Potstickers, polyculture & panther-spotting – The books that made us think in 2021

There aren’t many things I like more than reading – maybe cooking… probably eating!

When I lived in London and commuted to and from work, I’d routinely get through a couple of books a week. It’s much less now that I have small children and no longer use public transport, but I still manage to carve out a bit of time to read everyday. I read a lot of fiction – but this isn’t a list of my favourite novels of 2021. Instead it’s the books that Jo and I read this year that helped us see the world a little bit differently – the ones that opened our eyes to hidden worlds, helped us understand a topic better or offered a vision for a better world.

Unsurprisingly, considering our interests, they are mostly related to food, growing, nature and the planet.

Most of these books weren’t published in 2021, but books have a life long beyond the year they are published so it’s really worth looking out for older publications too. So, in no particular order…

1. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Using the lens of her native American heritage and her scientific education (she’s a Professor of Environmental Biology) Robin Wall Kimmerer explores how our modern attitudes to consumption and our disconnect from the natural world are destroying the planet, but also how we can learn from the past to create a more equitable future where the natural world has a stake in our decision making. So beautifully, lyrically written this book gave me vivid dreams of a world teeming with animal and plant life.

Jo said “This book changed the way I think about our business and humans relationship with nature so completely this year. A life-changer for sure.

2. Feral by George Monbiot

Read this book to understand why large swathes of the countryside in the UK and Ireland are the way they are. The grassy, heathlands of mountainous regions like the Mournes, the Sperrins and Twelve Bens in Connemara aren’t true wilderness, but are shaped by the actions of humans, by land ownership and economic drivers. Monbiot makes a case for returning large parts of the countryside to true wilderness, he’ll help you imagine vast ancient forests, wolves prowling and rivers and seashores overflowing with fish. There is also a fun chapter on why there are so many reported cases of large cats in the UK, yet very little evidence for their existence.

Jo said “You will never think about sheep, the Mountains of Mourne, or the concept of ‘Conservation’ in the same way again. It’s a brilliant book.”

3. Eat What You Grow by Alys Fowler

In this 2021 publication, Alys Fowler explains how polyculture (growing a diversity of plants) can help you create a low maintenance, beautiful, edible garden. Jo said “I wish this book had been written years ago. For me, this book sets out how everyone should garden (everyone who likes eating but doesn’t necessarily want a massive formal vegetable garden). More and more people are thinking about their own gardens with sustainability in mind – growing their own food and having a green space that contributes to the wider world in a positive way. I’d recommend this book to everyone!”

4. Cook As You Are by Ruby Tandoh

I love Ruby’s writing – her 2018 publication Eat Up is another favourite of mine. Totally unpretentious, this book delivers recipes that are easy to make and won’t break the bank. Ruby’s thought about accessibility issues, time pressures, dietary requirements and each recipes gives helpful notes on substitutions and ways to cut corners if you need to. In between the recipes there are some gorgeous little essays full of Ruby’s wit and charm. I particularly identified with ‘Food for the thirty-second of neverember’. If you make lists and plans for events that you know will never happen then you will too. I’ll be gifting this to several people this Christmas.

5. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

A bit of wild card this one and the only fiction book on the list. Also the oldest by some margin, having been first published in 1976. I re-read this classic feminist sci-fi book this year for my book club and was struck by how utterly modern it felt, addressing many of the complex issues around consumerism, poverty, sex, gender, aging, caring for the vulnerable and much more that we continue to wrestle with today. It tells the story of Connie, an impoverished Latino woman living in New York, who is unfairly locked up in a mental institution. Connie escapes the drudgery and horror of her life through her ability to connect with a future ‘utopian’ world. Piercy paints a vivid picture of this utopia with communal living and egalitarianism at it’s heart and where people live in sync with their environment. You might not agree with everything in Piercy’s utopian vision, but it certainly raise questions about what future we can imagine and what we want.

6. Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen

This book has been a constant companion in 2021 as I’ve worked my way through making fifty different dumpling recipes in a year. Andrea Nguyen instructions are reassuring, clear and easy to follow – the recipes are long but all the information is useful. I’ve made at least a dozen recipes from the book this year and all of them have worked beautifully. There are great tips on folding dumplings which can be used with other dumpling recipes from non-Asian cuisines. If you are interested in making better dumplings, I can’t recommend this book enough.

7. Dumplings and Noodles by Pippa Middlehurst

I bought this book last year and I think it was the genesis of my dumpling challenge. It’s lighter touch than Nguyen’s book but really simplifies basic Chinese jiaozi dumplings and bao, so is great if you just want to master a couple of styles. I still haven’t used it to make noodles but the recipes look amazing and I love Pippa’s videos of pulling noodles on Instagram.

8. Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules

Olia’s writing has opened our eyes to delicious recipes and produce from Ukraine and beyond. In her third book she looks at the cuisine of Ukraine through the ‘summer kitchen’ – a small kitchen, separate from the house and close to the vegetable patch, where much of the summer cooking and preserving would have been carried out. We grow lots of our own produce here at The Edible Flower and because Olia’s recipes are so closely linked to the Ukranian kitchen garden they seem to fit effortlessly into what I have in the garden and the larder. I think there is a strong kinship between Eastern European food and Irish food. There are plenty of brilliant dumpling recipes here but our favourite is the slow-roast pork with kraut and dried fruit – which we have made at least half a dozen times.

9. Red Sands by Caroline Eden

If, like me, you are yearning for adventurous travel but not yet ready to brave the uncertainty of tests and quarantines, then allow Caroline Eden to transport you to the red sands of Central Asia. I read this last January, knowing almost nothing about Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan, and now I’m yearning to visit. Beautiful recipes sit alongside the evocative, food-focused travel writing. I particularly loved the chapter on rambling through the world’s largest walnut forest!

10. Forage – Wild Plants to Gather, Cook & Eat by Liz Knight

A recipe-led foraging book, which is definitely how I like to do my foraging with a delicious dish clearly in my mind. This is a great introduction to foraging with 50 easily identifiable (and mostly easy to find) plants and 150 tasty ways to use them. I do live in the countryside and have a big garden but I reckon I could find at least 33 of the plants featured in my garden or the surrounding hedgerows. The beautiful botanical illustrations by Rachel Pedder-Smith are a treat and make this a book that will last the test of time.

11. Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

Sheldrake won the Royal Society Science Book Prize this year with this hymn to the hidden world of fungi. I am yet to read it, but Jo is obsessed! Jo said “I had to sit down and have a cup of tea after each chapter, such were the mind-blowing revelations about how and what fungi are and the way they live their lives! The implications for me as a human, about the interconnectedness of all things, about my place in the world, in nature, rather than as some sort of ‘other’ being sitting outside of all that fascinating and complicated mess of life, was exhilarating. “

12. Sitopia by Carolyn Steel

I have to admit to only being halfway through this book as I write this. Jo read it earlier in the year. I was captured on the first page by Carolyn’s description of an encounter with a Shell Executive at a TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh. The Shell Executive asked her if she had any good ideas on how to save the planet. He had already dismissed the dozens of good ideas from dozens of impassioned TED speakers at the event. Carolyn answered that what we lacked in the world was philosophy – an ability to ask the big questions, such as ‘What makes a good life?’. The man from Shell was enraged! ‘We don’t have time for that’ he shouted! Carolyn’s book seeks to bridge that gap between technological solutions and philosophical questions. She takes us right back to our hunter gatherer ancestors and builds up a picture of how the human path we have trodden has brought us to the mess we are in today. But Carolyn has a solution, she makes a case for how re-engaging with how we produce, eat and think about food could solve a multitude of our modern-world problems and, in the process, bring us much joy! There is also a great The Food Programme episode ‘Sitopia – a land with food at its centre’ which imagines the UK in 2030, a post pandemic world with Carolyn Steel as Prime Minister. It’s available on BBC Sounds.

Jo said “When I get depressed about the state of the world, I have to remind myself about this book. We have the answers and the answers can be delicious and joyful.”

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