Books give a new view of food

Celebrity chefs, food bloggers, and fringe food movements have all helped drive national interest in food beyond merely what we eat or how much we eat to questions of where our food comes from, how much it costs, and how foods from other countries have earned a place on the U.S food scene. Three new books that reveal food trends and troubles of the past, present and future, promise to give readers insight into the evolving world of food.

The Past

"TACO USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, $25)

Burritos in space? Um, yes. Arellano starts this journey through the history and culture of Mexican food by describing how tortillas have become the food of choice for NASA astronauts. Though Americans haven't always embraced Mexican people, said Arellano, Mexican food has been enjoyed for more than 125 years in the states. In almost every decade since the 1880's, a new Mexican food has crossed the border -- tamales, chili, enchiladas and tequila, until soon, it showed up in supermarkets and began duking it out on the restaurant scene. Tacos arrived in the 1960's with Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell who believed pre-fried shells and toned down spices would suit American taste buds. In 1993, Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, would do the same for Mission-style burritos. The point of this exhaustive history of Mexican cuisine? To make us all hungry,  said Arellano.

The Present

"The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table," by Tracie McMillan (Scribner, $25).

Twenty percent of American shoppers buy most of their produce at Walmart, but when it comes to healthy foods such as produce, Walmart's prices are not as low as shoppers may think. This is just one of the food truths unearthed by McMillan during almost a year spent undercover investigating the barriers to eating well and how to overcome them. McMillan begins her reporting on a farm in California working as a field laborer, the lowest end of the economic spectrum, she said. She followed food's path to the kitchens of Applebee's, America's biggest casual dining restaurant. In between, she worked as a stock clerk at two Walmart stores outside Detroit, a city that doesn't have a single national grocer to serve its 700,000 residents, McMillan said. She also lived on the income she made in each job, which helped her ask and answer the question: what would it take for us all to eat well?

The Future

"The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches From the Future of Food," by Josh Schonwald (Harper, $26)

Test tube meat, radicchio as the next great green, and government tested food pills all may be part of food's future, according to Schonwald who traveled around the world tracking the trends, technologies and individuals changing the industry. Schonwald's "aha" moment began with a bagged salad -- a spring mix presented to him by his mother during a visit home in his mid-20's. It started a revolution that would leave iceberg lettuce in the dust, he said. Nine years later, Schonwald found himself talking to a fish farmer about an obscure fish called cobia that tasted like a cross between Chilean sea bass and swordfish. With the goal of telling readers what to expect on the dinner tables of 2035, Schonwald gives readers an inside look at the process of food innovation, sometimes sluggish, sometimes speedy and usually surprising.

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