Sex on the Kitchen Table: A Selected Bibliography

November 4th, 2018

At the tips of our forks and on our dinner plates, a buffet of botanical dalliance awaits us. Sex and food are intimately intertwined, and this relationship is nowhere more evident than among the plants that sustain us. From lascivious legumes to horny hot peppers, most of humanity’s calories and other nutrition come from seeds and fruits—the products of sex—or from flowers, the organs that make plant sex possible. Sex has also played an arm’s-length role in delivering plant food to our stomachs, as human handmade evolution (plant breeding, or artificial selection) has turned wild species into domesticated staples. In Sex on the Kitchen Table, Norman C. Ellstrand takes us on a vegetable-laced tour of this entire sexual adventure. Starting with the love apple (otherwise known as the tomato) as a platform for understanding the kaleidoscopic ways that plants can engage in sex, successive chapters explore the sex lives of a range of food crops, including bananas, avocados, and beets, finally ending with genetically engineered squash—a controversial, virus-resistant vegetable created by a process that involves the most ancient form of sex. Peppered throughout are original illustrations and delicious recipes, from sweet and savory tomato pudding to banana puffed pancakes, avocado toast (of course), and both transgenic and non-GMO tacos. An eye-opening medley of serious science, culinary delights, and humor, Sex on the Kitchen Table offers new insight into fornicating flowers, salacious squash, and what we owe to them. So as we sit down to dine and ready for that first bite, let us say a special grace for our vegetal vittles: let’s thank sex for getting them to our kitchen table. Ellstrand will discuss Sex on the Kitchen Table: The Romance of Plants and Your Food with Krissa Skogen and Nyree Zerega on Sunday, 11/11, 4pm at 57th Street Books.

Lords of the Harvest, by Dan Charles - Remains the best introduction to plant genetic engineering as a spell-binding (at least to me) historical narrative, even if it is a bit dated, because it tells the story as it should be told - about scientists as people and their very human motivations.

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee - A reference book to the chemistry, physics, and biology of your food. Should be either placed with your cookbooks or for bedtime reading - or maybe buy two for both.

The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart - So much fun, I read it twice. It contains so much botany that I required it for my non-majors food/botany course (BPSC 021) for years. The science is first rate and the stories behind the plants that make our alcoholic drinks are fascinating.

Flavor, by Robert Holmes - Also made it to the required reading list of BPSC 021. Rich with science and story and good reporting, it deconstructs "flavor" into its varied components. Indeed, much more than "taste".

Instructions to the Cook, by Glassman and Fields - Has nothing and everything to do with cooking. The only non-fiction book that I've read more than 5 times, it's the raison d'etre for why I write for the public. 

Dinner with Darwin, by Johnathan Silvertown - The perfect companion to Sex on the Kitchen Table. I'd love to meet Johnathan someday, long one of my professional heroes, and try to talk him into co-designing a PBS/BBC science/food series with me!

About Norman C. Ellstrand: Norman C. Ellstrand is distinguished professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside, where he holds the Jane S. Johnson Endowed Chair in Food and Agriculture. He is the author of Dangerous Liaisons?: When Cultivated Plants Mate with Their Wild Relatives.