14 Cookbooks That Teach Us About the American Food System

November 20, 2017

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

The American food system is inherently complex. The phrase refers to everything from the food we grow, to how we grow and harvest it, how it gets processed, packaged, and transported, what foods we choose to buy, and how we cook, serve, and eat them. Add to that the interwoven and overlapping systems of regional cuisine, local agriculture, immigrant cuisines, and food trends, and it quickly becomes difficult to wrap one’s head around what American eating really means—even for those of us born and raised here. After all, most consumers only encounter the tail end of the food system when they enter the supermarket or receive a box of groceries delivered to their door.

Pour yourself a cup of tea and dig into these books! Photo by Rocky Luten

Over the last few decades, food writers, nutritionists, and investigative journalists alike have aimed to explore and explain our food system. From Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, to The Third Plate by Dan Barber and The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, there is no shortage of literary and scholarly books on the subject. But for many of us, the best way to learn is by doing.

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This short list of 14 cookbooks delves into the topics and regional specialities that make up this country’s culinary soul. They explore how we used to eat, how we eat today, and how we want to eat. And they are only the beginning. Take a read through the list, discover new (and old) favorites, and let us know which cookbooks have opened your eyes to how Americans eat.

1. America: The Cookbook by Gabrielle Langholtz

With more than 800 recipes and a thoughtful essay dedicated to each state, Langholtz’s new cookbook reads like a magnum opus. (Or perhaps like every sauce-splattered, spiral-bound church cookbook all stapled together into one impressive tome.) The recipes are diverse and intensely regional—everything from multiple versions of chili and fried chicken to fried walleye fingers and Sudanese greens with peanut butter. Together, they create a compelling and delicious picture of the country’s cuisine. In fact, Langholtz was so focused on finding the regional dishes that make American cooking great, she neglected to include a burger until the end of her recipe gathering process!

2. A Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis

Originally published in the 1970s, Lewis’ watershed book on the Southern kitchen captures a seasonally and regionally driven cuisine of generations past, while remaining utterly relevant to today’s home cook. The recipes for things like sour milk griddle cakes, peach cobbler with nutmeg sauce, green peas in cream, and fish fried in seasoned cornmeal are homey and celebratory—and are informed by the intense seasonality of the farming community in which Lewis was raised. Each of the dishes tells a deep story of place while enticing readers into the kitchen.

3. Victuals: An Appalachian Journey With Recipes by Ronni Lundy

Ronni Lundy’s cookbook takes a deep dive into the diverse cuisines of America’s Appalachian region. It is one of a few recent works to cover regional Southern cuisine. (My Two Souths by Asha Gomez is another lovely example.) But Lundy’s work, which won the James Beard Foundation’s Book of the Year Award, stands apart—and not just for its 80 recipes, which greatly expand readers’ notions of “Southern cuisine.” (Think: buttermilk cabbage soup with black walnut pesto, and sorghum and apple sticky pudding.) The book’s greatest value is found in Lundy’s essays, which focus on the region’s culinary and agricultural history and introduce the farmers, hunters, and chefs that distill and define it today.

4. The Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook by Alice Waters

As the founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and The Edible Schoolyard, a national school gardening program, Alice Waters has perhaps done more than any other American chef to champion a uniquely American culinary philosophy based around seasonal and local cooking and eating. This cookbook—one of many that Waters has authored—includes the history of Chez Panisse and its upstairs cafe, as well as essays about the relationships Waters has cultivated with regional farmers. The recipes read like a love poem to California cuisine—spicy broccoli raab, wild nettle frittata, avocado and beet salad with citrus vinaigrette, and a roast chicken so simple and satisfying, it’s revolutionary.

5. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Along with Mollie Katzen and Anna Thomas, Deborah Madison is one of the reigning queens of meat-free, vegetable-forward cooking in America. Madison has written several cookbooks on the topic, but 1997’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (and its follow up, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) is perhaps the most formidable. With over 1,000 recipes for dishes as simple as polenta, and more elegant fare like goat cheese flan and cashew curry, she helped transform vegetarian cooking from a fringe diet into a complete and worthy cuisine.

6. The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Marion Nestle

While focusing on the virtues of another culture’s cuisine, this book reveals deep truths about Americans’ aspirational relationship with healthful eating. There are endless dieting and clean-eating books on the market...but this book, written by two of this country’s most respected culinary and nutrition authorities, goes beyond dieting to offer Americans a path towards nourishing, health-conscious (but not austere) cooking and eating. The book’s 250 recipes for North African pumpkin soup, Lebanese garlicky roast chicken, and Cypriote pork braised with wine and cinnamon are virtuous but vibrant.

