A taste for stories of the strange but true

Rowan Jacobsen, who writes about food and the environment, enjoys reading about our original relationship to food and what it says about us. Rowan Jacobsen, who writes about food and the environment, enjoys reading about our original relationship to food and what it says about us.
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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Rowan Jacobsen has won multiple James Beard awards for his writing on food and place. His new book, “American Terroir,’’ is a small feast of essays examining foods shaped by their origins: Vermont maple syrup, Yakima Valley apples, Mexican avocados, Yukon River salmon. He lives with his family in northern Vermont.

Why do people like to read about food?

People are more suspicious of their food than they used to be, with good reason. But besides, food is intimately tied in with culture and tradition and place. Those things are kind of endangered, and food is one way people hang onto them.

Who are some of your favorite food writers?

Well, Michael Pollan, like everyone else. “The Botany of Desire’’ gave me a totally different view of the relationship between human beings and plants. I loved that he pulled back and looked at it like any other relationship within an ecosystem.

Two other interesting writers are Susan Allport — she wrote a book called “The Queen of Fats,’’ about omega-3s — and Richard Manning. He wrote a great book, “Against the Grain,’’ about how agriculture destroyed civilization. When I read about food, it’s usually anthropological, even paleontological. It’s about our original relationship to food, and what that tells us about ourselves.

What science writers do you like?

David Quammen is probably my biggest influence; “The Song of the Dodo’’ is one of my all-time favorite books. That, and his column in Outside magazine, taught me a lot about what you could get away with as a writer.

Another great writer, Robert Sapolsky, wrote a book called “A Primate’s Memoir,’’ about hanging out with baboons in Africa. Reading his observations helps you see human behavior depressingly clearly. There’s a little window dressing of complexity, but otherwise it’s Baboon Behavior 101.

What books make you hungry?

I almost never read cookbooks. I don’t like cooking from recipes; the fun is in venturing into the unknown. But I like Mark Bittman’s international book, “The Best Recipes in the World.’’ He gets rid of the cultural hoodoo. He’s really good at seeing the fundamentals of certain dishes — the essence of a fricassee, or a rice dish, or a sauce.

In “American Terroir,’’ you write that avocado pits are huge because they evolved to be swallowed and expelled by giant tree sloths. Where did you find amazing details like that?

I learned about the American tropics from “The Monkey’s Bridge,’’ by David Rains Wallace. South and North America weren’t connected until around 5 million years ago, when the land bridge of Central America rose up enough to connect the two. Suddenly, all these animals from North America went flying down to South America and drove a lot of things extinct, like giant tree sloths. Because two continents collided biologically, there’s still diversity in Central America unlike anywhere else.

For Alaska, I read up on the Yupik. I read John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country.’’ McPhee always goes right to the bedrock, literally, and looks at how that affected things all along.

You did an MFA in fiction. Have you read any good novels recently?

I don’t read any fiction now. I haven’t for years, actually.


I discovered one day that it wasn’t true. I became incapable of reading fiction without seeing the author on the other side, trying to make it believable.

The goal is to make fiction universal, so people think, “Yeah, that rings true.’’ I think that’s why I’m attracted to nonfiction: I want to read weird, quirky stuff, where you think, “If this wasn’t a true story, I wouldn’t believe it.’’

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