Dig Into These 5 Books if You Want to Learn More About Why Food Matters

What goes on our plates each day has far-reaching impacts on health, equity, the environment, justice, spirituality and fellowship.

A stack of books in a commercial kitchen.
Five influential books to read to learn about food ethics.

Everybody eats. It is a vital part of all of our lives, for sustenance and enjoyment. However, just because we all eat, we do not eat the same. We are influenced by our culture, religion, allergies, preferences, availability and access. Some feast on a golden calf served by a TikTok-famous chef while many (about 2.37 billion) struggle for scraps. How do we grapple with and make sense of this disparity? Not to mention the repercussions to our environment and health.


The ethics of eating is more complex than this recipe for vegan ramen, but these books are an excellent place to start.


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Front cover of the book Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan

One of the best known books in the realm of food ethics, this is a critique of the eating habits of Americans and how we decide what goes on our plates. It is far-reaching, discussing organics, fast food, foraging, preservation, industrial farming, animal welfare, environmental effects of our choices. Pollan received a James Beard Award for the book, and it was one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2006. It is a good place to start if you want to contemplate the ramifications of the American diet.


He didn't stop there! Pollan went on to write In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation which are all worthy reads. (Side note: my favorite Pollan book is actually about gardening, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education.)


Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Eric Schlosser

A New York Times bestseller, Fast Food Nation takes a hard look at the impact fast food has had on our nation (and waistline). Specifically, it explores fast food's connection to wealth disparity, "cultural imperialism", obesity, real estate, and food production. Pretty weighty topics, but it is an easy read. Even easier, you could watch the movie.


Want more? Read Morgan Spurlock's Don't Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. Ok, you could also watch the movie, but this is supposed to be about books!


Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating

Mark Bittman

You may know him from his newspaper column The Minimalist, or his books on How to Cook Everything, but in this outing Bittman examines what influences our food choices (marketing, politics, economics), and looks at the outcomes of those choices (pollution, obesity, spending, waste). Backed up with research, he tells it like it is. But, he goes a step further. Included are over 75 recipes and meal plans to get you started.


If I told you that the same lifestyle choice could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money, and help stop global warming, I imagine you'd be intrigued.
- from Food Matters

Bittman followed Food Matters with The Food Matters Cookbook and Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal.


Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

Robert Farrar Capon

Front cover of the book The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon.

And now for something completely different! Written by a passionate chef who was also an Episcopalian priest, Supper of the Lamb is a lively and witty love letter to cooking and eating originally published in 1969. There are thoughts on feasting and fasting, the benefits and wonders of home cooking, recipes, and the things you might expect. Beyond though are things that might surprise. A springboard into his pondering is Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times, which he says is not a simply a recipe, but a way of life. From there we learn about "the deliberate manufacture of leftovers", the glory of cooking and generosity of sauce, why counting calories is of the devil, and the boundless beauty to be found in an onion and how contemplating them can open our eyes to "the elegant oddness of the world". The Modern Library Food edition features introductions by Ruth Reichl (Gourmet editor) and chef and author Deborah Madison.


If you like this, check out Capon's Party Spirit: Some Entertaining Principles to learn why "every good party is an act of faith - and of hope and love as well" and how the joys of company are available to all who are willing.


Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating

Norman Wirzba

A personal favorite. This book was so influential to the Picnic Project, we put a quote on a t-shirt! Looking through a theological lens, Food & Faith primarily examines the magnitude of eating while covering a wide range of topics including food production, consumption, death and sacrifice, saying grace, ecology, and culture. It demonstrates that "eating is of profound economic, moral, and theological significance". Wirzba is Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School. He has authored numerous books and essays including editing The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land featuring Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, and others. Go to his website normanwirzba.com for links to all of his books, articles, podcast appearances, and academic essays.


The mundane act of eating is thus a daily invitation to move responsibly and gratefully within this given life. It is a summons to commune with the divine Life that is presupposed and made manifest in every bite.
- from Food & Faith


If you're hungry for more...

Did you really think I could stop at just five? Here's a few more for extra credit.


The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities

Will Allen


Take This Bread

Sara Miles


The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate

Jayson Lusk


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat

David E. Gumpert


Blessed are the Hungry: Meditations on the Lord's Supper

Peter J. Leithart


Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table

Shauna Niequist


For All Who Hunger: Searching for Communion in a Shattered World

Emily M. D. Scott


A lot to chew on...

These titles are really just a small sample of the books that cover the wide ranging topics of food and eating, and the many intersections with politics, ethics, ecology, religion, culture, health, justice, and the economy. Do you have any favorites? Leave a comment with your recommendations!


Support your favorite local, independent booksellers if you are able (or check out Indie Bound or Bookshop). If you do choose to purchase any of these books on Amazon, please use smile.amazon.com and choose The Picnic Project and we will receive a small percentage to help fund our work.

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