The best books about the science of food

Tyler Mcmahon Author Of One Potato
By Tyler Mcmahon

Who am I?

I’m a novelist and a teacher of writing. My books are fueled by curiosity above all else. I have no expertise in science, so I stand in wonder at complicated systems that remain mostly hidden to me. My interest in food is similarly recreational. I’m married to a great chef and cookbook author, so I’ve learned a lot by osmosis. But when I think back on the process of writing One Potato, I have to give a lot of credit to my students. They seem to be part of a generation that’s genuinely passionate about eating in healthy, equitable, and sustainable ways. Much of my book was sparked by conversations in the classroom.


I wrote...

One Potato

By Tyler Mcmahon,

Book cover of One Potato

What is my book about?

A satire set within the biotech industry, One Potato features a bumbling but well-intentioned food scientist forced to walk a crooked line between nature and technology. Eddie Morales is quite happy as a lowly R&D man at a Boise-based biotech firm called Tuberware. His aspirations don’t reach far beyond processed foods and a simple life in Idaho. It comes as a shock when the company’s head calls Eddie into the office to discuss a situation in Puerto Malogrado—a tiny but tumultuous country in South America—where lax regulations allow Tuberware to market experimental crops. Eddie—not an expert on GMOs or PR—is dispatched to the Andes to help avert a media circus.  

The books I picked & why

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The Omnivore's Dilemma

By Michael Pollan,

Book cover of The Omnivore's Dilemma

Why this book?

I don’t think my book would exist without Michael Pollan’s work. It’s the book that got me thinking about these issues in detail, and the one that I return to often. In fact, as I went further down the GMO rabbit hole, my respect for this book only grew. So much literature and media on this topic are hyperbolic. Pollan is a lot more balanced and thoughtful than the rest of the conversation.


My Year of Meats

By Ruth Ozeki,

Book cover of My Year of Meats

Why this book?

I owe a huge debt to Ozeki–in particular to her first two novels. They are both so ahead of their time. This book’s playful, curious, hilarious take on contemporary food culture is something that’s stuck with me for decades. The send-up of reality TV and nonfiction media is another thing that informed my work. As great as it’s been to watch all the success of Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I remain a loyal fan of My Year of Meats and All Over Creation. If you liked my book, you should run right out and read both of them.


Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat

By Larissa Zimberoff,

Book cover of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley's Mission to Change What We Eat

Why this book?

This is the newest book on my list, and it reads like a glimpse into the future. Zimberoff investigates big tech’s scramble to create eggs without chickens, milk without cows, and meat without animals. It’s remarkable in both its breadth and its access to key players. I mentioned my character’s struggle to balance nature and technology earlier. In this arena, the line is even finer. If there’s ever a sequel to my own book, it will surely explore alternative proteins.


Hunger

By Elise Blackwell,

Book cover of Hunger

Why this book?

Set during Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, the story centers on a group of botanists at a Russian institute that collects rare seeds. The scientists are forced to choose between preserving the wealth of genetic diversity in their collection or eating the seeds to survive. As starvation sets in, their consensus breaks down. It’s a heartbreaking account of the struggle between ideals and appetites. 


The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

By John Kelly,

Book cover of The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

Why this book?

There’s a minor thread in my novel about the Irish Potato Famine, and this book was a major resource. It was sobering to learn that there was enough food to feed the Irish peasantry, but it was not distributed according to need. (Much of it was exported.) Worse still, it was a cultural moment in which the wealthy found ways to absolve themselves of the poverty of their neighbors. But I was most shocked to learn about the scientific implications. Essentially, the potato variety that failed was a monoculture. And the solution to the blight involved returning to the Andes, with its vast genetic diversity, and finding a resistant strain. 


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