some of Elizabeth David’s work, which is a little more exacting but no less smart. French Country Cooking and French Provincial Cooking are the real stars, but if you’ve had enough of France, Italian Food is great, too. A little more contemporary but just as compelling are Laurie Colwin’s food books; Home Cooking is a must read. And if you’re interested in the politics of food just as much as its pleasures, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is fairly indispensable.

Of course, lots of cookbooks feature writing that’s fine enough to stand apart from the mouth-watering photos and instructions. I’m thinking in particular of Anna Thomas’s The New Vegetarian Epicure, which might as well be an essay collection, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (don’t let the candid and modest attitude fool you; the writing is superb), and most anything by Alice Waters. Mark Bittman’s writing is direct but sparkling with wit.

Keep in mind, though, that some of today’s best food writing is on the web. Food blogs are tremendous resources, not only of recipes, but also of passionate and erudite food writing. I recommend Clotilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate and Zucchini, Shauna Ahern’s Gluten Free Girl, Molly Wizenberg’s Orangette, and, if you’ve got the patience for a perspective that’s as far from Paleo as can be, you can poke around my blog, Choosing Raw. Explore blogrolls and comments: the food-blog world is rich and full of excited writers.

Happy reading,


As a general rule of thumb, how can you tell if a crazy person is too crazy? —Going Nuts

Boredom. At least this is the view I heard years ago from a psychiatrist who spent his career treating schizophrenia. The tell-tale sign of insanity (he said) is to be profoundly boring to other people. There are some obvious holes in this theory; still, I like it on pragmatic grounds. Let’s say a crazy person may be too crazy, but he or she interests you. Then you may want to say “too crazy for what?” Whereas, if somebody’s droning on till you think you might cry—even if that person’s in his or her right mind, who cares? It may not be grounds for committal, but you still want to get off the phone.

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  1. Lorna Cahall | May 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I think the boredom measure is brilliant. It’s not that you think the person is boring but that you get an unconscious reaction from way down deep that this person is not what they seem – is weird – is boring. It directs you to back away.

  2. Thessaly La Force | May 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    My crazy theory is about ratios. If someone is always talking about how everyone they know is crazy (colleagues, exs, shrinks, the cheese guy at Dean & DeLuca), then their ratio is 100% and they are 100% crazy. But if you think, say, twenty out of one hundred people are crazy in your life—then you are 20% crazy. It’s very Kinsey-esque. And Lorin is completely right, the ones who are 100% crazy become boring. Their crazy is too predictable!

  3. Natalie Jacoby | May 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    If a crazy person exists alone in some time/space void, is the crazy person still crazy?

  4. Christine | May 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    I learned a lot of good budget tips from MFK Fisher’s “How To Cook a Wolf” but to say that her writing is never precious is like saying Madame Bovary was great at picking boyfriends.

    The best place to find good writing on food for at least the past few decades is Edward Behr’s magazine’s The Art of Eating. What’s nice about it is a lack of obsession about “green” issues; Behr’s main concerns are the best food and wine.

  5. Angus Trumble | May 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    I am not quite sure about the litmus test of boredom. I have known persons who are utterly boring, but absolutely sane in a grinding, relentlessly dull, unstoppably oxygen-depriving sort of way. Equally, I have known other people who are exceedingly interesting, even charming at times, but completely bonkers. Eyes and laughter–mad eyes, and sudden hyena ack-ack shrieks with gasping–are in my view better indications of innate craziness.

  6. Lorin Stein | May 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Touche’. A mad glint is a mad glint.

  7. Gena | May 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    To Christine: Fair point. Love is blind.

    To Lorin: I like this train of thought. Whoever decided that sanity should be such a top priority? Angus’ point that it’s a slippery slope is very fair, but it’s hard not to think that boredom is just about the lowest of emotional lows.

    Thanks for having me 🙂

  8. Danielle | May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    John Thorne. John Thorne. John Thorne.

  9. Gena | May 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    For sure, John Thorne.

  10. M.M. | May 23, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, behaviour which doesn’t always retain its audience.

    That being said, repetition isn’t always boring either. It can be quite rousing under certain circumstances.

  11. Hannah | May 23, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks for answering my question, Lorin! Can’t wait to read more delicious books.

  12. Angeline-Marie | May 24, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Recently, I discovered the blog Meatless Meals for Meat Eaters. Almost daily, the blogger posts a great recipe that makes one drool. You can find it at

    Thank you for all the suggestions for food books!

  13. philip hendon | August 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I no I think I’m insane!!

    Seriously I have always thought that if you think somebody is boring then you need to take a look at yourself as well…

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