7. In the Charcuterie by Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller

Americans largely meet their meat at the supermarket, pre-cut and shrink wrapped. But the traditions of butchering and meat preservation (making sausage, paté, and salumi, etc.) span centuries and, according to Boetticher and Miller, deserve a comeback in the home kitchen. The Fatted Calf co-owners’ cookbook includes a primer on whole animal butchery and 125 recipes and illustrated instructions for making brined, cured, braised, and smoked meats—everything from homemade kolbasz to oxtail terrine—at home.

8. Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening by Willi Galloway

As more Americans have embraced the notion of eating locally, people have increasingly focused on what foods they can grow in their own backyard (or in containers on their porch or roof, or in a flower box on the windowsill). Galloway’s beautiful and immensely practical book shares gardening wisdom and tips for making the most of whatever space one has to grow. The book’s 50 recipes—cider glazed baby turnips, green coriander marinated chicken—let the fruits (and vegetables!) of the gardener’s labor shine through.

9. The CSA Cookbook by Linda Ly

Community Supported Agriculture—a system where customers buy shares in a farm’s produce, dairy, eggs, and other products, and then receive their share directly from the farmer—have become an increasingly popular method of procuring local, seasonal food. Meanwhile, CSAs have introduced consumers to many less-familiar ingredients (the knobby vegetable kohlrabi is a commonly cited example). Ly’s book celebrates the spontaneity and improvisation inherent to CSA cooking, while offering recipes—like squash blossom and roasted poblano tacos—to help CSA members cook delicious meals from their share boxes.

10. Foraging and Feasting by Dina Falconi

Most American cooks, even quite experienced ones, have lost touch with the once-common practice of foraging for mushrooms, greens, berries, and other local ingredients. Falconi’s gorgeous book offers a way in to this traditional practice, with instructions and vibrantly illustrated guides on how to safely find and harvest abundance in the world outside. The recipes for maple flower butter, nettle ginger soda, and wild greens omelettes offer extra incentive to root around in the wild pantry.

11. Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast by Becky Selengut

Sustainable fish consumption does not typically get the same press in America as local vegetables or humanely-sourced meat—but it is just as important. Selengut’s cookbook highlights the environmental and health issues surrounding seafood consumption, and offers wisdom for making smart choices at the fish market or grocery store. The recipes—dishes like wild salmon chowder and roasted black cod with soy caramel sauce and bok choy—make the most of regional, Pacific coast fish and seafood, while supporting a healthy ecosystem.

12. Scraps, Wilt & Weeds by Mads Refslund and Tama Matsuoka Wong

Each year, Americans throw away a startling amount of edible food: more than 30 percent. And a significant amount of this waste happens in the home kitchen. Refslund, who was one of the original partners at Noma, offers another way with a cookbook that focuses on the peels, scraps, and bruised, stale, or bumpy ingredients that might otherwise get thrown away. The recipes for dishes like pork ribs glazed with overripe pear sauce, carrot tops pesto, and crispy salmon skin puffs, transform “trash” into edible treasure.

13. Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish

Artisanal baking has made a comeback in American kitchens, as a growing number of home cooks have traded pre-sliced, packaged breads for fresh-from-the-oven loaves. Among an impressive cohort of serious baking books (Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible are two classics), Forkish’s book stands out for its elemental techniques and straightforward instruction in yeasted and sourdough breads and pizzas.

14. Sioux Chefs Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley

Sean Sherman is a chef, culinary instructor, and food activist with a mission to make indigenous North American cuisine more accessible—both within his Oglala Lakota community in South Dakota and Minnesota, and beyond. Traditional Native American cooking has been repressed for generations and stereotyped as unhealthy (think: fry bread and “Indian tacos”). But Sherman’s book offers a beautiful, seasonal, and culturally rich cuisine based around wild berries and greens, game and fish, squash, and native grains. A few highlights include wild rice crusted walleye, smoked turkey soup, cedar-braised beans, and roasted corn sorbet. Sherman’s book has delicious recipes, yes, but it also opens the door to a world of America’s first cuisine.

How has cooking helped you better understand the American food system? Let us know in the comments!

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we're exploring the exciting work by research scientists and entrepreneurs in the field, and have partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nancy
  • Leah Koenig
    Leah Koenig
Leah is the author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today's Kitchen (Chronicle, 2015)


Nancy November 21, 2017
Thank you for this list and some about each book.
From the titles I already know, I'm extrapolating that these books will be interesting and informative.
But/and their focus seems mostly on production and consumption (or not) of various sorts.
To bridge the gap. The middleman. Michael Ruhlman's GROCERY is a useful and well-written book about the place Americans mostly get groceries (for now, and for about the past hundred years) and is well worth a look.,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch
Leah K. December 4, 2017
Wonderful suggestion! Thanks Nancy - I'll be sure to check it out. :)