James E. McWilliams’ New Book Just Food

I rarely recommend books (frankly, what appeals to me may not to you, and vice versa), but I’m going to do so now.

First some background on the author: James E. McWilliams is a historian at Texas State University. He’s written several books, one of which, A Revolution In Eating, is hands-down the single best history of American food written by anyone. (Alas, it’s a history of colonial American foodways. I sure wish he’d write a history of 19th and 20th century food.) (*2) (*3)

His latest book is Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. The subtitle is misleading — the chapter on “where locavores get it wrong” is just that: a single chapter in a 200-plus page book. (*1)

Instead, this is a brilliant, thoughtful analysis of the complexities of the modern global food system, with equally thoughtful ideas about how we can change the food system in order to improve the quality of the climate and thus life on planet earth.

Those looking for a Pollanesque polemic (or a paean to the pleasures of gardening, heirloom tomatoes, and farmer’s markets) will have to go elsewhere. Instead, Just Food explores the substantive research, scientific and otherwise, being conducted around the world as farmers, economists, agronomists, and the like try to figure out where modern food systems went wrong and what to do about it (oh, and still feed the world.) (No problem; we’ll have the answers by Friday…)

Yes, because I was familiar with McWilliams’ earlier work, and because I am a historian myself, I was predisposed to this book even before it came out. It does not disappoint (plus, McWilliams is a terrific writer; in other hands, this might have been a cruel snore; in his hands, it’s a lively engaging narrative).

But because he is a historian, he approaches his material the way we historians do: by taking the Long View of the Big Picture. As a result, his analysis and his conclusions are considerably more substantive and thoughtful than what usually passes for discussion about the “food situation.” (*4)

So — if you’re interested in learning more about the “food situation”; if you’re wondering why Time magazine’s recent cover story was about food; if you’re interested in the climate crisis or life on planet earth, or, hey, your stomach, read this book.

_____________ *1: It’s entirely possible that McWilliams didn’t even choose that title. You’d be amazed at what happens once a book goes into production. I was surprised as hell to by the subtitle of my beer book.

*2: There are several excellent historical studies of American food in those eras, but I’d still love to see McWilliams’ take on it.

*3: Full disclosure: I do not know McWilliams; I only know his work.

*4: As I’ve noted here before, I avoid using the phrase “food crisis.”

2 thoughts on “James E. McWilliams’ New Book Just Food

  1. I was disappointed with the title of this book. I understand that publishers will push a title in order to get airtime, and to feign controversy and conflict that isn’t there is always disappointing to readers that buy the book based on the title. I guess it goes back to not judging a book by it’s cover. I have thought the author was engaging when I have listened to him during interviews, unfortunately, most interviews or discussions with him have focused on the Anti-locavore aspect and almost no one wants to talk about the content.

  2. Yes, it’s a shame about the title. Even more so, because the “food crisis” people simply assume he’s “against” them and won’t read the book (but feel perfectly free to criticize it anyway!)The book is definitely worth reading.

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